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Don't Look Now (1973)
Director: Nicolas Roeg

review by Jonathan McCalmont

The other day, I went to have my eyes tested. After flicking back and forth different sets of lenses, the optometrist announced that she was going to cover my dominant eye in order to test its weaker sibling: "Your brain won't like this," she muttered ominously and indeed it didn't. Suddenly the world seemed just that little bit tougher to understand. Watching Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, I was reminded of the experience of having to look at the world through my weaker eye, it is a film that is difficult to fully apprehend because it forces you to process information in all kinds of unfamiliar ways. Nearly 30 years after its initial release, Don't Look Now continues to punish our brains and strengthen our souls with a story of loss, life and impending doom that remains one of greatest films ever made.

Roeg sets the tone by opening the film with a jaw-dropping exercise in photography and editing: it is autumn in the British countryside and a married couple sit inside their home merrily working away while their young children play in the garden. John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) is pouring over slides of a Venetian chapel while his wife Laura (Julie Christie) quietly reads in front of the fire. As John lingers over a red-hooded figure on one of the slides, a strange feeling comes over him and he drops his glass onto the slide. As the red pigment from the figure's hood streams across the picture of the chapel, John is transfixed with a vision of his daughter's death. Immediately, John runs out into the garden but it is too late... the girl in the red raincoat is dead. He is too late and, for the first time in the scene, a voice is heard over the eerily peaceful score... it is John screaming.

By disconnecting sounds from visuals and severing cause from effect by skipping back and forth in time, Roeg fills this scene with mystery. As our brains struggle to make sense of what it is that we are seeing, everything suddenly seems vital to unlocking the secret: the water, the colour red, the boy riding his bicycle over a mirror, the scream and the raincoat. Why did John run from the house? Did he foresee the girl's death or was that simply a by-product of the way that Roeg cuts back and forth between future and present, inside and outside? Don't Look Now can be seen as an attempt to provide answers to these questions but even having watched the film several times, it is still not clear to me what these answers might be.

The mercurial nature of Don't Look Now becomes even more evident when you try to provide a summary of its plot: having endured the death of their daughter, John and Laura decamp to a wintry Venice where John takes a job restoring the chapel of St Nicholas (patron saint of children, and a person who is notably fond of red hoods) under the aegis of a particularly louche and uninterested bishop. After a morning's work, John meets Laura for lunch where an easy back-and-forth is interrupted by the presence of two elderly British sisters who inform Laura that they can see her dead daughter.

Outraged that this encounter might prevent Laura from getting over the death of their child, John embarks on an ill-conceived and entirely self-deluded attempt at preventing his wife from interacting with the sisters. When this campaign predictably backfires, Laura returns with a warning that John is in grave danger and that he must leave Venice immediately. Forced further into self-righteous outrage, John wanders round the city plagued by images of death, memories of his daughter and what could well be visions of the future... visions of his own death at the hands of a red-hooded figure.

Much like Andrei Tarvovsky's science fiction classic Stalker (1979), Don't Look Now cannot be easily synopsised. The problem is that, while Don't Look Now clearly has a plot and this plot is central to the film's power, so much of that power resides outside of the basic narrative that any attempt at boiling Don't Look Now down to a series of plot-points is doomed to absurdity. Of course, one can describe Stalker as the story of a man venturing into an alien Zone in search of a room that grants wishes but this is to miss the point of the film. Similarly, if one describes Don't Look Now as the story of a grieving parent who descends into madness and paranoia before being murdered by a sinister dwarf it makes the film sound like an exercise in derivative surrealism. Both Stalker and Don't Look Now cannot be synopsised because they are films that refuse to rely upon narrative as a tool of communication. Both films force your brain to process information in unfamiliar ways; both films force you to relate to the story in ways that are absolutely unique to the medium of film.

Don't Look Now is a film that makes clever use of the human capacity for pattern recognition. Psychologists tell us that humans are born with the ability to discern the contours of the human face. This ability is so hardwired into the human brain that even tiny babies will prefer to look at abstract shapes when those shapes resemble faces. Of course, this obsession with finding recognisable patterns in the sensory onslaught of day-to-day life does lead to the odd false positive, hence our tendency to find Jesus tortillas and alien faces in Martian landscapes. Some argue that this capacity for pattern recognition underlies religious sentiment as our brains cannot help but seek traces of cause and effect in the random happenstance of daily life. When floods hit cities that tolerate homosexuality, Christian fundamentalists see the hand of God, and when deeper involvement in foreign wars follows the assassination of a liberal president, Americans see traces of conspiracy. Don't Look Now uses our fondness for pattern matching by presenting us with a series of clues and challenging us to find the deeper patterns.

