Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #466
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: 16 October 1973
Sub-Genre: Psychological Thriller
Country of Origin: United Kingdom, Italy
Running Time: 110 minutes
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Producer: Peter Katz
Screenplay: Allan Scott, Chris Bryant
Based on Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier
Make-Up: Giancarlo Del Brocco
Cinematography: Anthony B. Richmond
Score: Pino Donaggio
Editing: Graeme Clifford
Studios: Casey Productions, Eldorado Films
Distributor: British Lion Films
Stars: Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania, Massimo Serato, Renato Scarpa, Giorgio Trestini, Leopoldo Trieste, David Tree, Ann Rye, Nicholas Salter, Sharon Williams, Bruno Cattaneo, Adelina Poerio
Suggested Audio Candy
 Pino Donaggio “Laura’s Theme”
 Pino Donaggio “John’s Theme”
 Pino Donaggio “Don’t Look Now”
There are few prospects as unthinkable to contemplate than grieving your own offspring. Just the mere thought of it can cause sleepless nights and my whole heart goes out to anyone placed into this inconceivable position. Unless we have been touched by tragedy in this way, it is impossible to know how we could possibly react to such a scenario and, while I’m a firm believer that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, there are exceptions to the rule and this is one such horrendous anomaly. How do you even begin to fill such a void? In short, you don’t. It’s not the natural order of things but unfortunately God works in mysterious ways and sometimes sees fit to test our resolve to the absolute hilt.
Based on an original novel by the great Daphne du Maurier of the same title, upstanding Englishman Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now deals with one such mortifying scenario. For happily married couple John and Laura Baxter (a never better Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), their idyllic family life is torn asunder as their young daughter Christine (Sharon Williams) tragically drowns in a freak accident, which John somehow senses as it is transpiring. The opening five minutes of Roeg’s film afford Sutherland and Christie no time to settle in before pulling the rug from beneath their feet and plunging the amiable pair into perpetual limbo.
We leave their country home and move swiftly to Venice months later as John receives a commission to restore an ancient church and they venture off on auto-pilot in an attempt to temporarily blank out their infinite anguish. We understand the pain they are feeling but Roeg is disinterested in pointing out the obvious so the emphasis is on moving on as they struggle to deal in their own unique ways. John is still internalizing his grief as a coping mechanism but his wife is far more vocal as she stumbles from one faint spell to the next, frantically trying to make sense of her loss. While dining one afternoon, she meets elderly sisters Heather (Hilary Mason) and Wendy (Clelia Matania), and the former has some information that she wishes to share which puts Laura’s racing mind at rest, temporarily at least.
Despite her blindness, psychic Heather notices Christine standing between the couple looking happy and relaxed. This provides Laura with her first glimpse of inner peace and she understandably wishes to find out more. After meeting up with the sisters again and taking part in a séance, things start to look decidedly less rosy, particularly with regards to John who is reported to be in grave danger, should he remain in Venice. Like a typical alpha, he is dismissive of their blathering and wants no part in such hocus pocus at first. However, after Laura returns to England to tend to their son, Heather’s prophecy of doom begins to appear as though it may carry some weight after all.
Despite his significant other being hundreds of miles away, he swears blind that he spots her on a vaporetto-led funeral procession, and this throws him into disarray. It doesn’t help that a serial killer is at large and he keeps catching glimpses of a girl in a red coat, similar to the one Christine was wearing when she died, navigating the labyrinth of canals just out of his reach. Laura’s frail mental state is also cause for great concern so he reports the sighting to the local police. Meanwhile, a near-fatal accident on the restoration site, reminds him of her parting warning that he may well be in peril himself. The moment he finds himself embracing stone gargoyles we just know he’s got his work cut out for him.
