Don't Look Now Review
It might just have the most memorable beginning and end scenes of any British horror film, along with one of the most discussed sex scenes in cinema history. Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 Don’t Look Now is some 46 years old this year, and has finally been restored meaning that - for the first time ever - a 4K version is hitting cinema screens. With this in mind, it only seems appropriate to take a look back on the cult classic and see whether it still holds up all these years later.
It’s a simple premise based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier. After the accidental death of their young daughter Christine (Sharon Williams), married couple John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) struggle to manage their grief, both independently and together. Moving from the green British countryside to a cold, labyrinthine Venice in winter, the two have to reconcile what has happened amongst a strange sense that maybe their trauma is not yet over. Layered with symbolism, references and some of the most bold editing ever seen at the time, Roeg uses a straightforward story to push the boundaries of filmmaking. The result is something quite otherworldly.
The sense of confusion runs high throughout, aided by the lack of Italian subtitles. The audience is deprived of understanding certain conversations, just as John and Laura seem to be in the dark about what might befall them. The decision is a bold one - I suspect that I was not the only person who, on my first ever watch, believed the DVD was faulty - but the resulting bewilderment pays off tenfold in the end. Like John, we are kept in near darkness, only to have the horrible, awful truth revealed at the bitter end.
Not only does Don't Look Now evoke a metaphorical darkness, it’s also very much a physical one. The streets of off-season Venice are a far cry from the tourist-haven summers. Instead of a throng of visitors, there are empty streets - so empty that a mere shadow on a wall is enough to draw attention. John and Laura are both wrapped up in winter wear, a look which seems odd against the location which is not often seen in the cold. They feel strange in this setting, out of place and foreign - a vibe which Roeg plays off throughout the film.
The notorious sex scene may have be raunchy for 1973, but pales in comparison to what has been shown in cinemas since. Yet, there’s a quality to it which few films have come close to since. The cutting between John and Laura getting ready post-coitus, to the two of them engaged in sex, is nothing short of genius. This juxtaposition between two time periods - perhaps only half an hour between them - allows us to know these characters intimately in two very different ways. Laura stifles a grin as she sits waiting for John to be ready, the film then cuts back to the two of them mid-sex. Her smile gives little away, but we already understand what she is thinking about. The scene is also key in their journey of grief - this is the first and perhaps the only time we see them truly happy together since the death of Christine.
Sutherland and Christie are captivating together onscreen, their chemistry feels authentic down to the minor bickering, and playful teasing. They both paint a portrait of grief delicately, and though they mirror each other at times, Sutherland plays John as the man who wants to fix everything (by literally trying to restore a centuries old Church) whilst Christie’s Laura is fixated on the past, and cannot move forward.
Don't Look Now is perhaps understood best on a third or fourth watch. That’s not to say it there isn’t a take-away the first time around - it plays as an eerie horror with memorable scenes - but on exploring the film more than once, certain key motifs and themes begin to rise to the surface. The use of stillness, shadow, light and dark in lieu of special effects or jump scares goes a long way to explaining why it still works just as well today as it would have done in 1973. The film plays the long game, and it’s a game worth waiting for. Whatever you do, see it on a big screen.
Don't Look Now (1973)
Dir: Nicolas Roeg | Cast: Clelia Matania, Donald Sutherland, Hilary Mason, Julie Christie | Writers: Allan Scott (screenplay), Chris Bryant (screenplay), Daphne Du Maurier (story)