Don't Look Now
25 Nov 2021
Allan Scott, Chris Bryant
Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie, Hilary Manson
No matter the beauty of Venice’s Lido or the magic in a city separated not by roads but by canals, there’s something dark that lurks beneath this Italian city. A poster on an old church reminds us that “Venice is in Peril”. There’s a dull sheen to the city, like gold lurking in a riverbed, and these old alleyways and buildings have been slowly sinking into the marsh it was built on for decades. Venice is a perfumed old lady who is beckoning towards her coffin.
Maybe, then, for a film that concentrates so much on grief – on its fractions and abstractions, its pain and division – Venice was the only possible setting for it. Don’t Look Now, directed by Nicolas Roeg – currently available on BBC iPlayer - is perhaps most often described as a horror film, but that categorisation only captures the smallest essence of the film. More accurately, this is a devastating portrayal of loss.
The film begins with a calm Sunday afternoon, complete with a couple lounging around their country pile, their children out at play, and dirty dishes piled up with a cigarette butt crushed into the leftovers. Laura and John Baxter (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland) live a charmed, privileged existence. This is until John – overwhelmed by a sudden flash of dread - gets up and rushes outside, only to find their young daughter, Christine, drowned in their family pond.
Months later, in an attempt to keep busy and move on, John accepts a job in a church in Venice. He has been commissioned to return this church to its former sense of glory, but like all of Venice, the church is slowly slipping into the quagmire. This isn’t the light, sunny Venice of opulent holidays, but instead, Laura and John are visiting in the off-season winter months, and the labyrinthine city is thick with the stench of abandonment. Not to mention, there is a murderer stalking the streets.
Laura and John are not only deeply lost in their grief, but the connection between them has almost rotten away. Where John is insistent on moving on after his daughter’s death, Laura has been ill and depressed and wants nothing more than the past to cloak her. In a chance encounter, two elderly women convince Laura that they have seen a smiling, laughing ghostly apparition of Christine sitting next to them. Are these women friends or foe? Roeg’s sharp editing and direction lead you down rabbit holes like the city itself. A close-up on a beaded broach in the shape of a ship and flashes of a red mac clattering across Venice’s canals are all easy to fixate on. But like when you’re stuck in the midst of grief, there is no easy McGuffin to focus on. Things that made perfect sense before are shattered, leaving you to pick up the pieces even though the jagged edges don’t seem to fit.
Even though there’s a simple ease in how John and Laura explore Venice, with her red leather boots clattering down the flagstones and their voices bouncing off Venice’s architecture, there’s a keen sense that we are watching a ticking time-bomb. Terror settles like a mist, but the audience can’t quite place when this creeping sense of paranoia began. The horror itself seems to be almost talked out of existence by the straight-talking John, who is so convinced by photographic evidence and stone physical reminders of the past. It is perhaps more surprising then that any discussion of the film is more dominated by the graphic sex scene that takes place maybe thirty minutes into the movie. What is the point of such an explicit love scene in a horror movie? But this scene toys with the audience with its romance and offers us a glimmer of hope that in their fog of grief, John and Laura have finally re-found each other.
Don’t Look Now doesn’t only force you to peek around corners but artfully tackles the destructive force of grief, leaving you as lost as Laura and John wandering around the maze of Venice.