Ah, yes. This is the kind of film that always makes these kinds of months worth it: a fantastic, innovative film from a director that I wasn’t familiar with and leaves me wanting to explore more of their work. Nicolas Roeg is a name I’ve known for a while, possibly because of his relation to the rock world, seeing as though he directed boypals Mick Jagger and David Bowie in their debut starring film roles. Don’t Look Now, unfortunately doesn’t feature any rock stars, but it does star two actors that are very emblematic of their era, as well as many other assets that could have only come out of the fast and loose era of ’70s filmmaking.
The two stars I’m talking about are Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, as the married couple, John and Laura Baxter. Early on in the film we see their young daughter, wearing a distinct red raincoat, right before she drowns in the Baxters’ backyard. We then cut to some months later, where the grief-stricken John and Laura have relocated to Venice, where John, an artist, has accepted a job restoring an ancient church.
Not long after settling into Venice life, they meet these two elderly sisters, one of which is blind, and the other which claims to be psychic. Throughout the rest of the film, both John and Laura seem to be compelled to contact their daughter on another plain, while also struggling with whether they should move on. Meanwhile, John also begins seeing a small figure dressed in a red raincoat wandering around Venice, while other bizarre and unexplainable things seem to keep happening to him.
I suppose the first thing that sets this film apart from any film from this period that I can recall offhand, is the editing. This is definitely one of those movies that sets up a lot at the beginning through imagery that we’re not really sure what it means at the time, but surely must mean something later. And these little motifs do manifest themselves in different ways, many of which don’t tie together in overtly obvious ways, but certainly add to the unnerving vibe of the film.
In regards to the constant cutting, one of the more famous (or infamous) scenes of the film is a pretty graphic sex scene between the two lovers at the heart of the film. And it looks pretty darn real, which is certainly shocking, even by today’s standards. But the way it uses cross-cutting to show the way the married couple slip into their post-sex states of being, and how they continue to go about their very average evening is kind of beautiful. It just makes me feel a little smutty praising a scene that is still hounded by rumors of whether the two actors were having unsimulated sex or not.
Don’t Look Now is also an interesting depiction of grief, in that most movies about grief usually seem to be a bit more meditative, and treat grief as this kind of open wound that you can’t fill with anything, no matter how hard you try. Don’t Look Now instead treats grief more like this waking nightmare, that you think will calm down at some point. But instead, Donald Sutherland seems to be constantly attacked by images from the past, as well as the present. To the point where it becomes hard to tell what’s the nightmare and what’s reality.
And to that end, the film’s ending is pretty great, in that it embraces the fact that the reality is kind of a nightmare. Also, the film’s ending feels the most horror-y out of all the elements in the film, which for much of its runtime feels like a psychological thriller with a hint of the paranormal. But whatever it’s genre, Don’t Look Now is a hell of an experience, but also leaves you piecing together its different striking images as you try to move on with your life.