1. DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)

AKA A Venezia… un dicembre rosso shocking
Recommended

DIRECTED BYNicolas Roeg

FEATURINGDonald Sutherland, Julie Christie

PLOT: John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) lose their daughter in a freak drowning accident. Life goes on, however, and they travel to Venice as planned, where John is directing the restoration of a Gothic cathedral. While there, they meet a blind psychic woman who tells them she can see their daughter, and John begins to catch glimpses out of the corner of his eye of a red-hooded figure that looks suspiciously like his drowned daughter.

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BACKGROUND:

  • This was director Nicolas Roeg’s third film, after Performance (1970) and Walkabout (1971). The movie was adapted from a short story by the British novelist Daphne du Maurier, whose works also inspired Rebecca and The Birds.
  • The love scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland was so graphic for the time that (unverified) rumors persisted that they had actually had intercourse on the set.  Roeg has since dismissed the rumors.
  • Some of the style of the film may have been influenced by Italian giallos of the period, though this connection has been exaggerated simply because of the Venetian setting.
  • Don’t Look Now is #8 on the British Film Institute’s list of the all-time great British films.

INDELIBLE IMAGE : The color red. (More would constitute a spoiler).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDDon’t Look Now is subtly unnerving—perhaps toos ubtly—throughout. But the last 20 minutes are a truly unsettling, nightmarish experience, capped by a shocking, largely unexplained resolution that leaves it to the viewer to solve the film’s mystery. By the end, the city of Venice has turned into a strangely deserted, Gothic labyrinth that may haunt your nightmares.


Trailer for Don’t Look Now narrated by John Landis

COMMENTS: Near the opening of Don’t Look Now is a fast-moving montage in which key images are repeated, echoed, and transformed. Although the significance of all the symbols won’t be clear to the viewer at first, the sequence is a masterpiece of imagery, the effect subliminally hypnotic. Near the end of Don’t Look Now is a hyperkinetic montage of images from the film that come at the eye like shards of shattered glass. It’s as if the movie’s own life is flashing before its eyes.

In between these bravura sequences is a movie that is nearly a masterpiece.  Don’t Look Now is an intricately constructed puzzle that requires thought on the audience’s part to sort out.  The final resolution is nearly perfect for this sort of film: the literal narrative ties up loose ends in a tight, if unexpected, package.  As a symbolic expression of John Baxter’s failure to come to grips with the death of his child, it also satisfyingly closes the door and turns out the light on the main character’s psychological reality.  But the ending is also so—weird—that it suggests further interpretations that lie beneath the surface. Did it really happen that way, just as the narrative says? Or did the story actually end some time before: were the last twenty nightmarish minutes just an expressionist dream?

The reason that Don’t Look Now is nearly a masterpiece is that it has one terrible flaw.  For long stretches between those opening and closing montages, it commits the one sin that no movie should ever commit: it’s boring.  After the couple gets to Venice, Roeg spends a lot of time focusing on the ordinariness of John and Laura’s domestic life.  It’s true that underneath that surface of that ordinariness lurks the couple’s shared grief over the death of their daughter, and the separate ways in which they deal with that sorrow.  But their differences don’t explode into vicious disagreements arguments often enough to keep the viewer’s interest.  In fact, throughout most of the center part of the movie, they seem to be coping with the tragedy unexpectedly well: life goes on, they focus on their work, they have sex, they dress and go to dinner.  Their wounds seem long healed, and Roeg chooses not to pick at their scars.

In a way, the celebrated sex scene between Sutherland and Christie is a microcosm of what’s wrong with Don’t Look Back, rather than what’s right about it.  The coupling is not gratuitous; it serves an obvious plot function, coming as it does so soon after Laura has seemed to come to grips with her daughter’s death.  The viewer supplies the missing detail: the couple hasn’t made love like this since the tragedy.  The scene is intercut with a scene of the couple dressing for dinner, another indication of normality and ordinariness. But the scene, while it temporarily wakes the viewer up from his slumber, goes on far too long after it has served its purpose.  It’s symptomatic of the film’s overall disinterst in moving the plot along quickly.  There are entire scenes and characters in the movie that don’t advance the story at all, scenes of John discussing work with the bishop or eating arrangements with the proprietor of his pensione.  Much of the time, the viewer’s mind is drifting, observing at the Venetian scenery rather than at the subtle cues on the faces of the main characters.  And while this sort of backdrop of banality creates an excellent contrast to the dreamlike world John will soon find himself trapped in, it does not make for a compelling watching experience.

