Don't Look Now

Don't Look Now is a film from which it is impossible to look away. Nicolas Roeg's finest work, it continues to dazzle, confound and fascinate 29 years after it was first released. As a horror film it is as scary as hell and technically it is often astonishingly accomplished, but it's also one of the most penetrating, moving studies of grief that has ever been produced. Not bad for a film made at the fag end of a production deal and then dumped into cinemas in order to turn a quick profit.

It's based, quite closely, on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, always a rich source for filmmakers, notably Hitchcock who used her work to make The Birds, Rebecca and, er, Jamaica Inn. There are some highly significant changes, but the basic elements remain in place. Following the accidental death of their daughter Christine, who drowns in a pond, John and Laura Baxter go to Venice to try and sort their lives out. John is restoring a church for a slightly odd Bishop but he and Laura remain outsiders in the off-season city where paths seem to wind around each other but lead you nowhere and the only other English residents are two elderly sisters, one of whom is a blind psychic. The psychic, Heather, tells Laura that she has the daughter sitting between her parents at dinner and that she is very happy. Comforted by this, Laura feels better but John remains stubbornly rational. Later, at an impromptu seance, Heather receives a warning from Christine that her father is in great danger but John ignores this, considering it all "mumbo jumbo". Yet, he seems to be seeing and hearing strange things all the time and is perplexed when he sees a small figure in a red raincoat, identical to Christine's, running through the back alleys of the city. When their only remaining child is involved in an accident at his English public school, Laura goes back to England to make sure he's alright. But after she is supposed to have caught her plane, John sees her standing on a barge with the two sisters.

It would be very unsporting to reveal any more about the film, since its initial impact is dependant upon becoming aware of what's happening only when it is too late for the characters to do anything about it. I will try to avoid too many spoilers in the following discussion but if you haven't seen the film I urge you to PLEASE WATCH IT FIRST and SKIP DOWN TO THE DISC REVIEW.

Don't Look Now is a peculiarly English horror film, from the same tradition that gave us Dead Of Night and The Innocents. It's packed with incident but it is actually very quiet and civilised. It's a horror film in which there is only one moment of gore, a romance in which there is one love scene and a powerful examination of grief in which nobody cries. Everything is dependent upon the potential of horror which only erupts explicitly at the end. But horror isn't necessarily explicit. It's certainly present in the opening three minute sequence during which we see the deeply upsetting drowning accident take place with almost unbearable emotional force and intense awareness. A series of swift and - Roeg's trademark - suggestively comparative cuts, it turns with all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy from a rural, after-lunch idyll in an English garden to a howl of despair after John tries (and fails) to save his daughter. This three minutes contains all the keys to the remainder of the film. Roeg's image system is all important and the opening introduces the key motifs of the film; water, both as a source of life and death and as something which needs to be crossed if two people are to be connected; separation, literal or metaphorical, based on geography, belief or simply the way of seeing things; breaking glass, a potent symbol of an accident; scepticism and belief, how one's refusal to believe what's happening can be a fatal mistake; the difference between appearance and reality, as when John says "Nothing is what it seems"; and, perhaps most memorably, the colour red, whether as a harbinger of danger or a way of focusing the attention on something significant.

The film has been called one of the best horror films ever made and it's easy to see why. Roeg unsettles the viewer right from the start and the whole movie is suffused with an atmosphere of foreboding menace. The transition from Hertfordshire idyll to a cold, autumnal Venice is achieved with brilliant jump cut from Laura's scream to the whine of a drill, linking the tragedy of the past to the impending horror of the present. Indeed, Venice, which has been so romantic or tragic for other artists, is here turned into a character by itself; gloomy, mist-shrouded, labyrinthine and almost totally 'other'. It clouds John's consciousness, rendering him unable to see exactly what is happening as the maze of streets seems to have been designed specifically in order to make the unwary tourist lose their way. The Eternal City seemed to offer comfort and the hope of redemption from the awful feelings of loss but to John Baxter, it provides only terrifying glimpses of a fate which can be delayed but never avoided. Water is everywhere, acting as a reminder of his daughter and an unavoidable obstacle to getting where he wants to go. Roeg gives us a wonderfully scary scene of confusion and doubt as the couple try to find a restaurant for dinner but get lost, their idle wandering given urgency by the sound of a scream and the glimpse of a little figure clad in red. The editing is beautifully poised here, suggesting all sorts of possibilities for scaring the viewer which Roeg then backs away from - as so often in this film, he relies on suggestion and the potential for horror rather than the actuality of it. By the time corpses are being retrieved from the Grand Canal and John is searching frantically for his wife, the pulpier Gothic elements seem to work as if they were brand new as they are worked into the scheme of the film. The key line in the film is "Nothing is what it seems", indicating that we cannot trust Roeg, our guide to this maze, any more than John can trust what he sees. As another rational man caught up in the incredible, Macbeth, says, "Nothing is, but what is not". John has second sight, as Heather tells us during the seance at their guesthouse, but he is trying to deny it; attempting to rationalise what he has seen into the present he inexorably makes the prophecy come true. The best example of this is the moment when he sees his wife on the barge with the sisters. On an initial viewing, this seems to make no sense to us any more than it does to John and we are encouraged to come up with all sorts of Hitchcockian explanations for what we've seen. But a second viewing reveals that what he has witnessed is his own funeral, the final scene of the film, adding an unbearable poignancy to a very potent image of tragic inevitability. As with much of the film, what is exciting and even frightening at first sight becomes, when you watch the film again and again, painfully sad.

