Don’t Look Now: “Ghosts of the future and of the past”
“VENICE IN PERIL” read the signs nestled in the background of quite a few of Nicolas Roeg and Anthony B. Richmond’s stunning deep focus images throughout Don’t Look Now. They’re the calling cards of a very real, and still active, British charity bent on restoring and conserving the city’s art and architecture. But, like the current anti-knife crime ‘London Needs You Alive’ campaign, their benign message suggests an unnerving corollary, that the city might have some kind of deep, centuries-old collective psyche, a capacity to both suffer and inflict psychic harm on its inhabitants.
Which, of course, is exactly what happens in Roeg’s acclaimed 1973 psychological chiller, in which Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland play the grieving parents of a drowned daughter who go to bury their grief in the famously sinking city. For them to so literally attempt drowning their sorrows is the kind of bitterly appropriate dream logic you’d expect from a film based on a Daphne Du Maurier short story; but in the film’s own twist, John and Laura Baxter’s Venetian sojourn is actually grounded in reality. John is overseeing the restoration of a Venetian church, mirroring the real-life work then in progress on the very same building. It isn’t just set dressing, then; Venice really is in peril.
It’s exacerbated, of course, by the serial killer on the loose, with victims being dredged up daily from the canals. Meanwhile, two nosey British expat sisters, one of whom is a blind psychic, claim that Christine’s ghost has a warning message for John. We meet them in a jauntily Brief Encounter-esque setting, in a restaurant, with Laura offering to help busybody Wendy with something in her eye. While she goes about it, in a series of marvellously composed shots featuring multiple bathroom mirrors, her sister Heather announces that she saw Christine sitting between her two parents, laughing and happy. Laura abruptly faints. When she comes to, she is unnervingly chipper, having fully come to terms with her daughter’s death.
Don’t Look Now is partly about this trouble— how a profound state of spiritual calmness and confidence can become profoundly offensive to another, with John growing alienated from Laura’s lack of mourning. But this conflict isn’t so much dramatically staged as implied, suggested and sidelined; dialogue always feels overheard, even when we aren’t viewing it through a telephoto lens, and the Italian-style dubbing adds to the uncanny effect (in many ways, Don’t Look Now feels like a more dour, British, self-consciously arthouse version of the Italian giallo films of the same era). Around the conflict, there are moments of levity and mundane snippets of a functional, if compromised, relationship.
Most notably, there’s a then-controversial sex scene between the married couple, intercut with scenes of them getting ready and going out for dinner— an arresting editing coup that inspired the equally groundbreaking sex scene in Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. Mick Jones would later sing that it was the ‘best sex I’ve ever seen’; a rumour persists to this day that it was unsimulated, and that Christie’s then-boyfriend Warren Beatty tried to have it cut.
This hits on the uncanny valley sensuality at the heart of the scene, at the heart of Roeg in general: it seems so very real, but (by frankly showing two married people having sex) it delves into emotional and aesthetic territory so under-explored that the certainty that it isn’t real nags at you. Unlike most of the film, the sex scene establishes, rather than chips away at, an impression of intimacy. So much of Roeg’s unconventional style is meant to shock and wrong-foot us that it’s hard to take such an earnest, unguarded scene at face value. The real brilliance of Roeg wasn’t apparent when he was breaking conventional film grammar— it’s when he was putting the pieces back together, and suddenly they didn’t fit where they used to.
Despite not entirely unjustified perceptions of the two sisters as creepy (at one point, Roeg suddenly cuts to them laughing maniacally, which reminded me of Guadagnino’s version of Suspiria), and despite the cruelly unfiltered way they insist on Christine’s being alive, they are sympathetic characters, wracked with many of the same fears as John and Laura. Blind Heather enjoys Venice, appreciating the shape that the water and the echoing canals gives to her surroundings (a soundscape marvellously evoked and distorted by the film); but her sister Wendy ‘says it’s like a city in aspic left over from a dinner party, and all the guests are dead and gone’. It’s a sentiment that echoes through British writing on Italy, the enthusiasm for its monumental art and architecture turning to existential dread, whether it’s Middlemarch’s Dorothea on her honeymoon or the poet Robert Browning feeling ‘chilly and grown old’ listening to a Venetian toccata.
Despite avoiding the usual tourist spots, that’s the gothic British take on Venice that Don’t Look Now traffics in— a cold place, of statues and shadows, of stasis and sinking. It’s perhaps ironic, then, that the plot concerns premonitions of the future as much as ghosts of the past— why should ominous warnings or psychic visions be necessary when, based on all the evidence of history around them, John and Laura are already doomed? That they choose to believe that they aren’t doomed, up to the very end, will either induce crushing hopelessness or it won’t. Or in other words, either everything is broken, or it’s just been put back together differently. That’s the trouble.