Don’t Look Now (1973)

Directed by Nicholas Roeg

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Don’t Look Now finds its two main characters in a labyrinth of grief, somewhere in the dark, foggy, isolated alleys of Venice, Italy.  They are a married couple, John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie), from England who have come to Venice for John’s work, as he restores an old church.  After a prologue which shows John discovering his daughter’s body after she falls into a lake, and which hints that he may have some premonition of the event, we meet John and Laura as stoic, a little solemn but with their understandable grief at least hidden under the surface.

This changes when Laura meets two elderly sisters, one of whom is blind and claims to be a mystic, telling Laura that she saw her daughter sitting beside them in a restaurant, laughing.  Without any previous knowledge or conversation, Laura is immediately struck by the psychic’s message, and when she returns to the table with John, she promptly faints.

Laura wakes up, however, sometime later in the hospital in a drastically good mood.  She has found some peace with the psychic’s message that their deceased daughter is happy, but this overflowing joy concerns John, who wasn’t privy to the same experience.  Nevertheless the psychic’s vision brings some energy to their relationship and leads to a hot and heavy sex scene that is intercut with the morning after, meaning we watch them frolicking around in bed while we also watch them quietly get dressed the following morning, the passion gone or at least dormant.

As a whole Don’t Look Now stands out because of this experimental editing style, meant to introduce us to John’s own fragmented point of view.  He is said to have the same gift as the psychic, re-contextualizing the first scene of the film in which we cross-cut between their daughter soon to fall into the lake and John sensing that something is wrong.  In that scene, actions in one location seemingly directly influence actions in the other.

This style of editing is purposefully unsettling.  We’ll continually flash to moments in the past and future, a combination of scattered memories and premonitions which John doesn’t yet realize are premonitions.  Chasing down these visions will only get him into trouble as he struggles to make sense of his complicating sense of time.

The logic of Don’t Look Now isn’t immediately clear upon a single viewing.  The way the plot narrows down until the fatal finale is a bit head scratching, though only to a degree since you assume the film remains in control.  It is thus not a plothole that ties everything together but just a purposeful mystery that is maintained even until the credits role.

What is clear is that we are as lost, tense and confused as John.  He will find reason to suspect that his wife might be in danger, particularly as a mysterious killer stalks the city, and he will repeatedly see visions of his daughter, in her memorably bright red coat, running around the canals.

The film is dark and unsettling but not in the way of many modern horror movies.  It’s atmosphere and tone which yields these results, rather than individual, cheap jump scares.  When you put it all together, it adds to a harrowing portrait of grief and a lack of control.  Isn’t grief itself just a way of coming to grips with the things you cannot control?

Up Next: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), This Property is Condemned (1966), Big Eyes (2014)

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