The film runs 110 minutes, which is twenty minutes longer than average.  Had Roeg found twenty minutes of domestic fat to trim, the film may truly have turned out as the masterpiece that many critics claim.  As it is, too many viewers actually give up on the film before they make it to the payoff, which is surely not what the filmmakers had hoped for.  In the end, Don’t Look Now is a film that plays better in the memory than onscreen, and also a film that is much better on a second viewing—with a finger always poised near the fast-forward button.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a fragile soap bubble of a horror film. It has a shiny surface that reflects all sorts of colors and moods, but after watching it for a while, you realize you’re looking not into it, but through it and out the other side. The bubble doesn’t burst, it slowly collapses, and you may feel, as I did, that you’ve been had.”–Vincent Camby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“Roeg’s film is a characteristically elliptical and genuinely unsettling affair, heightened by a palpable sense of atmosphere and ominous portent in which nothing is what it seems… an undeniably key work in British cinema.” –David Wood, BBC (video)

“After 25 years, ‘Don’t Look Now’ still has the power to frighten and disorient — to suggest a world that’s perilous, cruel and out of control.  Roeg… created an atmosphere thick with portents and subliminal clues and edited the film in a fractured manner that distorts time and perception.” –Edward Guthmann, San Francisco Chronicle (re-release)

IMDB ENTRYDon’t Look Now (1973)

DVD INFO:  The Paramount DVD release (Buy) contains no extras, except for the original trailer.

12 thoughts on “1. DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)”

  1. Donald Sutherland is without a doubt one of my favourite actors despite the fact he hasn’t been in anything watchable in years. He sure was mighty back in the 70’s. Don’t Look Now and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are great subtle horror films I thoroughly enjoy. I actually have a Sutherland film called 1900 coming to me in the mail any day. I think it is time for a Donald Sutherland comeback.

  2. Oh, I do agree it is boring in sections. I thought so and enough people have said as much that we could probably agree some people will find it slow here and there. But that’s no reason to not watch it. The “ordinariness” contrasts perfectly with the surreal and nightmarish counterpoint. What defines the movie is that there is so little shared territory or middle ground between these two “stories”. It would have been a different movie if we were always being entertained by non-stop clever dialog or unnecessary and invented tensions. Could have cut 5 minutes from the love making scene, though!

  3. This is an excellent film that gets better with each subsequent viewing. I agree that there are boring parts representing the couples mundane existance after the tragedy but they are justified in that they convey a sense of despair. And yes, the love making scene is waayyy too long. The opening 15 minutes are just as terrific as the final 20. Being a parent and watching this sequence unfold is truly frightening. Donald Sutherland’s acting after discovering his dead daughter is harrowing. In fact, Sutherland and Julie Christie are excellent throughout. Oh, and of course I think Roeg is a brilliant director. Highly recommended.

  4. Goodness, this review really glosses over the subtly of this film. The use of unconscious symbolism is amazing.
    It’s getting on for 50 years old!

  5. I don’t think the love-making scene is meant to show that they’re back to normal. The very fact that it’s intercut so weirdly with its aftermath shows us they’re not really into it and both already concerned with what they’ll do afterwards, rather than just consuming the moment as they would if it was love-making in a normal state of mind. The intercut shots are really sorta glimpses into their minds as they’re thinking ahead because they’re too depressed or traumatized to really focus on each other.

    I think as for the long scenes involving John’s restauration work, I think those are meant to portray the nightmarish, morbide, and carnevalesque atmosphere of Venice also present in its architecture and artwork. Also notice how even the scenes with the bishop are shot with weird, confusing detail shots of people’s hands or such, that you wouldn’t expect in an ordinary movie. In a film history class, the instructor told us these scenes are there to show us that the place is inherently evil, and he showed us the many little foreshadowing details, such as a man in the cathedral carrying a board of wood walking through the picture so obtrusively that he’s covering the scenery, shortly before John has his accident of almost falling off his rail.

  6. Oh, and my interpretation of the final minutes is that the curiously empty, dusty house or palace where John is stalking the red-hooded figure does not exist in the material realm, which is why his wife couldn’t follow him there.

    It’s either John’s psyche where he goes ultimately insane due to his grief over their daughter’s death (and probably commits suicide or something), or the ghost or demon or whatever it is has, by taking on a resemblance reminding him of his daughter, lured John into some kind of magical/twilight/hereafter dimension where it can finally kill him as has been its plan all along.

  7. You wrote “Some of the style of the film may have been influenced by Italian giallos of the period, though this connection has been exaggerated simply because of the Venetian setting”.
    I think you should try and watch Who Saw Her Die ? which stars George Lazenby ( famous/infamous for playing James Bond only once). It came out the year before Don’t Look Now and there are more than a few similarities. Blue Underground has released it on dvd.

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