DON’T LOOK NOW (United Kingdom, 1973)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Nicolas Roeg
CAST: Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 94% Certified Fresh

PLOT: In Venice, a married couple grieving the recent death of their young daughter encounter two elderly sisters, one of whom is psychic and brings a warning from beyond.

I’ve only seen two films from director Nicolas Roeg.  The first was Walkabout, which I’ve now seen three times in an effort to “get” it.  While I admire Walkabout’s visual strategy, that film has always left me cold and frustrated, and I do not imagine that will ever change.

However, Don’t Look Now, Roeg’s adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier short story, is about as expertly made as any supernatural thriller could be.  While the story may feel a little thin when all is said and done, this is yet another case of a movie not being what it’s about, but how it’s about it.  The entire film utilizes an editing and cinematographic strategy to convey an aura of dreamy dread and paranoia.  Of course, the performances from the two leads, Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, are exceptional, but the direction, editing, and cinematography are really what make Don’t Look Now so disturbing and compelling.

Christie and Sutherland play married couple Laura and John Baxter who are grieving the death of their daughter, Christine, who drowned in the pond behind their cottage.  The scene of her death which opens the film showcases the visual and editing strategy that will come into play so heavily later in the film.

They relocate to Venice, leaving their other child, a son, behind in England in a boarding school.  In Venice, John works on restoring an old church while Laura…well, it’s not clear what Laura does to pass the time in Venice.  One day she bumps into two old women in a café restroom, one of whom is a blind psychic.  The psychic abruptly tells Laura that she’s seen Christine, happy and laughing, and wearing the red raincoat in which she drowned, information the psychic could not possibly have known beforehand.

Later, as John wanders the Venetian streets at night, he gets a brief glimpse of a small figure darting among the buildings ahead…wearing a red raincoat.  When Laura visits the psychic again, the psychic warns Laura that she and her husband are in danger and must leave Venice as soon as possible.  Meanwhile, a body is discovered in the canal near their hotel…

Because the film’s effectiveness relies so heavily on its visual style and editing, I’m finding it difficult how to convey how strongly I recommend searching this movie out, while simultaneously acknowledging the story itself is not as “meaty” as, say, a thriller from David Fincher or Alfred Hitchcock.  I was actually reminded more of the films of Brian De Palma and David Lynch, two directors whose visual and storytelling styles were clearly influenced in one way or another by Don’t Look Now, which was itself clearly influenced by the early films of Dario Argento (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Suspiria), though without quite so much bloodshed.

Making a movie like this is tricky.  Use too much cross-cutting and non-sequitur edits, and you risk simply confusing the audience.  One plot point involves John putting Laura on a plane back to England, but hours later he clearly sees her on a funereal gondola in Venice.  Convinced the two elderly women are somehow behind it, he tracks down their apartment, only to find it abandoned.  Quick cut to the sisters in another hotel somewhere…laughing.  Are they involved in some kind of sinister plot?  Or is he having a breakdown?  Is this the director just yanking the audience’s chain simply because he can?  One could make the argument, but the process and style of the storytelling kept me intrigued rather than confused.

All sorts of small details become ominous.  A single glove abandoned on a windowsill.  A child’s plastic baby doll left on the steps leading down to a canal.  Old family portraits on a table.  The lingering glance of a stranger in a police station or a café.  In one scene, John visits the police, convinced the two sisters have kidnapped his wife.  IMDb trivia reveals that the Italian actor playing the captain had no knowledge whatsoever of the English language, so he simply read the lines phonetically without understanding what any of it meant.  As a result, his dialogue with John sounds oddly stilted and detached, almost menacing.  Is he part of some kind of conspiracy?  During their conversation, he actually sees the two sisters walking outside his window but fails to mention this fact to John.  Is he in on the conspiracy?  Or does he simply not recognize the two women?

After a few more plot developments and a couple more sightings of the small figure in the red raincoat in the distance and the discovery of yet another murder victim, everything finally gets wrapped up in a way that I found satisfying even though it didn’t exactly bring the kind of closure I was hoping for.  However, it does bring all the story threads together, including the possibility that John himself might be psychic without realizing it.  Don’t Look Now doesn’t pack quite the punch of Psycho or Mulholland Drive, but it is exquisitely well-made, well-acted, and well-directed.  Watch closely, and you can see how many other filmmakers have been influenced by this movie decades later.