A haunting adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novella, Don’t Look Now only turns into true chilling horror during its shocking conclusion, but that’s not to diminish the film’s ability to get under your skin (and make Venice, of all places, feel truly creepy).
Like the more recent Hereditary, Don’t Look Now is less a traditional horror fare and more of a psychological drama about grief and its devastating effects. It tells the story of a couple, John and Laura Baxter (played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), who suffer an unimaginable loss in the opening scene when their young daughter Christine drowns in a pond near the family country cottage. In a jarring and disorienting fashion that becomes the film’s trademark, it cuts from John and Laura’s immediate anguish to Venice, where John, an art restorer, accepts a commission to work on a church.
There, the couple’s mourning process takes a supernatural turn when Laura encounters two middle-aged English sisters, one of them blind. The blind sister, Heather, tells Laura not to be so sad and informs her that she saw Christine sitting with her parents during lunch, happy and smiling. The shock of this psychic revelation at first causes Laura to collapse at the restaurant, but ultimately she finds great solace, joy and healing in the words of the blind clairvoyant, which leads to a passionate and frank sex scene between Baxters that, at the time, was considered scandalously explicit. Watching it today, it’s more striking for its editing, with the couple’s lovemaking intercut with shots of John and Laura dressing separately afterwards. In a different film, this loving moment of connection and intimacy could have been a culmination of a successfully healed relationship, but Don’t Look Now pretty much telegraphs that Baxters are doomed to be apart.
John, a rational man, has no patience for afterlife, second sight and omens. “Our daughter is dead. Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead,” is his exasperated cry in one of the scenes. In an ironic twist, John appears to possess a psychic gift himself and, according to Heather, he’s the one Christine has been trying to contact in order to warn him of mortal danger should he remain in Venice. Unwilling to take warnings seriously, John soon gets tangled in a series of inexplicable events, all the while being haunted by the brief glimpses of a small figure in a red raincoat, same one his daughter wore on the day she died.
While the basic story at the heart of Don’t Look Now is fairly simple, the power of the film lies in its performances, visual style and mood, with director Nicolas Roeg patiently building a strange dreamlike atmosphere of mounting unease and dread. Throughout the movie, there are recurring motifs and images with powerful associations such as shattering glass, darkness, water and one of the most effective uses of colour red I’ve seen onscreen. Outwardly ordinary scenes are made menacing and off-kilter by lingering on odd details, and editing choices like sudden zooms and intercuts.
The glorious city of Venice becomes its own character in the movie, and is nothing like your standard postcard depiction. This off-season Venice is eerily silent and melancholy, its elegant decay sinister rather than romantic, full of underlit canals, wrong turns and dead ends. The exchanges in Italian are deliberately left without subtitles in order to enhance the feeling of confusion and bewilderment experienced by Sutherland’s character to an increasing degree.
The macabre ending, somehow both predictable and shocking, no doubt caused a lot of WTF was that?? reaction over the years. Taken literally it’s perhaps rather unrelated, random and even silly, but I think it’s best interpreted as a dark parable about the refusal to really deal with grief and loss. It actually compelled me to re-watch the movie the very next evening, and follow the visual trail of omens and warnings more closely. This is without a doubt the kind of detail-rich film that rewards subsequent viewings.