****/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras A
starring Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania
screenplay by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant, based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier
directed by Nicolas Roeg
by Walter Chaw Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now is about looking, about ways of seeing and layers of understanding. It's about memory and its intrusion into and influence on current states of being. It's about the impossibility of faith or love or human relationships to illuminate truth; or it's about how faith and love and human relationships are the only truth. It shows images out of order, presenting them in ways that will only make sense once the gestalt in which the images exist comes clear. In every way, Don't Look Now is designed for multiple viewings. The film warns that a life spent unexamined will end brutally and nonsensically. Without context, there is nothing, but context is nigh impossible before the end. It's something William Carlos Williams would understand.
The experience of Don't Look Now the first time through is fully sensual. The experience of it the next time is purely intellectual. Subsequent viewings find both reactions in ecstatic tension. It's a film I never recommend without recommending multiple viewings; it is never the same river twice, and it is always the same river. It's impossible to fully engage with Don't Look Now again after the first time, because its secrets are like neon signs on black horizons. Yet for all that, its mysteries remain mysterious. It's very much like sex--explanation in part for a notorious love scene that puts fucking up against the routine of hundreds (thousands) of marital repetitions. It's clear this couple has had sex before, and it's clear that if you're paying attention, sex itself never exactly becomes routine. It's the best of its type ever captured on film: the eroticism of the familiar. Like almost every other sign/signifier pair in the picture, it's reflective of the overall piece. The sex scene is Roeg instructing the viewer that the film will become a relationship evolving, expanding, enjoyed over years and decades.
Don't Look Now is also about the holiness of perspective. It references Huxley's doors of perception literally and thematically in the multiple shutters thrown and thresholds transgressed; in the banks of mirrors and the care director Roeg takes to show people observing, processing, always incorrectly, always across the span of days, always with no profit to the wise. Note how he gives the camera's point-of-view as much to the blind character as he does to the sighted characters. The way he handles that problem of shot/countershot is magical. Don't Look Now is about projections--the kind that project slides and the kind that speak to oracular prophecy and time travel and perhaps astral projection, too. It has as its unspoken corollary "... but do look now," or, "look now, instead." When its editor Graeme Clifford recalls Roeg describing the picture as an "exercise in film grammar," one can hear the professorial instruction echoed there in its title. Don't Look Now is of that tiny fraternity of films that deepen through autopsy and extended submersion in its dark waters, like Vertigo or Alphaville or L'Atalante or Seconds. The more you drown in it, the more beautiful it is. After dozens of viewings in every circumstance and more than twenty years since I first saw it, it's now less a horror film than a melancholy, Romanticist (Keatsian, in particular) ode to the vicissitudes of existence. Rapture of the deep.
The first eight minutes are transcendent. If you love cinema and the study of it, this sequence is a masterclass in editing, sound design, performance, narrative, direction. John (Donald Sutherland) restores churches. He's looking at slides on a light table while his wife, Laura (Julie Christie), sits on a couch in his office and their daughter Christine (Sharon Williams) plays in their sprawling backyard. Little Christine loses her ball in a pond. John sees a red figure sitting before stained glass. In the back of our mind, there's the image of water glittering through wood shutters, and a human voice muttering, and maybe images of Prufrock's human voices, wakefulness, and drowning. John and Laura's son, Johnny, rides on a bike over a mirror, breaking it. Because there's not yet an expectation of reason, we don't question why there's a mirror across a dirt path, nor the likelihood that the red of the sitting figure on the slide would run when John spills his drink on his table. Roeg directs us to look at John looking at nothing. John walks behind Laura, dropping his ruined slide. We have opportunity to observe that she's reading a book called Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space, whose title is a commentary on not just her interests, but the movie's as well. John runs out the back door and, in a devastating sequence, pulls his lifeless daughter's body out of the water. Just as the sex scene is unparalleled, so too might be this moment of parental grief. In a decade of tremendous performers and performances, Sutherland holds his own in films like this, Klute, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Ordinary People. Perhaps only Gene Hackman was ever better as consistently during the '70s.
