WARNING: This article contains Spoilers for ‘Don’t Look Now.’
The late Nicolas Roeg (1928 – 2018) was one of the most important British filmmakers to ever live.
Entering the film industry at the age of 20, at the camera department for a production company in London, Roeg would eventually be hired as a second-unit cinematographer for David Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia, which launched his career as a director of photography, being credited as such on famous films like Roger Corman’s The Masque Of The Red Death, François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 and John Schlesinger’s Far From The Madding Crowd.
Over 20 years after his debut as a filmmaker, Roeg moved on to oversee his directorial debut, Performance, which released in 1970. He directed both that movie and its follow-up, Walkabout (1971), but decided to work with other cinematographers on future projects to concentrate solely on directing. His next movie, Don’t Look Now (1973), was his first time working with director of photography Anthony B. Richmond, a collaboration that spawned a classic in the horror genre.
Lost to the Water
Based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, the film opens during a wet and cold afternoon in the English countryside. As John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) work by the fireplace, their children, Christine and Johnny play outside. After dropping water on some of the slides he had been studying, John seems to instinctively sense that something is wrong. Running outside, his gut-feeling is confirmed, but is unfortunately all too late to prevent the tragedy that has ensued: Christine had drowned after falling into a pond.
The film then jumps to an unspecified future, likely a few months after the tragic incident. The grief-stricken couple is in Venice, with John working on the restoration of a local church. During breakfast at the hotel, Laura meets two elderly sisters, one of which is blind but claims to have second sight, and the other who affirms having seen Christine wandering around the couple, playing and laughing. At first, Laura is reluctant, but promptly believes the clairvoyant when she describes the girl wearing a red raincoat, the same Christine wore on the day of her death. The encounter proves to be a cathartic experience for Laura and she declares being fine for the first time in months. It serves also as a kind of religious awakening, with her feeling more open to the spiritual realm. John, on the other hand, remains skeptical.
Soon after, we see moments of intimacy between the couple, possibly the first since the loss of their daughter. It seems like the rekindling of their marriage, but on the same night, the couple goes out for dinner and gets lost on the deserted streets of Venice. Trying to find their way, John sights a childlike figure wearing a red raincoat strolling in a dark alleyway, but does not tell Laura. On the following days, John keeps working on the restoration of the church, while Laura gets more acquainted with the elderly sisters.
The blind one tells her John also has the gift of foresight and that he is in danger if he stays in Venice. Laura returns to England to take care of their son and John promises he will leave Venice as soon as he finishes the restoration. For the remainder of the movie, John goes through a near death experience, almost falling from a scaffold at the church, and enters a state of paranoia, due to multiple glimpses of the red hooded figure, as well as the sighting of Laura accompanied by the elderly sisters, when she was supposed to be back in London. At the end, John finally comes face to face with the person in the red raincoat, which proves to be way more terrifying than the ghost of his dead daughter.
The Floating City
Were it not for its shocking ending, Don’t Look Now would be hard to classify as a horror. It plays out more as a psychological exploration of grief, where the bereaved are trying to find ways to cope with the pain and emptiness left by the loss of a loved one. However, it falls under the horror genre a lot due to the skilful construction of a mood-piece, where the foggy streets of Venice seem like an uncharted land and dread oozes from every alley.
Roeg was able to achieve this by photographing the city’s least known areas, depicting its architecture as decaying and ominous. Never has Venice looked so melancholic and drained of life, even when in comparison with Luchino Visconti’s Death In Venice, another movie where a child is obsessively pursued across the city’s streets.
Here, the labyrinthine nature of the city serves as a mirror for the protagonist’s mind: separated from his wife, but still searching for a way to reunite. Roeg uses other devices that help creating a looming atmosphere, such as sudden zooms, well-placed stings of audio, un-subtitled Italian-spoken dialogue and constant use of disorienting flashbacks. All of these techniques add to the confusion of the characters and help to get firmly under the viewer’s skin.
It is interesting, considering the way their daughter died, that the couple ends up in a city like Venice, surrounded by water. While some might see it as an ironic self-punishment, it can also be interpreted as John’s subconscious searching for a second chance, a reading that becomes clearer by the end of the movie, as he frantically chases the red hooded figure, in the hopes of not being too late this time. Another clear strength of the movie is its acting. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie were big names at the time, but their chemistry on screen is something to behold.
They truly seem like a married couple, depicting with perfection the endearment that they still share for each other, even if tarnished by the biggest trauma that any Parent could possibly endure. The simplicity with which they portray such complex feelings comes across in various moments, but never as powerfully as in its famous sex scene, a contender for the tenderest, if not best, in cinema history.
The long scene became well known mostly due to its controversy at the time of the release. Censored in many territories, the scene was too realistic to some and it was reported that Sutherland and Christie actually had unstimulated sex during the takes, a rumour fuelled by Peter Bart, Paramount’s head at the time, who claimed to have witnessed the sexual act first- hand. Sutherland, Christie and producer Peter Katz have later disproved such allegations, affirming Bart was not on set when the scene was shot. In any matter, the scene is more remembered today for its artistic value, since the editing choice of intercutting between the couple’s intertwining naked bodies and their postcoital dressing for dinner results in a beautiful and poetic sequence.