Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now”

My mini-retrospective of films directed by former cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (1928-2018) has reached back to the one I remembered liking best, the 1973 adaptation of a story by Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca), “Don’t Look Now.” I’ll immediately stipulate that it looks good, mostly set with a backdrop of incipient winter in Venice.

 

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It opens in a cozy Hertfordshire house where Laura (Julie Christie is looking at reference books and her husband John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) is looking at a slide of a church. He has a feeling that something is wrong and rushes out to find his daughter Christine in her red plastic raincoat has drowned trying to retrieve a ball from the pond. This is far more dramatic than Du Maurier’s original, in which the daughter dies of meningitis, but the result in both cases is grief-stricken parents.

Leaving their son Johnny in boarding school, the Baxters go to Venice, where John is supervising the restoration of a church, San Nicolò dei Mendicoli. (His Italian fluency comes and goes.) In the hotel in which they are the only guests, the Baxters have a lengthy sex scene that eventually is intercut with the two of them dressing to go out to dinner. (I’ll return to the gratuitous Sutherland nudity and the sex scene below!)

In a restaurant a pair of elderly British sisters (no longer twins) focus on the Baxters, sensing their pain. The blind, clairvoyant one, Heather (Hilary Mason), assures Laura that Christine is happy. Back at their table, Laura faints and is hospitalized.

The news from beyond the grave has broken through her depression, which is a relief to her husband, but he is dismayed at her involvement with psychic mumbo jumbo, though he has “the gift” himself (as we’ve already seen from his rushing out when his daughter is drowning…).

Plot spoiler alert

He disregards a warning that he is in danger, and Roeg shows that he can do action scenes in an accident. What happens seems excessive to the stimulus and the stimulus highly contrived, but some action is welcome!

Then there is a late-night call from the headmaster of John Jr’s school and Laura rushes back to England. Except that John Sr. sees Laura and the two elderly women dressed in black on the Grand Canal.

From that premonition on, what happens is unbelievable to me. I don’t believe that the police would arrest the British women. Even if they did, I don’t believe the blind one would be left alone in the police station (from where John rescues her after talking to Laura as she is leaving their son’s school).

Either as someone with psychic powers himself or as the rationalist, I don’t believe John would relentlessly follow and corner whoever is in the red plastic raincoat like Christine’s. I don’t believe that Laura (whom no one contends is psychic) could follow the route he took. Moreover, knowing that Laura would be going to the sisters’ hotel to meet him, would he go rushing off like that? And why couldn’t Heather keep him there, out of danger? Etc.

And if John has psychic powers, why does he not share the blind woman’s premonition of disaster for himself. Or realize that he is not seeing a reincarnation of his dead daughter roaming the bridges and alleyways of Venice!

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Roeg, whose love of fragmenting narrative was mostly held back through most of the movie lets loose a montage of image as John bleeds to death, including seeing the three women in black at what will be his funeral cortege.

In short, exceedingly contrived and making no sense regardless of whether the viewer accepts the reality of psychic “second sight.”

End plot spoiler alert

I find most everything in the way of plot unbelievable, but in addition to the danker, non-touristy parts of Venice, I think the movie provides a solid portrait of grief-stricken parents and a fairly good portrait of church restoration.

Miscommunication between the sexes is Roeg’s leitmotif and abundantly in evidence in “Look,” between John and the sisters even more than between John and Laura. And there’s a lot of broken glass (including some smashed mosaic replacement bits) in the movie. And water, including repeated iterations of two female bodies being fished out of cold water. And enough symbolism to keep scores of analysts occupied for years…

As with the final sex scene in “Bad Timing,” I think that the extended sex scene in “Don’t Look Now” is excessively long. And as there is more of the tall, skinny Art Garfunkel’s derrière on view in “Bad Timing,” there is more of the tall, skinny Donald Sutherland’s in “Look.” I doubt anyone would describe me as a prude and complaining about too much male nudity is something I rarely do, but I think that Sutherland looked better in his dark blue coat and colorful scarf in “Look.”

Apparently, a reason for intercutting dressing with the sex scene was that American censors would not permit humping to be shown (something must have change before “Bad Timing” which has exaggerated Garfunkel humping! Or “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” which has full frontal male and female nudity). I think that the movie could have shown than the couple had passionate sex without going on and on, though that it upset Warren Beatty, who was then involved with Christie, makes me more sympathetic with Roeg’s exploitation.

If “Don’t Look Now” were more a movie about grief-stricken adults (and/or about the seemingly sinister characters played by Clelia Matania and Renato Scarpa), less propaganda for listening to clairvoyants (and clairvoyance), the sexual exploration would seem less gratuitous to me. For me, despite all the heavy-handed jump-cutting, plot implausibilities, and dawdling pace of much of the movie, the central performances and many of the images are powerful. I don’t think it is a great movie, though it has some great stuff in it (as does “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “Walkabout”). In fact, I don’t think it is a good movie.

Roeg elicited some outstanding performances (in other movies; there’s not much other than sex and moping and irritation from Christie and Sutherland herein), used varied locations brilliantly, and made movies filled with impressive visual compositions (working recurrently with Anthony B. Richmond), but in his time (the 1970s) I don’t think he made a good movie. And after it? I recall the 1990 “Witches” fondly, but perhaps need to extend my retrospective to watching it again. Certainly not the 1985 “Insignificance”!

The “Don’t Look Now” DVD has no bonus features other than a theatrical trailer. I’d have liked to hear from Christie, who has had intelligent things to say about her movies every time I’ve heard her. I don’t miss hearing from Roeg, however.

Bonus P.S.

Zipping back to the druggy 1970 first movie directed (codirected with Donald Cammell directing the actors) by Nicolas, “Performance,” I was impressed by James Fox as Chas, a violent Cockney (!) gangster who hides out with a faded rock star played by Mick Jagger. Jagger plays Turner, an aficionado of Borges and has a photo of Jim Morrison. What happens in the end is left to the audience to provide. It’s not even clear whose face (Chas or Turner) is in the white limo. (Bergman had already done that in “Persona,” no?) A bonus feature informs that Fox’s role (a Cockney gangster?!) was intended for Marlon Brando (!?).

 

©2011, Stephen O. Murray

 

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