Don't Look Now: Special Edition Review
The following review was originally written for DVD Times in July 2002. If I had to choose one piece of writing which is my very favourite and of which I am most proud, the following would be it. I still feel the same about the film as I did then – perhaps even more so – and I have decided to present the review of the film unaltered.
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, regrettably, 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 deliberately 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
Warners’ original UK DVD of this wonderful film was badly flawed by a soundtrack which was, depending on personal taste, either annoying or virtually inaudible. Certainly, the music was distorted and the dialogue was often hard to hear. I have to say that I didn’t find it the disaster that some did but it was certainly not a particularly honourable effort. Consequently, I was eagerly looking forward to seeing what Optimum would do with the film.
Unless my eyes deceive me, this is exactly the same video transfer that we got back in 2002. As before, the visuals are impressive. It’s presented in anamorphic 1.85:1. As I said in my 2002 review, “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 audio track, presented in Dolby 2.0, is basically two-channel mono and it varies between very clear and somewhat distorted. This particularly affects some of the dialogue between Sutherland and Christie and you’ll have to listen closely if you want to keep track. There is however no hiss and, on the whole, it sounds like this has been cleaned up to get rid of the commonly reported problems of inaudibility and excessive hiss. It's not perfect however and there is still some distortion on the louder music cues.
Considering the fact that the transfer is the same, the new extra features are the main area of interest. The audio commentary is the main attraction of this new disc. Nicolas Roeg is joined by critic Adam Smith. Smith makes a number of banal observations along the way – “I suppose it was nerve-wracking for the children when you had to throw them in the lake”, a comment which ignores the fact that only one child goes in the lake - but is generally a reasonable prompt and he gets Roeg to come up with some fascinating anecdotes. Many viewers will jump forward to the love scene to see what the director has to say about it – which is a lot, firmly trouncing the idiotic rumour that the two stars were really fucking - but it’s well worth starting from the beginning and listening to the whole of the commentary. Roeg discusses all manner of things – that shot of the shutters, the influence of Pinter, the sadness and joy of the film, the creative use of editing, how he met Pino Donaggio and the use of real Venetian locations. Nic Roeg hasn’t done many commentaries so this is one to be cherished.
Also present on the disc are two new pieces. The first is an introduction from Alan Jones which is interesting but should definitely not be watched unless you’ve already seen the film. The second is a wonderful 20 minute featurette about Pino Donaggio during which the maestro talks about his work on this film and some other aspects of his career, including how he got together with De Palma.
Finally, there is the ‘Looking Back’ featurette from the earlier release and the theatrical trailer. In some respects, the featurette has been superceded by the commentary track but it’s a solid piece with good interviews from Roeg, DP Anthony Richmond and editor Graeme Clifford.
Once again, Optimum have failed to include any subtitles.
Don’t Look Now is one of the greatest films ever made – in my view, it may even be the greatest of all British films – and it’s nice to see it get a DVD which has some worthy extra features. The visual transfer is also pleasing while the problems with the soundtrack are relatively minor. On the whole, this new Special Edition is well worth a purchase.
Last updated: 10/03/2018 05:12:21