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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review

Don't Look Now  (1973)
4 Stars
Directed by Nicolas Roeg.
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania, Massimo Serato, Renato Scarpa, Giorgio Trestini, Leopoldo Trieste, David Tree, Ann Rye, Nicholas Salter, Sharon Williams.
1973 – 110 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, sexual content, nudity and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 2008.

You're sad. You're so sad and there's no need to be. She wants you to know that she's happy.
I've seen your little girl sitting between you, and she's laughing.

Death is one of the great unknowns. Are we predestined to our fate? And is dying really the finite end, or is there something more out there? If so, what happens next? Of course, we can hold out hope, embracing our personal faith to help ease any trepidation we may have on the subject, but no one who is living really, truly knows for sure what exists beyond our current life. Maybe that is why death is so difficult for us to comprehend, even more so in relation to loved ones who have passed on. The tragedy is not simply that we will never see and talk to the deceased again, but that we hold no answers as we grapple with the idea that they are no longer here. It's a disquieting thing to ponder, and precisely the reason why "Don't Look Now" is such an unshakable experience.

Directed with an almost unparalleled sense of control by Nicolas Roeg (1990's "The Witches") and based on the short story by Daphne Du Maurier, this is one of the most staggeringly evocative and uncompromisingly honest motion pictures in memory to tackle the mysteries of life and death, grief and love, fear and hope. "Don't Look Now" is categorized as a supernatural horror film, and it is in its own way, but it's also so much more than that. There are no floating specters in sight, no wavery spirits, and the only detectable ghosts are those that exist in our own memories and consciences. Or are there? Roeg, along with screenwriters Alan Scott and Chris Bryant, set up a maze of subtle clues and suggestions to match the foreboding labyrinth of alleyways, streets, bridges and canals populating their Venice setting. The plot's thundering complexity and study in semiotics—i.e. spilled water on a projection slide of a church, a broach, shattered glass, a specifically chosen color motif—lead down innumerable provocative paths, sometimes reaching dead ends, other times wrapping around on themselves in meaningful ways that cannot be fully grasped upon first viewing.

On a lazy Sunday afternoon at their peaceful country home in England, John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) is getting some work done on photographic slides of church architecture and wife Laura (Julie Christie) is researching the answer to a question their daughter has asked her—"If the Earth is round, why are frozen ponds flat?" Outside, son Johnny (Nicholas Salter) runs over broken glass on his bicycle and crashes in the grass, and daughter Christine (Sharon Williams), dressed in black rain boots and a red slicker, tries to retrieve a plastic ball from the edge of a pond. In an instant, John knocks over water on his slide, the liquid turning to the color of blood as it mixes with the image of a mysterious hooded figure sitting in a church pew. He has no time to pay attention to this—the first portentous sign that danger is headed his way—when he senses that something is not quite right. Running outside, John discovers his drowned daughter, unresponsive to his clumsy, desperate attempts at resuscitation.

Switch to an undisclosed amount of time later. John and Laura are staying in the Italian city of Venice while John assists in the renovation of St. Nicholas, a local 16th-century church in disrepair. Their relationship has seemingly withstood the strain of Christine's death as they go about their days in an ominously picturesque location foreign to them. They haven't forgotten, though, with John unable to open up about his internal guilt and Laura feeling empty and sorrowful. When Laura meets two elderly sisters, Heather (Hilary Mason) and Wendy (Clelia Matania), at a restaurant, the former blind and convincingly possessing the power of second sight, she is told that Christine is with John and herself, safe and happy as can be. This information visibly renews Laura's psyche, but John is more than skeptical, refusing to accept his own prefigurative abilities as a clairvoyant, ignoring the omens inundating his everyday life, and disregarding the blind woman's later warning that he is in grave danger as long as he stays in Venice. When word comes that Johnny has been in an accident at his boarding school in London, Laura leaves Italy to be with him and presses her husband on taking a short break from work to follow her lead. The next day, John passes by a boat and glimpses Laura and the two sisters standing at the foot of it, mourners in a funeral procession. But whose funeral is it? And if Laura is in England, how can it be possible that she's in Venice at the same time?

"Don't Look Now" is intoxicatingly deliberate in its pacing, but never meandering. Each new scene helps to either inform the plot or the characters, broadening the scope of John's and Laura's grief as something even more unimaginable is imminent within their futures. Laura, wanting to grasp onto hope for her daughter's well-being in the afterlife, takes Heather at her word while keeping Christine's red and white ball tucked away in her suitcase as security. She urges John to consider that Heather's foresight might be true, not only about Christine but also about the danger coming to him, but he is in denial, and perhaps not as strong as his wife. In one scene filled with the sort of anguish rarely captured on the screen, John blows up at Laura. "Our daughter is dead!" he yells at her. "Dead! Dead! Dead! Dead! Dead!" And yes, Christine is dead, but how can John explain it away when he and Laura get hopelessly lost one night on their way to dinner, wandering the desolate narrow streets of Venice, and he glimpses a flash of a small figure in a crimson hooded slicker disappear around a corner? That John comments, "I know this place," even though he has no conscionable reason to, is not a mistake on his part.

The cinematography by veteran lenser Anthony Richmond (2000's "Cherry Falls") paints the autumnal months in Venice with a spookily drab but realistic palette, the color red popping up throughout to symbolize two very diverse things: memories of the forever innocent Christine, and possible threats toiling in the mundane. Subtle signs of impending menace don't end there. With their hotel about to close for the winter and the prospects of moving to a new nearby location on John and Laura's shoulders, the manager has instructed his staff to pull white sheets over all the furniture in the lobby, their shapes like corpses surrounding them. After Laura has left Venice to care for their injured son in London, John narrowly escapes death or injury himself when the scaffolding he is standing on inside St. Nicholas breaks, leaving him dangling high in the church with only a rope to hold onto. Walking away safely from the incident, John experiences a split-second vision of the past event taking a turn for the worst and himself falling. Moments later, he is witness to the police pulling the scantily clad body of a woman from the canal.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned red figure will show itself several more times, often in the background of shots and not always noticed by the characters. John's choice to follow it in the end is his destiny, and by this time he knows it. Does he truly believe it could be his dearly departed little girl, or is he merely the victim of a fate that cannot be altered? The final ten minutes of "Don't Look Now" are unforgettable, and especially fascinating in the ways that they affect the viewer depending on the number of personal viewings. The first time one sees the ending, it is horrifying—a nightmare happening in the real world. The second time, it is almost as eerie. By the third viewing, the culminating scenes are still creepy, but also emotionally devastating, saying so much so simply about the frailty of life and the brevity with which it comes and goes. The identity of the figure in red isn't important, or the point; the film wisely sticks with John's point-of-view in these lingeringly stark and beautiful last moments. It is his journey to take.

"Don't Look Now" is a bravura cinematic masterpiece of a kind Hollywood doesn't seem to make anymore. At once haunting and deeply poignant, richly layered and loaded with underlying tension and gentility, the film only improves the more one sees it. As John and Laura Baxter, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie have scarcely been as remarkable as they are here, essaying a married couple who never feel less than authentic. A sex scene between them, infamous in some circles for the rumor that the actors, dating at the time, were doing more on camera than simulating the act, is breathtakingly intimate, their love-making interspersed with quiet snapshots of them getting ready to go out to dinner. The viewer almost feels as if he or she shouldn't be watching them in such a private, expressive setting, but it is impossible to take one's eyes off the screen. Wrapped in a pall of substantive dread that mesmerizingly permeates through the proceedings, "Don't Look Now" brilliantly portrays the loves and losses we all experience, our here and now dictated by the fallibility of human nature and the cruelties of time.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman