By: Steven Johnston
Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is an absolutely brilliant film. It not only succeeds as an occult thriller, but it’s also a sensitively made marital drama and a sober meditation on grief. Those are three genres that don’t often go well together, but in the hands of Roeg, those three genres become aspects of a narrative whole that not only work independently, but also enhance each other – like flavors in a complex wine.
Don’t Look Now tells the story of John and Laura Baxter, played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie respectively, and their children, Christine and Johnny. They live in England, seemingly happily, until Christine falls into a pond and drowns despite John’s best efforts. Her death not only haunts the rest of the film, but drives a wedge of isolation between the remaining Baxters – or perhaps it only enhances one that already existed.
John and Laura send Johnny off to school. John accepts a job restoring an ancient church in Venice, and Laura accompanies him to Venice. As filmed by Roeg, Venice, a city most often viewed romantically with sun dappled canals is at its loneliest and most isolating throughout Don’t Look Now. For instance, those same canals that so often previously evoked romance cut John off from Laura when she’s standing on the opposite bank. They represent a gulf not easily crossed that seems to separate husband and wife in a way no mere street ever could. Venice is also curiously empty, and the citizens we do meet like the Bishop, the Medium, and the Inspector do nothing to discourage the isolation felt by John, Laura, and the audience. Adding to the ominous nature of the proceedings, Venice is haunted by a serial killer, and its buildings are shaded with elegant decay and seem poised to drag John and Laura down to the bottom of the canals, drowning them – like Christine.
John and Laura deal with Christine’s death in radically different ways. For Laura, this experience opens her up to the divine and the beyond. She seeks the religious counsel of the Bishop, her husband’s boss, as well as two strange sisters one of whom claims to be able to be a medium capable of speaking to Laura’s deceased daughter.
For his part, John retreats into work and skepticism. When Laura comes to him and confesses that she has gone to a medium and learned that Christine is trying to warn him of great danger, he scoffs. However, in the context of the film, his skepticism is more like denial. You see, when Christine died, she was wearing a red coat, and John has been seeing someone in a red coat everywhere he looks. Could it be his daughter? A hallucination? Or something else entirely? He can’t trust his own eyes. He sees his Laura on the canal when he knows that she should be in England. He is either mad, or becoming a medium himself.
Roeg makes it impossible for the viewers to trust their eyes as well. He uses repeated visual cues, the color red, broken glass, falling, and water to link events that take place weeks – and whole countries apart. His deft editing challenges the viewer’s own sense of chronology in all the same ways that John’s “visions” challenge his.
This editing skill is on greatest display in the sex scene between John and Laura. Roeg cuts between them having sex and dressing for dinner so that they are simultaneously together and apart – exposed and guarded. Roeg has stated that the editing choices in this scene were inventions to please the censors, and maybe they were, but if so, those censors did him a favor. This moment of duality within the marital relationship is a perfectly crafted visual example of the disconnection from time and human connection in which John, Laura, and the audience all find themselves steeped. Despite its initial controversy, viewed from 2014, this scene seems less prurient and sexual than it does frank and honest. Sutherland and Christie do not seem like they are doing this to titillate their audience, but to convey a married couple who are seeking comfort in one another in the wake of a terrible tragedy.
Don’t Look Now isn’t a traditional horror film. It doesn’t seek to shock its audience with jump scares. It derives its horror in a far more insidious way. It deals with something that is actually horrific – the death of a child and the effect that has on a marriage, and, over the course of its almost two hour run time, Don’t Look Now does something far more sinister than a traditional horror film. It replaces certainty with uncertainty, love with loneliness, and hope with dread. Sure, you could watch Don’t Look Now. I even recommend that you do, but you might be better served to heed the warning in the title.