Panes of glass, window frames, grids, bars...all of it suggests forms of imprisonment or arrested vision, standing in contrast to moments of breaking through, sometimes literally, the barriers that stand in the way of true understanding. It's not until the end of his life, however, that John is able to see things as they really are. This time through, I noticed that the shape the bleeding red of the slide takes resembles that of a fetus, bloody and wet. Intentional or not, it's emblematic of the film's deepening--that with the loss of one child is the birth of another, infernal one, a changeling figuratively in the blossoming of grief and the rift between parents, and literally in the shade that follows John and Laura to Venice. Laura sees her daughter's corpse in John's arms and her scream matches a jump cut, months forward, to Italy, to where the couple have travelled for John's restoration project, leaving young Johnny behind in boarding school. It's there, in the night and shadows of Venice, that Laura meets a pair of elderly spinster sisters, Heather and Wendy (Hilary Mason and Clelia Mantania). Heather, blind, claims to be clairvoyant, and carries with her a message from their dead daughter that John and Laura must leave Venice. At one point, Heather tells Laura that John is also clairvoyant. Later, John has the sisters arrested when he thinks they've somehow abducted and maybe brainwashed his wife. The police superintendent asks John what it is that he fears. It's a good question. I think John fears that he can see the future and that, even with that ability, he couldn't save his daughter.
John sees a short figure in a red jumper running through doorways and shadows. He thinks it's his daughter. Don't Look Now is often accused of having an abrupt and meaningless ending, though I believe otherwise. I believe the ending is a summation of the picture's feints and thrusts, that it speaks to the perils of avoiding experience, ignoring signs, shunning faith, professing knowledge. John is wrong about everything, constantly. He believes Laura is still in Venice when she is, in fact, back with their son in his boarding school. He believes Laura is hysterical for believing their spectral daughter's warning. He's even wrong at one point for saying he's not going to throw up before he does. In the moments following a near-death experience on a scaffold in the church that he's restoring (one introduced by the sisters' laughter on the beautifully-designed soundstage), John watches as a girl's corpse is dragged from a canal and flashes to an alternate ending to his near-accident wherein he falls to his death. The film is a series of warnings to John. If his greatest fear is that he can't change the future despite having intuition as to its course, the film is a playing-out of how John's rich denial of a supernatural possibility leads to the detonation and illness of every repressed desire. At the end, when he seems to finally accept that his daughter might be alive and haunting the backwaters of Venice, he chases her shade to his doom. Everything in the film points to this ending. It's fate.
A semester's worth of excavation would still leave the core of Don't Look Now untouched. Consider a closing scene in the police station where Laura sees a police sketch of one of the sisters and says, "It doesn't look like her," to which the superintendent says, "It doesn't matter." Consider when a priest confides in the couple that "we have stopped listening," or the sign at the 25-minute mark that says "Venice in Peril," or the rats in the water, or the closed wrought-iron gates, or the multiplications through grotesques, whether they be gargoyles or black effigies of dead children or the thing that isn't Christine. I love the moment of parting when Laura leaves Venice to be with their ailing son and John says, "Give Johnny my love, hold him tightly." I love the colour red throughout, appearing in the most Hitchcock of ways as the harbinger of the paranormal or the obscene. The film is about reflections and how rain will ruin the reflective qualities of a still surface. There's an elegance to that image; what would seem heavy-handed acquires there a certain gracefulness. It rhymes with Heather telling John that Milton used to love Venice, ostensibly for the quality of sound there, and there's another invitation to pay attention to the movie in a different way.
Don't Look Now is the evocation of dream-sleep and liebstrom. It's about love and loss and how the experience of one is inextricable from the other. It's about all the big things--destiny, spirituality, the afterlife, parenthood--as well as the little things: dressing to go out after you've made love to your spouse, saying "I love you" on the telephone, regretting the little cruelties you engaged in when you felt afraid. Sutherland and Christie are as translucent in their portrayal of a grieving couple here as the panels on the doors they pass through at the restaurant where Laura faints and revives in a different state of mind. They are completely believable, and Roeg's strategy of lingering long on their reactions in uninterrupted takes demonstrates the trust he has in them. Massimo Serato as the Bishop of John's project is a product of the same faith. In multiple scenes, Roeg holds on the Bishop as he tries to make sense of the portents clouding John's every motion. The aftermath of John's near death belongs to the Bishop as he looks up, looks down, and walks off the stage with nothing resolved. On the night of John's death, Roeg offers a quick cut to the Bishop bolting upright in his tiny, Spartan chamber and glancing at a tiny votive, burning in its red glass.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Don't Look Now is high art and the Criterion Collection has given it its due in a magnificent Blu-ray presentation. The 1.85:1, 1080p transfer was sourced from a 4K scan of the original camera negative and approved by Roeg, who, lest one forget, began his career as an ace cinematographer. The whole of it feels laudably "filmic," reproducing a pebbly grain structure with a clarity that renders legible every single bit of graffiti on Venice's crumbling facades. I saw more of this film on this BD than ever before--and that, all things considered, is only and absolutely right. Note the conclusion's explosion of blood, how the uncomfortably off Movielab red is still off, but saturated now and brought into relief in such a way as to evoke viscera rather than liquid clay. It's one of dozens of improvements over previous releases, but perhaps the most obvious. I also noted for the first time the wetness of Laura's eyes during the hotel fight sequence. Astonishing. The clear and stable LPCM 1.0 English audio delivers Pino Donaggio's lush, melodramatic score (closest in mien to the opening, orgiastic strums of his Carrie overture) with fidelity and surprising fullness. I should mention that the water noises and moaning that underscore the animated main menu is a particularly cruel thing the folks at Criterion have foisted on the sensitive.
