Tag Archives: Venice

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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Thwarted Europeans in two films directed by Luchino Visconti and one by Sidney Lumet

With its melodrama amped up by the use of Bruckner’s very heavy Seventh Symphony, Luchino Visconti’s “Senso” (1954) is quite slow, running more than two hours. Alida Valli played a countess who is easily ensnared by a handsome but caddis Austrian lieutenant, Franz Mahler (Farley Granger). She is slow to realize that he is using her (to get money) while she throws away everything for her Great Love. When finally he decisively humiliates her, she uses her position. She does not seem to care what will happen to her after she has avenged herself (and the movie ends).

Granger and Valli spoke to each other in English during shooting. They were dubbed into Italian, as was standard practice for Italian movie-making. Criterion found a version in English (and German), that was shortened by half an hour. Granger’s performance is more compelling in his own English. Valli had made movies in English (most notably “The Third Man”) and was also more affecting in English, though watching “The Wanton Countess” showed me that she does not speak very much. Also, she sounds like Ingrid Bergman, to whom the part had been offered (when she was being monopolized by Roberto Rossellini; the first choice for her lover was Marlon Brando; the Italian producers thought that Granger was going to be a bigger star than Brando…).

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The Criterion edition includes a making-of feature that does not even mention the dialogue credited to Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles. It does get into the outrage of the Italian government about the portrayal of the “Italian army” before there was an Italy, and what a martinet Visconti was on-set. The opening scene in La Fenice was supposed to feature Maria Callas in an excerpt (obviously a different one) from “Il Trovatore,” but she was in America when it was shot and it was Pasolini rather than Visconti who made a film starring her (Medea). Having just watched the Visconti documentary on the “Ludwig” disc, I didn’t watch the British one (“Man of Three Worlds,” which I think I’ve seen before) on the “Senso” one, nor find out what Peter Cowie (whom I find insufferable) had to say about “Senso” and Visconti.

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I also watched again the ponderous (238-minute) 1973 “Ludwig” in which most scenes run on too long. Helmust Berger plays the Bavarian king who is an enigma to himself (why his subjects like him is another mystery; he cared not at all about them). Though he eventually marries (Sophie), his loves are Richard Wagner (played by Trevor Howard), and “Sisi” (the Empress Elisabeth), the wife of the Hapsburg emperor. Romy Schneider could be imperious, but was compassionate for her cousin Ludwig.

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The post-dubbing bothered me in “Ludwig,” too. I can understand an Italian release dubbed in Italian, but I think a version in German should have been the international version. Berger and Schneider, as well as supporting players Gert Fröbe, Heinz Moog, and Helmut Griem) were native speakers of German. (BTW, Visconti wanted Laurence Olivier to play Wagner, though I don’t think he would have done better; Richard Burton, maybe, though I have not seen his Wagner (a ten-part, 300-minute miniseries).)

Bavarian reactionaries protested the revelation of homoerotic inclinations of Ludwig, and an hour of the film was cut (then another hour). I doubt that either made the cuts in scene length I think should have been made.

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I went on to watch an also slow-moving lethal romance, “The Appointment” (1969), set mostly in Rome. It looks and feels European and stars Omar Shrif (Egyptian) and Anouk Aimée (born in Paris). It was written by James Salter and directed by Sidney Lumet, both Americans and not generally interested in romances. In general, Sharif was likeable and bland, Aimée sphinxlike (elusive). Here Sharif, tormented by jealousy and possessiveness, is not likeable, if not a villain, Aimée inarticulate but relatively sympathetic. Even Lotte Lenya as an antique dealer who is also a supplier of high-end prostitutes, is sympathetic (not like the Stasi agent Lenya played in “From Russian with Love”).

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Aimée’s character was a model for a fashion house. The haute couture shows that the fashion disaster that was the 1970s began earlier! I did not like Aimée’s reddish hair or Sharif’s severely cropped mustache either. He did, however, look totally groomed and tailored.

“The Appointment” was Salter’s first screenplay, followed by “Downhill Racer” (also released in 1969, from the novel by Oakley Hall).

©2018, Stephen O. Murray