Nicolas Roeg, 1973
Starring: Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland
After their beloved young daughter accidentally drowns to death, John and his wife Laura retreat to Venice. John has been hired for a church restoration project and he and Laura attempt to process their profound grief. Two sisters, the blind Heather and Wendy, convince Laura that Heather is psychic and can see their daughter; she is happy in the afterlife. She also warns Laura that John is in danger and should leave Venice. At first John is enraged by what he thinks is his wife’s stubborn delusion, but begins to see a small figure clad in a red raincoat – the same thing his daughter wore when she died – running around Venice. Meanwhile, bodies are turning up around the city, dumped in the canal.
Their son has an accident back at his boarding school in England and Laura briefly sets off, though John is convinced he later sees her on a funeral barge in the canals. In a panic and fearing for her mental health, he searches for Laura and the two women. The police come to suspect he may be the killer and he again spies the figure clad in a red raincoat running through the streets. It turns out that Laura was in England all along and is soon on her way back, as their son is fine. After briefly meeting up with the two sisters, John escorts them back to their hotel, but spies the red-cloaked figure one last time. He is unable to avoid following it into the night, though Heather is convinced something terrible is about to happen to him…
This British and Italian co-production was director Nicolas Roeg’s third film after the acclaimed Performance, a crime drama starring Mick Jagger, and Walkabout, a desolate tale of two siblings stranded in the Outback. Though Don’t Look Now is generally taken as a horror film, it’s a bit more slippery with elements of drama and melancholy throughout. Regardless, death haunts nearly every scene and, more than anything else, this is a movie about two people’s attempts to deal with loss and grief.
The script was adapted from a short story of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, who supposedly wrote it while suffering from the grief of ending a romantic relationship. Du Maurier rose to international renown when Alfred Hitchcock adapted two of her novels – Rebecca and The Birds – and Don’t Look Now certainly has a Hitchcockian feel. John’s character has shades of the “wrong man” trope that Hitchcock was so fond of, particularly when Venetian authorities begin to believe he’s responsible for the local murders. Another Hitchcockian aspect of the film is the constant sense of seeing incorrectly, mistaken identities, and visual misunderstandings. Doubles are also everywhere, for John, his wife, and their daughter, in drawings, photographs, reflections, visions, and in physical doubles.
There are some unnerving scenes of suspense and horror – particularly surrounding the mysterious figure in the red coat – and an underlying occult theme. It’s giallo-like, despite the lack of graphic murders, and reminded me of Italian films Who Saw Her Die? and Fulci’s The Psychic. Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die? concerns a sculptor and his beautiful wife whose daughter (she has bright red hair instead of a red coat) is the victim of a killer loose in the city. Central to the mystery is a priest and a woman wearing a funeral veil. Also set in Venice, this film came out a year before Don’t Look Now and seems somewhat of an obvious influence, though Don’t Look Now is the superior film. Fulci’s The Psychic (1977) has a similar gray tone with brief splashes of color and concerns the occult, psychic premonitions, and the unshakable sense that something terrible is going to happen to the film’s protagonist.
The film benefits from strange, dreamlike editing and use of reoccurring imagery. The editing gives viewers the sense that there is no real, solid separation between past, present, and future. The reoccurring imagery – mostly of water, the color red, and shots of broken glass – are relentless and unsettling. Red, first solely to represent the dead daughter’s raincoat, seeps its way into the film little by little. There are some incredibly shots of Venice from cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond. The set is eerily quiet and devoid of people; everything is washed over with a rainy, foggy, gray tone. Venice’s winding streets and canals feel labyrinthine and prison-like at times.
Venice is the perfect setting; their daughter’s death by drowning is emphasized by constant visual references to water. In the “City of Love,” as it is known, and the city of canals, the references to their child’s death and, conversely, to romantic love, is inescapable. Roeg continues this throughout the film, alternating references to desire and sex, loss and death. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie give two of their best on screen performances here, perfectly conveying a realistic marriage. Their sex scene, which made the film infamous for years, is graphic, but never exploitative. There is a sex where John performs oral sex on his wife – then unheard of in mainstream cinema and barely represented today – and the sex scene was long rumored to be real, unsimulated sex between Sutherland and Christie.
The blend of ghosts, death, horror, and eroticism is subtle and effective. There is undeniably something unsettling about the film, a feeling of wrongness that you can’t quite put your finger on. The surprise ending may rub some viewers the wrong way and this is certainly a film that deserves repeat viewings. On one hand, it can be viewed as Roeg slamming together two storylines – John and Laura’s grief with the serial killer loose in Venice – which does feel jarring and implausible. On the other hand, this is too dreamlike a film to take such things literally and instead it feels like John’s final nightmare, the culmination of his emotional life since the death of his daughter.
Don’t Look Now is available on DVD and comes with the highest possible recommendation. Whether or not you are a fan of horror, the film is a must-see and ranks as one of Roeg’s best works. It is especially worth seeing for fans of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, as there are many obvious similarities between the two films, or anyone interested in cinematic examinations of grief and loss, as it is surely one of the finest.