A 2002 featurette, "Don't Look Now, Looking Back" (10 mins., HD upconvert), sees Roeg discussing the Daphne Du Maurier source material some, but more focused on how he wanted the film to feel like a grand, gothic nightmare while simultaneously working as a textbook. It's an idea underscored by editor Clifford (and it's here that he offers the abovementioned Roeg quote) and DP Anthony Richmond, who has an air of "yeah, this fucking thing" as he talks recurring images and Roeg's fury for meaning. It's a dangerous thing to go into a project intending to say something--rare is the artist who can carry it off. Where you fall on how successful Roeg is in getting away with pretension predicts where you'll fall on Don't Look Now. "Death in Venice" (18 mins., HD upconvert) has nothing to do with Thomas Mann and everything to do with how Donaggio came to this project and his collaboration with Roeg. It was shot in 2006 and contains disappointingly little on the actual process of scoring. Always fun to listen to Donaggio, though.
"Something Interesting" (30 mins., HD upconvert) gathers Sutherland, Christie, and co-screenwriter Allan Scott to recount in surprising depth their experiences on, and interpretations of, the film in question. I'll say this, that while I've always, obviously, been enamored with Julie Christie, seeing her here and listening to her recollections only cemented for me the timelessness of her beauty and intelligence. She confesses to reservations about starring in a film that demonized someone with a physical disability and departs with a sigh and a "life is compromise" that rings with experience and sadness. I'm terribly smitten. Sutherland gets misty at the prospect of losing a child to an accident, while Scott recollects that the temperature of the production changed once it moved to Italy. The love scene and its rumors of excessive verisimilitude are addressed with frankness and passion. Sutherland approaches it intellectually, Christie emotionally. They still make a lovely couple.
"Nicolas Roeg: The Enigma of Film" (14 mins., HD upconvert) is Steven Soderbergh and Danny Boyle attesting their mutual admiration for the titular director and how he influenced their individual work. Soderbergh zeroes in on the freedom of Roeg's style, which, although it's actually extremely, oppressively formal, inspired Soderbergh to "loosen up." I think he's referring more to thematics than to mechanics. Soderbergh confesses to stealing more from Roeg than from any other filmmaker, citing a particular scene from Out of Sight that honours Roeg's non-linear approach. It's an interesting confession. Boyle pokes about Don't Look Now's beauty and humanism. It's more a hagiography than a useful analysis, but it's an inoffensive way to pass time. "Graeme Clifford and Bobbie O'Steen" (43 mins., HD) is exactly that, as film historian O'Steen interviews Clifford about Don't Look Now. It's a broad overview that begins with Clifford recalling his 2nd AD work on McCabe & Mrs. Miller and how that led to working on Don't Look Now. Interesting. He goes into great detail on the love scene as well, giving a huge amount of credit to Roeg's vision and direction. "Nic likes brave choices," Clifford says. He speaks to cutting on movements; it occurred to me halfway through that the piece would make a nice companion to Walter Murch's In the Blink of an Eye. "Nicolas Roeg at Cine Lumiere" (47 mins., HD upconvert) captures a 2003 post-screening Q&A in which Roeg speaks thoughtfully regarding his work in general (with an emphasis on Walkabout) and Don't Look Now specifically. He touches on adaptation, mood, the "thrill" of creating a film that evokes ways of dreaming. It's an engaging talk by a master and a valuable archive.
In addition to the film's lengthy trailer (4 mins., HD), an essay by David Thompson is included in a fold-out poster insert, wherein the critic/scholar outlines the basic things to look for in the picture. It's a fine primer.