After watching “Don’t Look Now” (1973), I’m looking forward to reading reviews and analyses of the work. It’s one of those movies where I didn’t entirely understand the meaning, and sometimes not even the narrative – but in a good way. I understood enough to be wrapped up in the story of a British couple – Donald Sutherland’s and Julie Christie’s John and Laura Baxter – who are on a long-term stay in Venice for John’s job in church mosaic restoration.
And there are enough weird moments – like in “The Wicker Man” from that same remarkable year of horror, which also gave us “The Exorcist” – to make me suspicious of everyone and everything. Venice is a “character” because everyone the Baxters encounter is just a little off kilter, from the sisters (Hilary Mason’s blind seer Heather and Clelia Matania’s Wendy) to the police detective who doesn’t seem to believe John’s story that Laura is missing.
Director Nicolas Roeg – working from a screenplay by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant (from Daphne Du Maurier’s short story) — showcases the unusual nature of Venice as a city of canals, along with brick buildings that look like they are crumbling. Through John’s job and other glimpses of construction, a viewer senses the city has to constantly be fixed just to stay alive.
At the same time, the streets and alleys and canals are almost entirely empty, especially at night, even though commercial and residential districts overlap and interweave. It seems that everything is closed and no one lives in the city. When the Baxters lose their way back to their hotel in the labyrinthine passageways, I don’t get the impression they’ll be mugged, but rather that they’ll be endlessly lost. The city is otherworldly, an impression that’s enhanced by the fact that many characters speak in Italian or with accents. John himself knows enough Italian to scrape by.
“Don’t Look Now” makes choices that are at first blush tonally wrong, but because it’s a purposefully weird film, this encourages a viewer to seek meaning. It includes a long, explicit (for a mainstream film) sex scene that can’t be fast-forwarded through because it intersperses shots of John and Laura preparing for their next day. We wonder if there’s a point to it, even if we don’t know what that point is right away. (If nothing else, it makes it obvious that the actors have great chemistry.)
Another sequence that’s unlike anything I’ve seen before finds John nearly falling to his death (or serious injury) from a scaffold. It’s filmed like how it would really happen, not in the usual manner of an action film where the hero swings or scuttles to safety. John desperately hangs onto a rope and the surrounding workers are confused and awkward about how to rescue him.
The film is all about the Baxters’ grief over the drowning death of their young daughter – a year or so before the main events – and yet Sutherland and Christie don’t play clichéd moments of grief. Sutherland is almost disengaged. But I think these choices are purposeful.
Roeg gives us weird, quick little moments that we barely notice, but I bet we are intended to notice them. For example, police pull a murder victim from a canal and we hear kids giggling at the corpse’s exposed panties. As the experience washed over me more so than the film’s point, I began to a suspect a twist ending was coming, one that would underscore and clarify the message.
“Don’t Look Now” is more subtle in its meaning than other daylight horror like “The Wicker Man” or “Midsommar,” to the point where it’s on the fence of even being categorized as horror. It’s far more artistic than scary, but I think the weirdness and the suggestion of the supernatural qualify it for the classification. It doesn’t deliver an amazing clincher like similar films do, but I did enjoy the experience of watching it, and I look forward to doing some research to find out what exactly I watched.