Thanks to the circumstances of my teenage years, I had a delayed introduction to anything approaching maturity, a condition that many people of my acquaintance would swear I’ve yet to attain. Through having an over-authoritative mother, I didn’t get to go to see an adult movie until I was nearly eighteen, adult here meaning ‘grown-up’ as opposed to the meaning you immediately assumed (that’s another, and a we-won’t-go-there, story).
That film was the then-popular but now virtually forgotten A Touch of Class, starring Glenda Jackson and George Segal. It was a sophisticated romantic/sex comedy that my mate Alan and I both found hilarious. I can’t now remember if I ever watched it again, in the days when films like that used to appear on TV, and if I did whether I felt the film wore well.
The next grown-up film I saw in the cinema was Don’t Look Now. The contrast couldn’t be greater, from a sunlit, lightweight comedy to a dark, disturbing horror film (and one that was top of a double bill with none other than The Wicker Man). Why I should have been going to a film like that, I don’t know. I wasn’t into horror, and I’m still not that enamoured of it now. Vampire films especially used to get under my nerves, and I’d lie in bed with the sheets pulled firmly over my neck so that it was covered and invulnerable.
Don’t Look Now is not a vampire film. I mention these only because, when I got home from the Burnage Odeon, I was so wound up, I watched a vampire film to calm down!
Forty-five years later, it’s reputation has only grown, and it was well-regarded then. The film was directed by Nic Roeg, who only had two other films under his belt at that point (one of which is also in this series). Watching it again this morning was the same tense experience, to which time has added the horror of inevitability, particularly in the climactic sequence, but despite the Venice setting, and the Gothic trappings that automatically loads, it’s never looked less like a horror film to me.
Even at the time, the film was heralded for focusing up the underlying grief being experienced by the couple at the centre of it, husband and wife John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie). It’s that which is the heart of the film, and its events, no matter how striking, are ultimately peripheral to them. Indeed, this time the film left me with the sense that it is taking place in the middle of a whole tapestry of stories, all of which are only present in the film to the extent that this one human strand intersects, crosses over or even peripherally touches.
The Baxters are a successful couple, with a large house in its own, widespread grounds. The film starts with a prologue at home in England, with the couple’s two children playing separately where they wish. John’s been commissioned to restore a Church in Venice, where the bulk of the film will take place, and is looking at slides whilst Laura is reading to find the answer to a question their younger child, Christine, has asked.
Christine’s playing with an Action Man and a ball by the pond. John accidentally knocks a glass of water onto a slide taken inside a church, that appears to have a red-hooded figure on its fringe. Christine is wearing a shiny red mackintosh. The water causes the red colour to spread across the slide, like a gout of blood. John rushes outside, jumps in the pond, but it’s too late: Christine has already fallen in and drowned.
In Venice, several months later, John is hard at work. Laura is accompanying him, though she has nothing to do but watch him work. They eat out in different restaurants each night. Though they’re still a couple who want to be with each other, the death has put a tremendous strain on them. Sutherland and Christie are absolutely brilliant in putting this into every expression, every motion. They seem alright, they look alright, they are bound up in each other, but they are eaten up. John’s coping by flat objectivism: Christine is dead, nothing can change that, take it in, move forward. Laura is still stuck there, unable to let go despite her superficial brightness, on medication. Empty.
The catalyst is in a restaurant at lunch. Two elderly women, sisters, one blind, are talking at a nearby table. John catches them staring at him and Laura, but she’s oblivious. But when Wendy (Hilary Mason) gets something in her eye, Laura helps her and Heather (Clelia Matania) to get to the Ladies and get it out. Heather, who is, seemingly, psychic, tells Laura she mustn’t be said, that she can ‘see’ Christine sat between her and John, in her red mac, and she’s laughing.
Laura returns to the table and faints.
But what she has been told has changed her. It’s healed her, closed up the hollow inside, relieved her of the need for her pills. She tries to communicate this to John, but he rejects the idea completely. Some of it comes from scepticism, from an inability/refusal to believe in clairvoyancy, but a lot of it comes from his own, rigid method of coping, by insisting that dead is dead and there’s nothing more to it.
Despite this obvious difference between them, whilst relaxing after a bath, and before going out to eat, the couple gently fall into passionate sex. It’s still one of the most explicit scenes to appear in mainstream cinema, and it opened my eyes a bit at the time, but Roeg intercuts the sex with John and Laura getting dressed afterwards, showing each individually and how the feeling has effected them. Without saying it, this is clearly the first time the pair have had sex since Christine’s death (that’s made explicit in the original story), and the scene’s greatest quality, removing it far above porn coupling, is that the sex is not about having sex, about the physical sensations and the release, but about having sex with this one person, her/him only, who is at the heart of your life.
