Review: Don’t Look Now

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

Nicolas Roeg’s previous work as a cinematographer may have a good deal to do with the purely visual sensation of watching Don’t Look Now, the third picture he has worked on as director (having co-directed Performance and soloed with Walkabout). One feels the sensitivity of some of Bergman’s recent films on which Sven Nykvist has worked, or of Jan Troell; but Roeg’s sensitivity in this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel is closer to the hypersensitivity of someone (the main character, John Baxter, played by Sutherland) who notices everything and cannot help noticing everything about his environment; someone who is flooded with visual and psychic stimuli which so glut his consciousness that his sense of spatial and temporal orientation begins to wobble. For this, Venice is the perfect setting: a contusion of grotto-like canals, disintegrating stone, and faintly echoed voices—the Venice, in fact, through which Visconti’s Aschenbach stumbled in search of the boy Tadzio.

I don’t know whether du Maurier was thinking of Mann when she wrote the book, but Roeg certainly owes no debt to Visconti, who ploddingly ventures through and around Mann’s story with heavyhanded devices (boring, excruciatingly explicative, philosophical dialogue-filled flashbacks). Roeg, dealing in a realm more psychic than psychological, and certainly less obviously dependent on a literary source, is careful to keep his techniques in line with and firmly anchored by his subject matter. His jarring, quick-tempo’d cutting patterns (which frequently cut across time as well as space) tend to unify as well as distort, in such a manner that a chilling coherence does arise from the confused time sense inherent in Roeg’s stylistics. Similarly, the flashforwards are not merely clever stylistic indulgences—they are the logical means of conveying Sutherland’s psychic previsions. And these previsions are not just vague premonitions felt but not seen; they are concrete visual images, a fact which is important in appreciating one way in which Roeg maintains credibility of viewpoint: he can convey information through Sutherland’s flashforwards without stepping outside of the character’s subjective point of view. And the color red (Christine, the Baxters’ dead daughter whose spirit is supposedly trying to communicate with her parents, is wearing a red coat when she drowns at the beginning of the picture) is not so much an abstract visual motif as it is a purely functional means of indicating Sutherland’s acute sensitivity to details which fall into a sub-rational pattern of visual association; Sutherland is often the one who “notices” the red, and it most frequently appears in the frame in which he is present.

Only toward the end of the film, as Roeg attempts to conjure a final spurt of tension by intercutting across the psychic web of characters (the priest, the inspector, Sutherland, the psychic) do the technical inventions stray beyond their effective limit. A few too many superimpositions of Christine on the canal waters, and perhaps one shot too many of the blind woman (her face, eyes the color of a thin rain, dramatically filling the whole frame), are slightly too manipulative to be consistent with the functional control of, say, the lovemaking scene between Sutherland and Christie which Roeg intercuts with quick flashforwards of the two of them quietly getting dressed, buttoning pants and blouses, brushing teeth, folding up blankets and sheets. The unity achieved in the sequence is beautifully understated, whereas the more strained and rather frantic effort at tying-it-all-together as Sutherland chases and finds the red-hooded figure is a hair’s-breadth away from being too much. Indeed, this may be where du Maurier’s book is finally at odds with Roeg’s movie, and it seems that Roeg, in order to complete the film in terms dictated by du Maurier’s narrative, had to perform some fancy footwork to account for the final, ultimately conventional “twist” in which the tension of psychic foreboding is snapped by the appearance of a very real and very deadly little dwarf (wearing a red cape) who is not an envoy from the spirit world at all. This, as they say, explains everything (as in a murder mystery all must finally come clear) except the basic, unexplainable premise of psychic communication which Roeg has disturbingly articulated and which, in the movie at least, provides a frighteningly cerebral tension which far outweighs even the carefully structured efficacy of du Maurier’s murder mystery surprises.

DON’T LOOK NOW
Direction: Nicolas Roeg. Screenplay: Allan Scott, after the novel by Daphne du Maurier. Cinematography: Anthony Richmond. Editing: Graeme Clifford.
The Players: Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Hillary Mason, Celia Matonia.

Copyright © 1975 Rick Hermann