Don't Look Now Nicolas Roeg
Published Feb 15, 2015In many circles, in a modernist dialogue, Don't Look Now is often noted for its rather lengthy and explicit sex scene between grieving parents, Laura and John Baxter (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland), and its very stylized and symbolic opening sequence.
The sex scene, because of its unglamorous authenticity, was rumoured to be real. Part of the significance of this sequence was also contextual: What purpose did it serve the text? As discussed in the "Something Interesting" mini-doc included with this Criterion Blu-ray release, the scene represented emotional healing; Laura and John are introduced to the audience through loss. Their daughter drowns when Don't Look Now opens, and we're left to observe how the couple handles this tragedy. In part, there's guilt: they were indoors working on personal projects when their daughter died. But there's also the search for meaning: was this a test or a punishment from God?
The sex scene represents reconnection. Laura and John hadn't connected on a carnal level since the accident, which is why the emotional vulnerability and grittiness of the moment had the power that it did within the context of the story. Even leading up to the moment, the couple were going through the motions of bathroom grooming in front of each other, mostly indifferent to the familiarity of each other's bodies and the routine of doing things in front of each other that desexualize the desirability of the human body.
But this is just one aspect of Roeg's rather potent and lasting adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's source story. As evidenced by the opening sequence, which was actually filmed separately from the rest of the film as a marketing tool for studio funding, there's a strong sense of ambivalence towards religious meaning and iconography. Spliced with scenes of their daughter playing outside — dressed in red to represent an important visual trajectory of colour as metaphor — are shots of John working on photographic slides of church imagery. When the accident occurs, the slides are damaged, distorting the image in a way that could lead to greater religious interpretation.
In 1973, when Don't Look Now was released, the lexicon of horror cinema and literature was reflective of a culture in flux. Traditional morality had, up until then, stemmed primarily from Judeo-Christian ethics and the teachings of the bible (at least in Western culture), but people were shifting away from faith. In a culture with anti-establishment hippie ethos, the Vietnam War and even the Watergate Scandal, the basic myths of first world living were in jeopardy.
This is why the basic themes of Don't Look Now proved so effective and are, in a way, timeless. As Laura and John travel to Venice, a decaying — John's purpose for being there is to repair a dilapidated church — but historically rich and intricate landscape, they're met with an abundance of seeming coincidences and metaphysical threats. Laura meets a blind woman that claims to have contact with her dead daughter and John has repeated visions of a little girl in red running around just in the periphery of his vision. As everything builds up to a somewhat controversial climax, the repeating question is that of fatalistic inquiry: Are John and Laura being guided to their fate or are they trying to read too much into every incidental, coincidental moment of their lives?
Roeg doesn't answer this question, but he does ramp up a sense of discomfort and foreboding as supernatural forces seemingly loom around these characters. Like most of his works — and as discussed in the "Looking Back" supplement included with the Blu-ray — he used a very loose style, changing his vision of scenes based on how he felt and how the shooting schedule was going. Often, it made for inconsistent works, but here it worked to great effect; there's something haunting about the disconnected, but deliberate, way that Don't Look Now plays out. It's obviously heightened by the central themes, which question the meaning of coincidence, but there's something powerful about the way the story blends with the geography and the structure. There's a subtextual analysis of meaning in both content and form.
Also included with the Criterion Blu-ray release, beyond the 4K digital restoration, are interviews with the composer, Pino Donaggio, and the editor, Graeme Clifford. There's also an analysis of Roeg's style with Steven Soderbergh and Danny Boyle, as well as an essay from film critic David Thompson. It's an exhaustive array of supplements that tears apart and examines virtually every aspect of Roeg's most notable film.