This is all the more appropriate if you see the film as a study of grief. Their daughter's accident has divided John and Laura metaphorically. Neither of them understand what's happened but they try to get over it in different ways. Laura keeps memories of her daughter uppermost in her mind and even carries a physical reminder, Christine's red and white ball, in her suitcase. She is comforted by the thought that Christine might still be there and gains strength from the visions of Heather. But John is trying to be sensibly adult about it - at one point he shakes his wife with the assertion that "Christine is dead, dead, dead, dead" - and failing dismally. He doesn't understand what's happened and is haunted by his futile attempts to restore life to her dead body. His pause before diving underwater to save her seems like a lifetime, perhaps because his foresight recognises that he is now on an inevitable path to his own fate. In a very important sense, John is dead from the moment that he rushes outside with the feeling something is wrong in the garden, and it's not really ironic that he approaches the instrument of his death with a welcoming smile. John's absurd death is welcome to him in the sense that it's the ultimate way of dulling the awful pain of his daughter's departure. As he dies, blood spurting from his neck, we see the whole story of the film in a series of rapid cuts - it's like the old cliche that a drowning man relives his life during the moment of his death. Again, on first viewing this scene is very frightening indeed, but now it seems to me both desperately sad and strangely beautiful. John doesn't just remember the bad things; the accident, his own brush with death in the church he is restoring, the irrational vision of his wife on the funeral barge. He also remembers the smiles and laughter of those he loves, the body of his wife and his pure, redeeming and incredibly strong love he feels for her. His absurd, even perhaps blackly comic, death brings a release and Roeg recognises this, scoring John's death throes with Pino Donaggio's beautiful piano love theme.

This is the other overwhelming impression the film leaves me with. It's about death, horror and grief, but it's also about love. John and Laura Baxter are a couple who are deeply in love with each other and this makes the film more than just a clever Gothic puzzle. In the performances of Julie Christie - a beautiful woman who was never more so - and Donald Sutherland, we can believe in the ongoing passion of these two adults for each other. It's there, most obviously, in the famous love scene, two minutes of sex intercut with the afterglow of passion which is so much more realistic (and erotic) than most other such scenes that it's like watching something real rather than a fiction which was carefully posed by the actors, the director and the cinematographer. The scene suggests why people want to go on having sex with each other after marriage joins them legally, and it's so beautiful that it has an impact on the whole film. Take it out, as the BBC did on their first transmission of the film in 1979, and it's a lot harder to understand why John is so concerned when he sees his wife on the canal or why Laura runs from safety to find her husband when she arrives back in Venice. These are two people for whom each other is everything and their separation, following a banal little row, is one of the key moments in ensuring John's death. But love is also there in the glances between the two characters, the casual way they touch each other and the recurring image of them holding hands. This is one of the very few films which manages to suggest what a happy marriage might be like or why people want to be together in the first place. Just as John dies, remembering the love he feels and has received, Laura smiles as she goes to his funeral - his love for her transcends death, gives her strength and remains even though he isn't physically with her any more.

There's little doubt that the film is a technical miracle. Anthony Richmond's lighting is superbly atmospheric, giving Venice a chilly authenticity that's hard to shake if you actually visit the place. The colours are deliberately muted so that red stands out every time it appears, a simple effect which works incredibly well. All sorts of camera movement is played with throughout the film but the filmmaking is never intrusive in the way that it can be in some of Roeg's lesser films where you appreciate the technique without becoming involved in the story. Here, the technique is a means to telling the story in an original and appropriate way but our attention remains with the characterisation and the narrative. Nic Roeg's direction of actors is as skilful here as it is in his other early films and particularly notable in his treatment of the two sisters. Clelia Matania and Hilary Mason are wonderfully eccentric presences, much use being made of Matania's brisk impatience and Mason's dreamy calm, but they never become bizarre for their own sake. When Mason goes into an intense psychic reverie it's genuinely unnerving because it's so, well.. UnEnglish and so clearly something frighteningly strange intruding into the everyday. He also enjoys the slightly odd minor characters such as Massimo Donato's sinister Bishop - who muses about God's neglect of his houses of worship while showing no particular interest in the efforts being made to restore his church. He's confident enough in his talent to allow diversions such as the amusingly frustrated hotel manager and the moment when John, looking for the sisters' guest house, is mistaken for a voyeur. The other major contributors to the success of the film are Graham Clifford and Pino Donaggio. Clifford's editing, fast and sharp, is both visible and invisible. You register the cuts but you don't find them jarring. Every time two events or images are juxtaposed, meaning seems to shoot out (even if sometimes the meaning isn't clear until later). Clifford, who must have enough patience to pick up mercury with his bare hands, later worked with a drug-addled Peckinpah to make some sense of Convoy, but this is certainly his best work. As for Donaggio, his later collaborations with Brian De Palma may be more famous, but this is a gorgeously rich, romantic score which often recalls the Mahler of Death In Venice yet always seems entirely contemporary. He returned to these themes on later films - including the obscure but interesting gory shocker Damned In Venice - but this is the original and best. His work on the love scene is a major achievement in itself, neatly avoiding soft-porn kitsch while accentuating the erotic aspects of the scene.

