Thirty years of horror: Don’t Look Now (1973)

Chris: Sometimes movies get lumped into the horror bin but fall short of meeting requirements of the genre. We’ve reviewed a few of those already. Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is a film that fits the mold, but also has ambition to push past those confines. It wants to be about sorrow and loss, it wants to be a murder mystery, and it never seems to want us to figure out quite exactly which of those things it is.

After the jump, I see red people.

Chris: This is a fairly difficult, demanding, film. If you’re looking for something to watch with friends over for pizza and a horror flick, look elsewhere. This movie helped define Roeg’s style to audiences even more than Walkabout, his 1971 film. Roeg’s got a mystery story he wants to tell, and as is his wont he disposes of linear structure and timelines here. That, combined with rapidfire jump cut edits leaves us confused about what’s really happening in the movie until the very end.

Beyond the deliberate confusion the director sows throughout, Don’t Look Now acquired quite a bit of notoriety over the years for other reasons, too. I’m not how you shoot a sex scene with a naked Julie Christie and not have it be arousing, but perhaps that’s the director’s craft at work.

Tom: The sex scene is so weird, with real lighting and real skin and real bodies and real groping, minus any glamor or much eroticism, intercut with scenes of them getting dressed for some reason, and accompanied by an airily generic flute and piano duet. What is going on here? The 80s and Cinemax can’t get here soon enough.

Chris: I’ll tell you what’s going on: if rumors are to be believed, there was no “acting” in that sex scene, if you get my drift. All involved heatedly deny it, but it’s an interesting bit of film lore nonetheless. As for the quick cuts to post-coital dressing for dinner, Roeg claims those were necessary to stave off an X rating in the States.

Tom: One thing that strikes me while rewatching Don’t Look Now is Roeg’s intricate confident direction. He accomplishes so much with three women in a bathroom by including the mirrors and making one of the women blind. And psychic. While the other has something in her eye. And then a fourth emerges awkwardly. Similarly, the intercutting throughout the movie is so unsettling, but appropriate, especially in the opening scene. He knows how to play with glass, film, blood, wine, stone, flesh. What a bold choice to put Julie Christie in a children’s hospital, separated by glass from a room of joyous children. What powerful imagery to have Donald Sutherland wrestling grimly with a grotesque stone angel. What a fantastic sense of place, this Venice, ancient and decaying, full of leering stone faces and muddy inevitable canals populated by rats and corpses.

Chris: I was struck by the third, silent woman–an attendant–in the restroom as well. The camera lands on her at odd times and we wonder why. Roeg does this constantly, on random people and objects throughout the film. It all seems part of the game he’s playing with his audience here. As we try to sort through the spooky significance of the medium’s messages, we’re kept on our toes by these puzzles he drops on us. “Is this significant? How about this?”

I also thought maybe Venice was chosen because of all the damn water. If you’re a parent who loses a child to drowning, I can’t think of a place I’d rather be less than a city entirely embraced by the sea. By putting Donald Sutherland’s restoration work in Venice, they’re forced to constantly confront a reminder of the means of their daughter’s death. It helps to compound their sorrow, of course, and that and the isolation they feel make it easy to imagine them latching on to the two sisters.

Tom: One of the most intriguing things about Don’t Look Now is that it’s ultimately a movie about either prophecy or time travel. Maybe both. Not literal time travel, of course, but someone unmoored from linear time, someone whose wife was reading a book called Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space. The “and Time” can perhaps be assumed. But it’s probably prophecy, given the title. The takeaway seems to be that Donald Sutherland is indeed psychic, and that if he hadn’t foreseen his own funeral and wasted a day running around looking for his wife, he would have made it safely back to England.

Chris: I took it as prophecy, and it made me wonder if it was an inevitable pre-determined fate that Sutherland was seeing. Is it even possible at that point for him to escape his own death had he figured it out? I kind of don’t think so. This was his own version of an appointment in Samarra.

Tom: I don’t think there’s any final scene quite so WTFingF?!?!??!!! as the final scene of Don’t Look Now. You’d never see it coming unless you’ve seen the movie before. And when you see the movie again, you’ll notice that director Nicolas Roeg is subtly preparing us for the most random goddamn ending ever sprung on a movie. If only Donald Sutherland’s character had seen Don’t Look Now, like the rest of us. Is this really what writer Daphne Du Maurier intended? To wrap it up like that? It’s so much more subversive than anything she did for Alfred Hitchcock. I like to think of Don’t Look Now as too extreme for Hitchcock. It would have blown his proper English fuse.

Chris: I could see Hitch making this movie, although if spun out in a linear, ordered fashion I think it’s a 40-minute segment for his TV show. The first time I saw this, I obviously never in a million years guessed the ending, and that’s perhaps the film’s biggest strength and flaw simultaneously. Roeg’s tenuous relationship with timelines and his willingness to subvert the narrative so often suggests that the audience should play along and attempt to work things out themselves. Unfortunately the ending is so out of left field and so abrupt, we can’t help but feel cheated a bit. It’s fun to solve a puzzle, but not when someone else is hiding key pieces until the end. I suppose that lends itself to repeat viewings–and the film holds up well the second or third time through–but again it does feel a bit too contrived.

Tom: Yet it’s not totally out of left field. It’s been set up throughout the movie that there’s a killer on the loose. But it’s certainly audacious to throw that twist at us, especially when it’s so tangentially related. I ultimately admire Roeg’s audacity, but I don’t feel the movie holds up very well as a whole. It’s a classic, but an intentionally fractured classic. The enduring contribution of Don’t Look Now is how it shows the parents’ perspective on the Little Red Riding Hood mythology. Literally, as the costuming department makes clear. There’s an underappreciated 2008 movie called Vinyan, about parents who’ve lost a child, and who have been swallowed up by another culture, and who are chasing a red jumper. But whereas Don’t Look Now is rooted in the architectural and theological detail of Italy, Vinyan is about the tension between the civilized and the primeval, the spirit and the flesh, the first and third world, the brown and white people. It’s much more convincing to go mad in the wilderness than along the canals of Venice. And you don’t need a stunted serial killer when you have a jungle full of ghosts.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)