Seen from the uncompromising vantage of a quarter-century’s passage of time, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is showing its age. The injudicious use of the zoom lens, impressionistic editing techniques, and an ill-advised sound mix featuring mainly Donald Sutherland’s moaning all contribute to a film that feels very much of its era.
That was quite an era, however. Hollywood was cranking out honest-to-God masterpieces, or at least near-masterpieces, on a regular basis, and aesthetes like Roeg (whose previous Walkabout is a similarly dreamlike evocation of time and place) were getting Hollywood-funded distribution for their unconventional imaginings of the metaphysical world. As you’re viewing it, Don’t Look Now feels disconcertingly slight — incomprehensible, even. It’s a slow-moving film with a spare, foreboding style and the sense that a shadow hangs over every scene. The film editing, famously, demonstrates the relation between seemingly disconnected occurrences, and the baffling climax only reinforces the inscrutable atmosphere. Take that, Dario Argento!
What makes Don’t Look Now stick with you is the potent undertow, the sense of guilt and despair that suffuses the Venice locations and plasters itself across Sutherland’s scowling face. The film begins with an ending, the death of a child. The little girl, who wears a shiny, red, hooded coat, frolics near a pond while her father (Sutherland) pores over slide photographs and Polaroids of a church and her mother (Julie Christie) tends to other business. The father spills something across one of his photographs, and as he’s cleaning the mess is shocked by a premonition that something has gone wrong. He dashes through the house and into the backyard, only to slog into the water and pull the lifeless body of his dead little girl from the much. (Later, his wife rebukes him gently for permitting the girl to play near the water.)
This sequence is, for my money, among the more extraordinary and unforgettable in the history of film, demonstrating a faith in cinematic grammar and a willingness to venture into the realm of the purely visual. The girl wears a red coat; after Sutherland spills his drink across his photographs, the ensuing chemical reaction draws a fat red arc across the background of a church’s stained-glass window; and finally, as Sutherland staggers out of the water, the shape of the corpse he cradles in his arms traces the same red arc in the center of the film image. In keeping with the themes of premonition and inexplicable vision, the rest of the film is dotted with purely abstract references to the same horrible event — a candle or fireplace glows red in the middle of the screen, a blind psychic wears a red sweater. The scarf that Sutherland drapes over his coat has reddish stripes — is that the burden of a child’s death that he carries on his shoulders?
Beyond that, the film’s highly developed style of montage draws explicit associations between unconnected actions. As Christie brings her hand to her mouth, Roeg inserts a shot of the daughter giggling, fingers touching lips, then cuts to Christie putting her hand down again. As the girl drops a ball into the water, Christie catches a ball tossed at her by Sutherland. Through this editorial style, Roeg manages to compress time and space. At one point, Christie sits with two other women in a room deep inside a house as Sutherland stumbles through the door to the front room. The women cannot see him, but as their heads turn, Roeg cuts immediately to Sutherland in the other room. In the narrative world of the film, the characters are not together, but in the interior world that the film creates, they do share the same space.
Even more celebrated is the sex scene that comes a half-hour into the film, as Sutherland and Christie undress and roll around on the bed, touching one another in the way that a real couple might. First, we see Christie sitting naked in the bath, and then watch a naked Sutherland brush his teeth and sit nude at a drafting table. The ensuing lovemaking is surprising in its fair degree of frankness — you wouldn’t necessarily expect Sutherland and Christie to get naked in a film — but what makes it unique in the history of love scenes is the way Roeg chooses to envision it. Bits of clothing sliding off of bodies are intercut with the couple getting dressed again to go out for dinner. As Sutherland rolls Christie around on top of him, the fleshy sexual image gives way unexpectedly to pictures of him finishing dressing and waiting in the bedroom as she applies her makeup in the bathroom. He appears at least tranquil, but she seems almost joyously happy. At any rate, their solitary domesticity is an intriguing and unavoidable counterpoint to sexual coupling. And just like that, Roeg’s dark fable is inhabited by real people whose state of mind we feel we have become intimately familiar with.
The sequence also underscores the way in which nudity and sex in films has generally moved over the past 25 years from the realm of the erotic into that of the merely prurient. Roeg demonstrates that putting nudity in film is easy, eroticism quite a bit harder, and that imparting actual meaning during the sex act is the duty of a poet.
The rest of the narrative concerns Sutherland’s work at restoring a church in Venice, and the constant reminders of his daughter’s fate. A sightless woman claims to have spied the girl sitting with them; she wears a crescent moon brooch that once again traces the cruel arc of the girl’s raincoated body in her father’s arms. And Sutherland begins to see a small, red-coated figure in the shadows of Venice, darting around corners and remaining just out of clear sight. Savvy viewers may figure out where all this is going before the conclusion. Better to approach the film as a mood piece, confident in the relevance of the supernatural and the logic of dreams. Finally, most resonantly, Don’t Look Now is simultaneously a paean to ordinary love and a haunting rumination on loss and guilt. A