Sutherland is on utterly commanding form and it becomes impossible to look away for a second as he emotes so beautifully throughout. Christie’s role is no less challenging although eventually the focus swings almost entirely to him and he gives a performance which should have earned him an Oscar in my opinion. It was never going to happen of course as the Academy don’t recognize horror as art, even though this is actually anything but. Sure, many regard it as one of the finest horror films ever made, but to pigeon-hole a motion picture like this would be to miss Roeg’s point entirely. It is a study of bereavement and the after-effects of severe emotional trauma, which is admittedly truly horrifying, but not in an overly visceral manner. Indeed, long periods pass largely without incident.
The relationship between John and Laura is beautifully and honestly observed and their communication, both spoken and physical, is integral to our investment. The now infamous sex scene provoked a mass outcry upon its release in 1973 and it seems utterly ludicrous that this was deemed to be too frank for public consumption but mainstream audiences weren’t yet ready for its depiction of cunnilingus and the knives were sharpened. Looking back at it now, it is a wonderfully unprocessed scene and the word sex doesn’t even come into it. This is lovemaking at its most truthfully observed and unforgettable for all the right reasons. Yes, it’s explicit, but it’s also profoundly touching as here are two people at their most exposed, attempting only to fuck away their sorrow. The fact that their copulation is intercut with shots of them dressing prevents them from ever being truly unified and provides a completely different vantage point to anything we have seen before.
The screenplay by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant breathes new life into du Maurier’s world and the dialogue, particularly between husband and wife, is both unforced and entirely natural. John is essentially a rational man, trapped in an irrational world that only ever reveals itself in tiny fragments. The canals themselves echo his grief exquisitely and throw up no clear answers which, given the heartbreaking subject matter, is no less than we can expect. We really feel the depth of Venice and there could be no more poetic an environment to pen us into as blue skies are no longer facilitated once our protagonist traverses deeper into his geographically perplexing network.
One thing which Roeg achieves which so many of his contemporaries can only dream of is to marry the past, present, and future. The mysterious red-coated vision represents the former, the gondola sighting signals the latter, and the whole time we are very much in the present, living and breathing John’s world as he deliriously attempts to avoid his predestined fate. It feels so real, so utterly tangible, that we can almost smell the sewage rising from the backstreet canals and Anthony B. Richmond’s opulent cinematography captures Venice at its most haunting while Pino Donaggio’s poignant orchestrated score wraps round it like fine Venetian silk.
The ending has long since become a thing of horror folklore and still, to this very day, hasn’t lost any of its impact. Should you not have had the pleasure of watching Roeg’s magnum opus then, fret not, as I will say no more other than that it is more than deserving of its stature and takes us to subterranean levels of palpable dread. Sure, we are required to make a long haul to get there, but it’s nowhere near as delayed should we read between the lines and not go searching for signposting. Like the intricate maze of tunnels and shadow-laden walkways which litter Venice, nothing is spelled out and instead Roeg asks only that we find our own way through the gloom.
Don’t Look Now is truly an enigma. Nothing whatsoever is filtered and you are placed in the position of direct observer while it washes over you in gentle waves and penetrates far deeper than simply residing under your skin. I would argue that it reaches your very bones and its abstract nature leaves questions and images which will likely haunt you long after the film has unspooled. Those familiar with Roeg’s masterful body of work will find this to be his most spectral and affecting work, so very much more than the horror movie of which it is commonly regarded. I would implore the uninitiated to think long and hard before jumping in the next available gondola as it may well leave you cold. However, if approached as art as opposed to entertainment, then it may well stay with you forever.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
Grue Factor: 2/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Those searching for blood should be aware that water is far more prevalent here and, outside of one perpetually unshakable instance of brief violence, there’s nothing whatsoever to see here. Remember Grueheads, once is all it takes, and you will be left gasping by the time that red coat slinks back into the shadows for the final time. With regards to John and Laura’s aforementioned union, Roeg’s intention is never to titillate and I would imagine that David Cronenberg drew inspiration from this scene for his brilliant depiction of primal lusting between real-life partners Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello during A History of Violence.
Read Berberian Sound Studio Appraisal
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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