Don't Look Now Blu-Ray Review
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Sex and Death in Venice - do you need more?...
‘Nothing is what it seems’ is the main theme and much quoted line from this 1973 classic horror. In fact is it even a horror? It could easily be a psychological thriller or a drama dealing with grief and love. Though released in the same year as The Exorcist, it is Nic Roeg’s adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier short story that is often cited as the film that revolutionised the genre into an intelligent form.
Roeg stepped into this film barefooted, after slipping off a pair of other great reinventions in Performance and Walkabout; yet many critics say these earlier films were his better work and the type he should have continued to produce. I disagree. It was the enigma and the sense of nothing truly being what you experienced in Don’t Look Now that makes it Roeg’s finest venture into the cinematic arts. Furthermore, because this film was such a departure that the British director, you could go as far as suggesting that he was destined to make it; It’s his masterpiece, and one that redefined the language of film.
It had been a few years since I last watched Don’t Look Now and that was on a small TV set. This new instalment, from Optimum, marks the start of their plan to fully restore the whole library they manage on behalf of Canal, and it's a credit to them and their vision. To watch this fully restored Blu-ray on my home cinema was like watching the film for the very first time.
The colours, the locations and Pino Donaggio’s haunting music all seemed to have been restored, much like Sutherland’s Venetian church project; because that’s what this film really is, it’s a film about restoration. It’s the journey of two people, Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) and her husband John (Donald Sutherland) trying to restore their relationship and their family. At the same time, the couple are desperately trying to repair themselves and each other through faith and love. Doesn’t sound much like a horror now does it?
The film begins with a fallacious sense of subtle calm before we witness the couple’s young daughter Christine (Sharon Williams) drown mere steps away from the warmth of her home and the eyes of her parents. John Baxter envisages her accident in a sharp moment when his magnified eye is drawn to a red hooded character in a slide of the church he’s restoring. He spills a drink across the evidence and a blood red arc forms across the destroyed image introducing the first foreboding.
Sparked by this psychic vision, John rushes outside to drag his daughter from the pond in a red arc parallel to the one created in his photograph and later echoed in the famous love scene. This Frankenstein image of guilt and stolen innocence cuts us straight into the film. The couple retreat into themselves and soon relocate to Venice in the hope of an anodyne vacation.
It’s water to water. Adding to the sense that everything in life is fluid and no matter where that water rests it all flows to the same tide; all times and locations are at once. Water is also used like a moat that divides reality from the psychic and life from death. Roeg sets us off on a parallax journey through Venice by keeping us one moment away from the truth at all times, while revealing the truth in red shadows at the same time. It’s a clever device that never fails to keep the suspense tight and the narrative moving forward in the actions of the principal characters.
We follow the echoing footsteps of the grieving couple, the exploits of a serial killer and a pair of oddball sisters, one who claims to be clairvoyant, through the hazy alleyways of Venice. The blind sister informs Laura that she had a vision of her dead daughter sitting at the couple’s dinner table laughing, wanting them to know she’s happy. Though later after being pressed she also informs her that John is in mortal danger if they stay in the city. This thread is intercut with the story of the serial killer who randomly executes people as the mist falls on the autumnal Venetian nights - all of which is shot beautifully by cinematographer Anthony Richmond.
This misdirection is like a novice tourist guide taking us through the wrong parts of town and covering their tracks by telling us we’re really on a mystery tour. Nowhere is how it seems in this sound maze of reverberating passageways and lapping canals. The symbolism of red that indicates danger for instance is dotted through the film as a warning, but it also acts as an almost invisible symbol of fate being written. Most of the writing instruments, John’s pencil that pokes from his pocket and the waiter’s pen at the restaurant are red. Even the signs around the city from the optician’s shop whose oversized glasses follow the couple as the dance with danger, to the sign outside the church that reads, ‘Venice In Peril’ are also in a striking red. The clever use of a muted palette makes the appearance more vivid, like a burning sunset across a snow covered English hillside.
The metaphors and symbolism are drenched throughout this film and are too countless to list here. The inspired editing keeps us guessing and forces us to lay our own physic picture onto the story as we watch. Even the infamous sex scene is really a linked metaphor of a bridge between death and life. The couple repair themselves through their lovemaking. They cross to a stronger place in their own minds and this sense of rebirth is layered with inter-cuts of them dressing for dinner afterwards. They both become alive again by reliving their connecting moments of love. The reliving, or rebirth, is also reinforced in the intimation of Laura becoming pregnant at the end of the act. As they leave their room and set off for dinner, they are separated and stand on opposite bridges across the canals of Venice. It seems that they can cross over bridges, but to do so they are fated to be apart.
When Laura is called back to England and John is once again alone it seems the blind sister’s premonition is about to come true. His accident during the restoration of the almost out of sight mosaic represents his marriage. This broken picture that seems to forever stay fractured is almost the death of him. It gives him pause for thought and increases his own suspicions about everything that has happened since the day they met the strange sisters.
From the moment he witnesses another victim being dragged from the canal it is a chase. A chase for the truth, a chase to find his daughter, a chase to find his wife - who he witnesses smiling on a funeral gondola - and a chase against the forewarning of his own death. Don’t Look Now is almost unrecognisable from the Daphne du Maurier short story, but that is in no part a bad thing; and is thanks to the talented writing of Allan Scott and Chris Bryant, the acting of Christie and Sutherland and the cinematography of Tony Richmond. It’s also largely down to Nicholas Roeg’s unique command of the craft and the crew he chose to help him reach the destination of this classic film. I would also say it is down to the viewer. Because Roeg - like Hitchcock before him and De Palma and Argento around him - knew that if you treat the audience with respect they will permeate that into an intelligence that heightens the film beyond that of the print. So for each viewer nothing is how it seems. Yet somehow everything fits into place.
This Nic Roeg supervised and approved Blu-ray restoration is available for pre-ordering now at Amazon, ahead of its July 4th launch date.
Beside the brilliant commentary from Nic Roeg that offers so many gems on the shooting of the film, we also have what a few may regard as just a bunch of interviews in the way of extras. However, they reach the perfect balance for a film with such an iconic stature as Don’t Look Now that add rich layers to the understanding of the piece.
From the interview with the film’s composer Pino Donaggio explaining his serendipitous involvement, to the candour of cinematographer Tony Richmond on how he and Roeg achieved the startling look of the film, you be engrossed by their words and wanting more; and the fun keeps going.
With other mesmerising interviews from Sutherland, Allan Scott, Danny Boyle and the making of documentary you’ll never have to reach for Google to find a fact or an insight into this classic again. Also look out for the cheeky and perfectly apt condensed version of the film made by Boyle for his BAFTA tribute. As extras go these may seem like a package of talking heads to some, but if like me you appreciate the methods and minds behind the making of standout cinema, you won’t be disappointed.
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