Talk Cinema's Ron Falzone Discusses Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now

I have to admit that I frequently feel sorry for my students. Is it that they’re not bright enough, or that they lack the ambition to succeed in the film business?  Emphatically not.  On this score they give me enormous hope for the future of the movies. 

Where they elicit my sympathy is in having grown up with the movies of the last twenty years.  These were fun and involving, yet the dominant cinema culture of the past few decades has shown a slow but inexorable diminishing of mainstream movies as a venue for exploring human themes and ideas.  Yes, there are still some of these movies around, but they usually go straight to streaming or, worse, sink without a trace.

The depth of my sympathy comes from remembering the cinema culture of my youth.  I came of age at the movies with the releases of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate in 1967.  These two movies ushered in Hollywood’s Second Golden Age, a period of roughly ten years when going to the movies was exciting precisely because we knew that we were going to be challenged by what we saw on that screen.

The period wasn’t perfect, of course.  It was equally dominated by rip-offs: disaster movies in the wake of Airport, gangster movies following up on The Godfather, violent policiers desperate to be the next Bullitt or French Connection.  The most dispiriting of these were the spate of supernatural thrillers that seemed to spawn like the devil between the brilliant duo of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist.  The rip-offs were invariably cheap, derivative and tediously predictable.  Standing nearly alone on the other side of these, though, is Nicholas Roeg’s remarkable Don’t Look Now.

Don’t Look Now is the story of a family in crisis.  John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) have recently suffered the loss of their eight year-old daughter Christine.  John, a restoration architect, accepts a post in Venice, as much for the distance it gives him and Laura from the home where their daughter died as it does for the work he will be doing.  An atheist, John is commissioned to restore a church, an ultimately pointless task as the waters of the Grand Canal eat away at its foundation.  While there, Laura becomes involved with two older women (Hillary Mason and Clelia Matania), one a psychic who claims to be communicating with Christine from beyond the grave.

Roeg’s film is undoubtedly a tense and beautifully constructed supernatural thriller, but what ultimately separates Don’t Look Now from the spate of similar movies is that this one is actually about something.  With a pointillist’s precision, Roeg dissects then examines the impact of grief.  In this case, John and Laura seem like a perfect couple, one whose fault lines the director delicately exposes with a level of reality and humanity rarely seen in films about married people. 

Both John and Laura suffer mightily under the weight of Christine’s death.  Unlike everything else in their lives, their responses are diametrically opposed.  Worse, each one believes that the way they are grieving is the way that the other should be doing it as well.  John is closed off from his feelings, battling them every step of the way.  He submerges them in his work, his way of relating to his wife, and in the stone walls and empty alleys of a Venice devoid of life.  Laura, through the two sisters, finds hope and even a measure of joy, two emotions that only make John feel that much more isolated and angry.

And then comes a vision.  John sees a little girl in a red mackintosh, the spitting image of Christine, rushing along the deserted streets.  Is this his daughter beckoning him?  Is he psychic?  Is he going mad because of his repressed grief?  These are questions that only become more intense each time the vision reappears.

Roeg fills his movie with observations about the fragility of marital relations.  John and Laura are frequently shown in those moments that most other filmmakers would cut out.  The way they brush their teeth, order food, search the shelf for the perfect book.  Hitchcock famously said that the movies are life with the boring bits cut out.  Roeg goes the opposite way and in doing so moves Don’t Look Now away from the bounds of a simple shocker to a complex exploration of the difficulties any couple would have connecting after a tragedy.

This disconnect is brought into focus in Don’t Look Now’s most discussed sequence.  John and Laura slowly fall into lovemaking.  Filmed for maximum erotic impact, the sequence is suddenly interrupted by cross-cutting between the sex and the decidedly routine post-coital dressing for dinner.  This silent movement between the sensuous and the mundane says more about the state of their relationship than any five dialogue sequences.

The Venice of Don’t Look Now is as far away from our shared images of that canal town as it can possibly be.  Filmed in overcast conditions, the damp buildings and lonely rain soaked streets convey a feeling we first interpret as indicative of John and Laura’s post-tragedy malaise.  As the film progresses, though, this atmosphere becomes less about them and more about an inexorable external gloom that is sucking them into a vortex they have no idea is coming. 

Much of the veracity of this film most certainly comes from the work of Sutherland and Christie.  A real life couple at the time, there is a lived-in feel to the way they relate to each other.  Sutherland, in particular, is asked to carry an enormous amount of narrative weight.  In the long run, Don’t Look Now is his story.  It is John whose arc needs to be clear despite all his attempts to bury his motivating grief beneath layers of self-protection.  In the end, the release that he finds gives Don’t Look Now an ending that mixes grief and joy in a way that is both truthful and quite unique to this film.

Over the years I have used Don’t Look Now to introduce my students to the style of storytelling that propelled the movies of the late sixties and early seventies.  After one particular screening, a student came up to me and said, “I think I just found my movie.”

I smiled.  I found it a long time ago.  It was deeply gratifying to finally pass it on.