The opening scene of Don't Look Now introduces us to a series of memorable images that Roeg returns to throughout the film. Everywhere the Baxters go, they encounter water, red hoods and shards of light. As people trained in the basic grammar of art house cinema, we know how to recognise recurring motifs and know that we are supposed to treat them as clues to the film's hidden subtext. However, rather than allowing these clues to sit in the mind of the audience, Roeg uses the possibility of psychic powers to drag these clues into the foreground of the film.

Suddenly, those motifs and images that are normally just hints at hidden artistic meaning become evidence of hidden patterns in the life of John Baxter. Baxter's hostility to the sisters betrays a deeper hostility to the idea that he too may be psychic and that the recurring images that plague his life might be evidence of future unpleasantness. Baxter foresaw the death of his daughter and now he sees signs that point to his own death. Everywhere he turns, Baxter is haunted by water, shards of light and the colour red. Everywhere he turns, Baxter sees proof that he too will soon be dead.

To suggest that John Baxter may be psychic is, somewhat predictably, to do Roeg a disservice as talk of mediums and psychic powers inevitably conjures up images of third eyes and supernatural powers. However, much of the power of Don't Look Now resides in the fact that Baxter's psychic gift is only a slight exaggeration of that very human addiction to pattern recognition, an addiction that forces the audience to hunt for subtexts and clues in Roeg's repeated use of water, shards of light and the colour red. Indeed, Don't Look Now is a deeply unsettling film as it forces the audience into the same position as the film's protagonist: just like John Baxter, we know that something is coming; we know that it is not going to be good but we are powerless to avoid it. The audience are powerless to avoid it because Don't Look Now is a film. John Baxter is powerless to avoid it because his life is like a film; it is pre-scripted with a beginning, middle and an inevitably grizzly end.

Again, by presenting you with this kind of reductive exegesis, I am actively belittling the film as Don't Look Now actively evades simple interpretation. What I mean by this is that while Baxter's struggles with mortality occupy much of the film's foreground, Roeg does his best to keep everyone off-balance by refusing to allow the film to become overly dark. Indeed, much like real life, and the film's source material, Don't Look Now is a mesmerising collage of different tones and atmospheres.

Don't Look Now is based upon an identically named short story by Daphne du Maurier (who also provided Alfred Hitchcock with such cinematic goldmines as Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and The Birds). Although Allan Scott and Chris Bryant make a number of substantial changes in their adaptation of the story, both works share the uncanny ability to work both as intense psychological horror and as surreal farce. Roeg's Don't Look Now is littered with beautifully-crafted moments of humour including a Basil Fawlty-like hotel owner who cannot wait to be rid of his guests and a listless Italian detective who doodles all over his police sketches before announcing that all elderly women look alike to him anyway.

When stripped of both context and cinematic panache, even Baxter's final confrontation with a dwarf serial killer seems more like an exercise in sub-Python whimsy than a serious attempt to scare the audience. One is reminded of the scene in Tom DeCillo's Living In Oblivion (1995), when the dwarf intended to star in the film-within-a-film's dream sequence turns on Steve Buscemi's long-suffering director and lambastes him for his lack of imagination. Forced to rely upon mere words rather than Roeg's luscious imagery, du Maurier skims the surface of both horror and farce thanks to a brilliantly furious and utterly self-deluded inner monologue that ends with Baxter's fantastically dry observation that his was a "bloody stupid way to die."

By slinking between comedy and tragedy on an almost sentence-by-sentence basis, du Maurier produces a story that sits uncomfortably between both genres and registers. Neither a dark comedy or a traditional thriller, Don't Look Now mirrors real life in its steadfast refusal to abide by simple tones and broad patterns. Baxter may be doomed and his life may be trapped in a downward spiral into grief, madness and death, but his life possesses enough heart-warming and funny moments that it is easy for him to lose sight of that downward slope while he is travelling down it. Stripped of context and broken down into a series of isolated sentences, du Maurier's Don't Look Now moves between comedy and tragedy seemingly at random.

