Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) – Blu-ray review
Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland star in the classic horror movie about love and death in Venice, recently voted the greatest British film of all time by Time Out.
Following the recent release of Roeg’s David Bowie vehicle The Man Who Fell To Earth earlier this year, the Blu-ray is released Monday 4th July by Optimum and Studio Canal with loads of extras, amongst them Danny Boyle’s zippy re-edit of the film if you can’t be arsed watching the whole thing.
Best leave your red mac at home.
Don’t Look Now
(Nicolas Roeg, GB, 1973)
The best British film of them all? Certainly the best one to combine marital sex, Venetian churches and a red plastic coat
Howard Hawks once reckoned that all you needed to make a good film was three great scenes and no bad ones. Don’t Look Now might be the exemplar of that approach to cinema, its reputation founded on the triple threat of its tragic opening, ultra-realistic sex scene and shocking ending.
OK, that’s a little unfair – there’s actually a fourth great scene, a bravura action set-piece in a church, as well as a daft conversation in a police station that comes close to dissipating the film’s otherwise sustained atmosphere. But it’s those three scenes you remember.
The interesting question is why we remember them, and a lot of has to do with the fact that Nicolas Roeg paces hi psychological scare story better than ever before or since. A director helplessly in love with intricate editing, Don’t Look Now is a mosaic of a film that only makes sense when it’s over – indeed, the plot has Donald Sutherland’s church restorer involved in piecing together an ancient mosaic in a sly in-joke. But to achieve its impact, the majority of the running time is (at least apparently) conventional and linear, until a major character goes walkabout and the film goes mad trying to keep itself together.
Aptly so. This is a film about madness, specifically the madness of grief, and the sheer effort of trying to hold it at bay. The film cracks open in its first scene, as Christine Baxter, daughter of a well-to-do couple John and Laura (Sutherland and Julie Christie), drowns amidst strange premonitions of smashed glass and spilled wine. It’s a tour de force of disruptive editing and troubling imagery, whose trauma gets no closure when a sudden, jolting cut takes us to the serenity of Venice, where John’s work has provided the Baxters with an excuse to flee painful memories.
It doesn’t take long to notice that Venice is a little too quiet. The film is clouded by the realisation that all is not well with the Baxters, their enforced jollity bristling against the Italian city’s surprisingly oppressive, spectral surroundings – this is one film you imagine the Venice Tourist Board isn’t exactly shouting about. Like so many British directors, it takes a holiday to bring out their best (the best, if a recent Time Out survey is to be believed), and Roeg allows the eerieness to unfold like fog as an unnerving blind psychic and her equally strange sister befriend the couple with warnings and messages from Christine in the afterlife.
“Everybody swears Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland were having sex for real in Don’t Look Now, but the greater seduction takes place between us and Nic Roeg…”
The Baxters do their best to pretend that things are normal by having sex, an act of enormous sweetness and normality compared to what’s going on around them. Everybody swears Christie and Sutherland were doing it for real, but the greater seduction takes place between us and Roeg. The director unleashes a moment of genius by using his trademark montage to soothe rather than attack, cross-cutting between passion and protean activity of getting dressed and brushing teeth. What could be more normal, or natural? But the editing strategy underlines the helpless, transitory nature of this rare moment of bliss. Happiness is likely to be short-lived.
[Ironically, the Blu-ray restoration underlines this theme. Like John’s own work, the print is a simulacrum of the film’s original majesty. Often, the burnished Venetian colours look glorious; elsewhere, the print is noticeably flecked with grain… nowhere more so than in the sex scene. Yes, it’s probably worn out from being over-watched by pervy projectionists, but they’ve done us a favour. The grain only adds to the haunting power of the moment.]
And with that realisation that peace and tranquility are impossible, the film begins to twist itself in knots. What kind of film is this exactly? Certainly, one that’s worth seeing at least three times – initially, to experience its clammy grip, again to work out exactly what’s happened, and once more to properly concentrate on one of the movies’ most profound love stories – and a British one at that!
These are bohemian people, attractive and flirtatious, who have drifted into English reserve only because of tragedy. It’s an idea that makes you wonder about every single other British movie ever made: what demons caused their protagonists to develop such a stiff upper lip? And so Christie numbs herself with new-age mysticism, and Sutherland, just as much in denial, finds his own meltdown in trying to be fussily rational about everything, despite the mounting dread.
Which brings us to the ending, still a marvel of ambuguity that ripples back through the film to make it somehow both understandable and even less explicable. Is this a horror movie – or simply a tragic misunderstanding? Needless to say, Roeg gives us one of the scariest figures in cinema, a horror icon to put Jason Vorhees and his slasher mates to shame. Nobody should ever be frightened of a man in a hockey mask, when Roeg’s apparition is scuttling away out of the corner of your eye. Don’t look now? Too late: this killer will haunt your nightmares forever.