Don’t Look Now opens with the Baxters - John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) - casually going about their work while the kids play outside, until John has a premonition that compels him to run out the door. There, he discovers every parent’s worst nightmare: Their daughter has drowned in a pond.
For the rest of the film, we follow the couple to Venice - a city filled with water, of course - as he restores a church. They run into an eerie blind psychic in a restaurant. She tells them their daughter is happy and with them in spirit. For Laura, it’s the kind of assurance she’s been looking for. But it's unsettling for John as his strange visions and premonitions pick back up again.
I’ll say it again: There’s no better era for horror - and filmmaking in general - than the 70’s. Until Spielberg killed it all by inventing the blockbuster film (Jaws, 1975), films could afford to be creative and diverse. Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby existed side-by-side with The Exorcist, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, the Italian imports of Argento and Fulci, and British imports such as this.
Indeed, for me the film evoked equal parts The Wicker Man, Rosemary's Baby, and The Stunt Man as I watched this couple grapple with reality in foreign surroundings. Don’t Look Now is, first and foremost, a convincing and touching depiction of a couple’s grief.
Sutherland and Christie skillfully portray the emptiness that a loving couple must feel at losing their only daughter. To that end, one could argue this film is more drama than horror.
At the same time, it methodically builds an unsettling dread as their life moves forward. There are visions, causing the viewer to question what is real and what is a manifestation of their grief. All the while, you get an unmistakable sense that something deeply disturbing is approaching.
Nicolas Roeg’s creative editing adds to the tension in interesting ways.He loves to cut away to an innocuous item in the scene. Whenever he calls attention to the item, we wonder why it matters and immediately look for secrets. Is there something more to that woman’s brooch that I should be seeing? Will it become more significant later? Some shots are premonitions of the future, adding to the confusion.
An obvious example: A very graphic and passionate love scene is intercut with shots of the couple putting their clothes on afterward, flashing forward in a way that creates a stark contrast by making their lovemaking seem routine.
He also lets many shots linger just a little too long. Just when you expect the camera to cut away to the next scene, our view lingers for a few more seconds beyond what is comfortable.
For example, when the camera holds on a minor character’s expression long after the main character has left the room, the camera forces us to question what we are seeing, reexamine an innocuous character’s motives, looking a little deeper into their eyes for clues to their true intentions. In all, I can think of no other movie where I’ve seen such bold, risky editing choices used so effectively.
For the reasons stated above, you may find this moves a little slow for your tastes. You may be put off by the lack of an obvious plot with signposts guiding you through.
But I think you’ll be rewarded if you approach Don’t Look Now as you would a poem, stepping aside so it can work itself on you. I imagine this is the kind of picture that rewards subsequent viewing.
This is a movie you live in, you inhabit, rather than watch from a safe distance. Simply masterful work.
*** SPOILER ***
I was fascinated by the recurring motif of water throughout the film. From the bodies being pulled out of the canals, to the little doll that John himself fishes out of the water, it’s a cruel world that John is forced to inhabit. The color red as a motif snuck in there quite a bit too - even as thematic bookends, when you think about it.
I didn’t want to say too much in the review, but I started to feel like everyone was a conspirator in some unknowable way against John. This has more to do with the editing than anything else - again, those uncomfortable shots that linger on a character’s expression just a little too long.
I found myself filing away image after image for later reference, building a treasure trove of seemingly important connections that wore on my brain as I struggled to find meaning in it. In this way, I shared the characters’ paranoia.
There's a fine line between Don't Look Now and Roeg's subsequent film, The Man Who Fell To Earth. Stylistically, they hang out in the same playground, though I personally found the latter movie unwatchable. To each his own, I suppose.