The following day, Laura meets the sisters again, and they agree to conduct a seance, at which Laura may be able to speak to Christine. The idea infuriates John, who utterly refuses to go along with it. As they return to their hotel by boat, they are diverted by the Police: there has been another homicide.
Laura returns from the seance with the message (received offscreen) that John’s life is in danger in Venice. She tries to get him to agree to leave, and he does agree to seek a break from his commission. But his genuine anger as Laura’s susceptibility to what he sees as a scam frightens her back towards nervousness, brittleness. She agrees to resume taking her pills, though she only pretends to swallow, hiding the pill itself in her sleeve.
In the middle of the night, the Baxters are awakened by a call from Johnny’s school in England. He has had a minor accident, a fall, nothing to worry about. Laura insists on flying back: John sees her off to the earliest flight. He returns to the restoration, but is almost killed in a fall, when the cradle he is in is shattered by a falling plank.
On his way to the Bishop’s Palace, where he and Laura are to stay for the rest of their time in Venice, John is shocked to see Laura, with the two sisters, on a boat passing in the other direction. He doesn’t seem to take in that all three women are dressed in black, in mourning.
Between the multiple homicides – John has witnessed a fully-clothed female body being hoisted from the canal – and his suspicion of the sisters, John reports his fears to the Police. Inadvertently, he makes himself a suspect in the killings and is followed as he searches for the sisters, only to find that when he traces their boarding house, they have left.
Everything is overturned when John phones the school. Johnny is ok, and Laura is there, and will return by 11.00 that night. She’s once more bright and bubbly, and doesn’t seem at all interested in his trying to tell her he has seen her in Venice. Mortified, he returns to the Police, where Heather has been arrested: Wendy has gone to the British Consulate. He escorts Heather back to her hotel, accepts a polite drink, but leaves when she goes into a trance.
When Heather emerges from it, she hysterically demands John be fetched back. Wendy searches, but he’s disappeared into the maze of Venetian streets, squares, alleys, bridges, canals. Laura arrives at that moment, and is sent in panic to find John. She follows his exact path, without any clues.
But John is chasing someone. A short person, female, in a red hooded coat. He’s caught glimpses of her before, in passing. She runs, he chases, through a deserted quarter, into a building whose gates he locks behind him. Clearly he believes it s Christine. But when he corners the figure, it’s not. It’s a hideous, wizened, aged dwarf. And before he can react, she strikes him in the neck with a meat cleaver, severing his carotid artery. John bleeds to death rapidly.
The film concludes with the funeral cortege, travelling by water. The three women, all dressed in black.
The dwarf, who we would now call a serial killer. The English sisters. Bishop Barbarrigo (Massimo Serato). The near empty world of autumnal Venice, where we rarely see other people, even native Venitians. All of these are things that exist outside the film’s story, just as John and Laura’s life does. We are not given any explanations. We are given nothing to trust. I used ‘seemingly’ above to describe Heather’s psychic powers, and the film’s events would seem to bear this out, but at an early stage after their introduction, Roeg intercuts a fragment of the two back at their hotel, laughing raucously. What are they laughing at? They don’t laugh at any other moment. It creates the dirty great suspicion that these are con-artists gleeful at snaring another mark.
But the film avoids going near anything that would be an explanation. Heather claims John has second sight, to Laura, though she doesn’t bring the matter up to him during their extensive walk and talk together. His sighting of Laura on the canal, in a funeral boat, is certainly a premonition, as is his sensing that Christine is in desperate danger at the start of the film. Is the whole film merely a relaying of John Baxter foreseeing his own death and his refusal to understand it?
Though John’s death, and the highly melodramatic circumstances attending it, are the film’s only overt nod to horror, it remains a horror film of great depth precisely because it avoids fright. It’s about loss, it’s about what it does to you, about how even the greatest of loves between two people doesn’t entirely mask how they are different, and that futures can be decided on the least little things. Rather like life.
There are hundreds of subleties in Don’t Look Now that I haven’t even tried to touch upon, such as the fact that the film is set in Venice, with a largely Italian cast, speaking in their native language, without subtitles, so if you don’t speak fluent Italian, as I don’t, you are perpetually guessing at what is being said. The story is not linear: things must be understood as having happened.
And there are visual and narrational motifs which others have described, but one I noticed for myself is the frequency with which Roeg will allow characters to walk out of the frame at the end of a scene, leaving the camera to focus on what remains behind.
And why is the film’s title in inverted commas?
Overall, this is a magnificent film. I may have started going to grown up films a bit on the late side (we didn’t have teen movies in the Seventies, so there wasn’t a middle ground), but I sure started with a bang: this and The Wicker Man in the same bill? They don’t make them like that any more.