Nicolas Roeg made many other great films during the seventies and early eighties but this looks increasingly like his finest achievement. There is all the structural brilliance of Bad Timing but none of the coldness - you believe here as in few other of his films that Roeg actually likes these people - and the deliberatly obscuring narrative technique of The Man Who Fell To Earth but where that film feels a little forced, Don't Look Now flows from suggestion to suggestion, finally coming together in the moving and endlessly rewatchable climactic montage. Nor does he use sex and violence to shock and turn on the viewer into responding as he tended to do in Performance - a film which is still almost as good as this one. It's a warm, moving and genuinely adult work in the very best sense - adult in its themes, in its uncompromising approach to narrative and in its understanding that love, real love, is something that transcends everyday life to become a symbol of the possibility that we might leave something tangible behind us when we go.

The Disc

The long wait for Don't Look Now to arrive on DVD led to hopes that a really special edition might emerge someday. This R2 disc released by Warner through Canal Plus is not that special edition but it's still the best version of the film to have been released for home viewing. It's ironic that the film which supported Roeg's on first release, the heavily cut 84 minute Wicker Man has been given the luxury treatment on DVD while Don't Look Now, a superior work of art on every possible level, finally emerges as a fairly pedestrian back catalogue item.

The picture quality of the European R2 discs of the film has been much praised and I'm happy to say that the same positive comments can be applied to the UK version. This anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is a pleasure to watch for the most part. There is a small amount of artifacting in places and occasional grain but the richness of the colours and the high level of detail make this a very good transfer indeed. Contrast is very sharp, shadow detail is well defined and there are no obvious problems with edge enhancement. After seeing the same horrible fullscreen transfer being shovelled out onto sell-through by Warners for the past fifteen years, it's a delight to see the film looking as good as it does here.

The sound quality is not quite as good. The box states that the soundtrack is presented in 2.0 Dolby Surround but there appears to be no stereo element at all. Everything is placed in the centre channel with only occasional music cues showing any sign of expanding across the front soundstage. The dialogue is a little muted in places but this seems characteristic of the film as it's the same in every version I've ever seen. The music occasionally seems distorted too, especially on the louder cues such as that in chapter 20.

There are a few extras on the disc. The main one is a 20 minute featurette called "Looking Back" - must have taken them a long time to come up with that one. This includes interviews with Roeg, Richmond and Clifford and is entertaining but rather over-familiar. You will have heard much of this before - the opening comment about the letter from Du Maurier was covered in the excellent BFI Modern Classics book on the film - and some bits are patently wrong. When Richmond says that there is no red in the film other than the raincoats it will probably make you determined to notice every single stray bit of red that you can find. Interviews with the actors would have been nice to balance this out a bit. However, it's certainly worth a look. We also get the original trailer, which is fullscreen and in poor condition. Spoilers galore in this so make sure you don't watch it before you see the film. It's very long and over-emphatic but very typical of its time. Selling this film must have been a nightmare. There are also pages from the Theatrical Campaign brochure that can be accessed from a DVD-ROM player.

There are a reasonable 20 chapter stops and the static main menu is accompanied by a 30 second snatch of the score. Oddly, there are no subtitle options. Snapper haters - among whom I do not count myself - will be pleased to learn that the disc is in an Amaray case. The UK certificate is now an uncut '15', which shows how much more lenient censorship has become on matters of sex - at least, sex presented in a serious, "adult" manner.

A great British film, Don't Look Now seems like a more convincing achievement with every passing year. From the ironic, tantalising title to the final disturbing scenes, it simply glows with filmmaking talent. This DVD doesn't exactly make the most of the material at hand but it offers a very good transfer and some reasonably interesting, if sparse, bonus features. Since you should be able to get hold of this for under twelve quid, it's a worthwhile purchase and an essential one for fans of the film.

Film
10 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
5 out of 10
Extras
4 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10
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