It is only when you finish the story and look back over what you have read that you realise quite how dark the comedy has been. These movements between different tonal registers serve to cloud our judgement of what we are reading just as the tonal shifts in our own lives occlude the broader patterns of our existence. It is only when our lives are finished and other come to reflect upon them that obvious patterns emerge and lessons can be learned. Similarly, it is only when Donald Sutherland's legs begin to twitch and the blood begins to flow that Don't Look Now's status as a horror film is truly confirmed.

Rather than operating on a sentence-by-sentence level, Roeg's tonal shifts exist on the decidedly more cinematic scene-by scene level. One minute Sutherland is naked in front of an embarrassed hotel maid, the next he is scared witless by the shouts and shadows of Venice's unseen underbelly. The most obvious moment of tonal shifting comes in the middle of the film when the couple embark upon the sex scene that famously won the film its X-rating in the UK. One of the great myths surrounding the production of Don't Look Now is the idea that Sutherland and Christie actually had sex on camera.

Indeed, I have spoken to a number of people who would swear blind that Don't Look Now has a sex scene just as graphic as those common to films by Lars von Trier. However the truth is that Sutherland and Christie did not have sex on camera. In fact, they probably never had sex at all. Again, that old tendency towards pattern recognition asserts itself and that which looks like porn is simply assumed to be porn by brains all too eager to cut corners and fill in gaps. Aside from its remarkable emotional and physical verisimilitude, Don't Look Now's sex scene also highlights many of the narrative techniques used throughout the film.

One of the major emotional motifs of Don't Look Now is waxing and waning of the relationship between John and Laura Baxter. The film's opening finds them working separately but alongside each other with a balance of seclusion and intimacy that speaks to the strength of their emotional bond: here is a couple that is happy to spend time together doing different things, they do not feel the need to seek one another's approval or affect as they both implicitly know that it is there. Following the death of their child, the Baxters are forced apart as John works separately from Laura. When the pair meet-up in the restaurant where they first encounter the medium, John is almost manic in his desire to make sure that Laura has everything she needs: is she cold? Does she want a salad? Where is that waiter?

Although the script never mentions it, it is clear that the couple have drifted apart and that John is trying his best to build bridges and help his wife to overcome her grief. This is why he reacts with such anger to the medium's suggestion that she can see their daughter. Though remarkably intense, the film's sex scene is inter-cut with images of the couple getting ready to go out for dinner. In these scenes, the pair enjoy the same easy intimacy as in that opening scene: sex, it seems, can heal all wounds and bring people back together. As with the film's wider story of grief, paranoia, self-delusion and impending doom, the character arc played out in the sex scene is never made explicit. Instead, Roeg assails us with a series of images and expects us to make sense of them by ourselves. On an image-by-image basis, this section does not make much sense but once it is completed, we can step back and apprehend its true meaning, as with the rest of the film and as with the details of our lives.

Art and culture do not make sense of themselves. Instead, our capacity to apprehend works of art is dependent upon the amount of time we spend consuming different forms of culture. By sitting through TV series, watching films, playing video games, reading novels, listening to music and looking at paintings we slowly build up a battery of critical skills that can then be used to make sense of any future work of art we might encounter. For example, if you read enough novels and plays then your capacity to make sense of dialogue and read between the lines will be greatly increased just as your capacity to understand a play about grief will increase when you yourself experience that emotion. Because we tend to approach each new work of art using skills acquired in the consumption of different forms of media, watching a films like Roeg's Don't Look Now and Tarkovsky's Stalker can feel like someone has placed a patch over your dominant eye.

Don't Look Now is not a work that can be read using the same skills that one uses to read a short story and it cannot be meaningfully approached in the same manner as one might approach a ballet. Like Stalker, this is a film that can only be approached as a work of cinematic art, it functions solely on its own terms and, as such, it stands as a powerful reminder of what the medium of film can achieve when it is wielded by a master of the form. Far more than a great work of art, Don't Look Now is a work of pure and unalloyed cinema whose uncompromising power remains nothing short of devastating.

Don't Look Now



copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press