Nicolas Roeg’s classic is reissued on blu-ray this week. It’s nearly 40 years since this most unusual of horror films received a cinema release. Does it stand the test of time?
John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) have to endure what no parent should go through when their young daughter Christine, dressed in her bright red raincoat, is accidentally drowned in their garden pond. They later travel to Venice where John is overseeing the restoration of a church and Laura joins him as they both come to terms with their grief. The pair chance upon a couple of old ladies, one of whom is blind but apparently has ‘second’ sight. She reassures Laura that Christine is happy but that she needs to warn her parents that John is in great danger. In the meantime, it appears that there is a murderer stalking the winding streets of the watery city.
Based on Daphne du Maurier’s thriller, Don’t Look Now is a slow burner. It starts with a tragedy and slowly becomes more distressing as it progresses. What makes it so compelling is that, despite its supernatural overtones, it manages to achieve a thoroughly realistic portrayal of grief. The relationship between John and Laura is so engaging because it is so ordinary. The viewer is shown all the banal elements of their relationship – the sort that are usually glossed over in film narratives. She tells him that he is putting on weight or points out that he has toothpaste on his lips. But these are important – it has to be genuine in order to feel real. The infamous sex scene, which was considered to be extremely graphic for the time, is intercut with scenes of the couple getting dressed up to go out for dinner and depicts both the passion and normality of relationship. It is the honesty and realism of the marriage that makes the final revelations so horrific because you have come to care about them as an ordinary couple having to deal with extraordinary events in their lives.
Roeg uses brutal editing throughout the film with lots of jump cuts as well as flashback and flash forward devices. Indeed the style of the film is as important as the story – it primes us for what is to come in the final revelations, but is also deliberately designed to confuse and disorientate us. Roeg continually references the same themes: rain, broken glass, sunlight glittering on water and uses a predominantly primary colour palette with flashes of red dominating: John’s scarf, laundry hanging across the canals, advertising signs on the walls and, of course, that elusive red raincoat. Additionally, the screen frame is broken up a lot of the time using mirrors, glass doors, window frames, curtains, even reflections in glass to further fracture the narrative and our perceptions. The scenes that use hand held camerawork give them a tactile feel.
Don’t Look Now is all about perception and co-incidence. Accidents and chance events conspire to convince the couple that the prophecy could be true. Pragmatist John wants to dismiss these as inconsequential but Laura wants, or rather, needs to believe that her daughter really is happy, wherever she may be. The entire film is based around disorienting the viewer. Roeg deliberately twists our perceptions to ensure that we are as confused as the couple. For example he initially depicts the old ladies as a sweet little pair who have Laura’s best interests at heart, but then shows us shots of them laughing maniacally together – so while we may have believed Laura’s initial perception that they are genuinely psychic we now share John’s scepticism. Indeed the disorienting nature of the film ensures, while we believe the honesty of the relationship between John and Laura, we cannot truly trust any of the other characters – the ladies, the church minister, the policeman. Roeg’s intention is that we are as naive as the couple.
Although Don’t Look Now has dated in some respects, it nevertheless remains one of the finest British horror films made. The blu-ray release looks great and includes a number of extras including an audio commentary with Nicolas Roeg, a ‘looking back’ featurette and a – somewhat odd – compressed ‘tribute’ version of the film made by Danny Boyle.