Don’t Look Now – with Nicolas Roeg, nothing is as it seems
“Nothing is as it seems” was the thematic starting point when Nicolas Roeg envisioned the iconic horror-drama Don’t Look Now (1973). The phrase not only matches the recurring events in the film where John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) desperately tries to make sense of what he sees, but also informs the artistic rendition of the idea, “doubt what you see,” imbuing the audience with a sense of mistrust. The imagery and editing style of the film are aligned with this thematic statement, reaffirming the film’s status as not just an awesome horror flick but also an art film where every element is carefully and purposefully designed, performed, and built to elicit a specific response from the audience.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate a few of the many brilliant cinematic ideas packed into this groundbreaking film. I am yet to see an opening sequence as harrowing and evocative as the one in Don’t Look Now. The scene depicts the death of a child, but does so much more than that. First, the scene is set with two children playing alone by the water, the boy riding a bike through the woods, and the girl, Christine (Sharon Williams), wearing a red raincoat on a sunny day, playing with a toy soldier. Then, their parents are seen cozy by the fire; Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) reading books, John Baxter looking through slides until something catches his eye—a red hooded figure sitting in a church.
For the rest of the sequence Roeg evokes our senses by match-cutting shots and orchestrating a dialogue between the two pairs. He speaks to the non-linear logic of our emotional intelligence rather than to our linear, rational mind. The juxtaposition of Christine stepping into a puddle and the bike riding over broken glass helps us intuit impending danger. When John knocks over a glass and water begins morphing into the slide he is looking at, we get a visual cue that the figure in the church is signaling something ominous to him. The parents’ movements and gestures dynamically and tonally match the children’s movements so well that we sense an ethereal communication between them, and a sense of loss and grief seeping in before the inevitable occurs.
In the opening scene, Roeg also foreshadows the next chapter of the film where John restores a church in Venice and is haunted by a figure in a red raincoat much like the one sitting in the church on his slide, and his deceased daughter. In this chapter, John’s clairvoyance is the subject of focus and his encounters with the mysterious figure are the source of continuing suspense. Meanwhile, Laura, lacking her husband’s intuitiveness, finds solace in a blind old woman (Hilary Mason), who claims to make a psychic connection with Christine. Roeg masterfully turns the ordinarily non-intimidating duo of a psychic old lady and her chubby sister into an unlikely source of dread. Are these sweet old ladies sharing Laura’s pain and trying to help her, or are they preying on her grief-stricken fragility, sucking her into hell?
Roeg often challenges our preconceptions about people and images. A bishop can seem utterly menacing; beautiful Venice becomes a city of shadows and death; a grieving couple lacks in sentimentality and morose. By creating contrasts, Roeg succeeds in unsettling our expectations and driving us to growing disquiet.
Most notably, Don’t Look Now’s historic love scene defies our expectations relating to not only how we view a grieving couple but also how we view horror films. An unexpectedly long and elaborate sex scene, marking the couple’s first love-making since their child’s death, is intercut with the couple getting dressed to go out to dinner. The non-poeticized, non-glorified intimacy is graphically matched to the ordinary comfort and practicality of marriage. This 5-minute break from the suspense and uneasiness of the narrative is unusual and bold to put it lightly, but once again it plays with our assumptions about grief, love, loss, sex, and even genre.
Roeg tells a story unencumbered by rules, depicting life’s complexity, vulnerability, and discord. His editing style paints an overall portrayal of marriage and love rather than chronicling a straight-up thriller following a sequential set of events. Don’t Look Now resembles life not as it’s expected to be seen in movies but in its unclassifiable form.
Another surprising decision made in the narrative is to reveal the identity of the red-hooded figure in the finale. Up until the end, we’re under the impression that the figure may be a figment of John’s imagination, or that he’s trapped in a supernatural maze. But then, there’s a twist that ushers us into a room we don’t want to go in, and showing us the face of this mystery figure. The story turns an unexpected corner yet again. It’s easy to be on the fence about this change in direction because it might have served the film better to keep the unknown unknowable. Instead, it’s as though Roeg chooses to pay the horror genre his dues in that final, horrific beat.
As a well of inspiration for today’s filmmakers, Don’t Look Now is a powerful reminder of why we need independent cinema. For who else but an independent filmmaker would or could make a truly radical film? And without that bold attitude toward the complex machinery of cinema, how can we hope to advance the filmmaking tradition, break new ground? Providing the space, time and opportunities for unique cinematic minds like Roeg is an integral way to broaden our minds about where else cinema can take us. At his passing we must appreciate Roeg’s contribution to rethinking and reinventing the medium of film, and remember to support independent cinema so that new voices can follow in his footsteps.
— This article was published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on February 6, 2019.