Friday, December 9, 2016

Movie Review - Don't Look Now

Don't Look Now
Based on the short story by Daphne Du Maurier
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania, Sharon Williams, Nicholas Salter, Leopoldo Trieste, Massimo Serato, Renato Scarpa, Bruno Cattaneo, David Tree, Ann Rye, and Adelina Poerio
Release Date: October 16th, 1973
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

John and Laura Baxter are trying to pick up the pieces of their life after their young daughter Christine's death by accidental drowning in their backyard. Now in Venice John is working to restore a church while his wife is mired in her grief. Taking off time from work John takes Laura out to lunch where she helps two elderly sisters in the bathroom of the restaurant. One of the sisters is blind and claims to not only be psychic but to see Christine. This revelation has a profound effect on Laura. She collapses at the restaurant but later, back at their hotel, John and her passionately reconnect. Laura makes plans to meet the sisters again and try to contact Christine in a seance. Christine has one message, her father must leave Venice. He is in danger. The threat is unclear and John thinks it's a trick the sisters are playing on him and his wife and is angry. What does he have to fear in Venice?

Maybe the threat isn't in Venice? There's a late night phone call from their son's boarding school saying he has been in an accident. Laura rushes to England but when she is supposed to be homeward bound John sees her with the sisters making a stately procession down one of the canals. Convinced that the sisters tricked his wife into staying behind when their son needs her he frantically searches Venice for the three of them, actually going to the police in the end. But the police have their hands full with a recent spate of murders. In fact they find John's story so unlikely that they think he might just be involved in the murders somehow. When John finally finds Laura she is in England. But how? And more importantly, all this is detracting from the warning. John is still in Venice... is this wise?

Don't Look Now is the only adaptation of her work that Daphne Du Maurier ever blessed with her seal of approval. Frankly it's quite easy to see why she liked this most of all the various adaptations of her work. Don't Look Now remains true to the spirit of her short story. Instead of drastically changing locals or time frames or having Mrs. Danvers self immolate Nicholas Roeg took what Du Maurier had written and used it as a framework and built on it. Everything that happens seems like a natural progression of the short story from the page to the screen. What's more, many of the faults of the story, smug narration, a lack of foreshadowing, are eliminated by the simple expedient of the visual medium of film being able to show us instead of tell us. What I felt worked best was that Roeg carried various thematic imagery through the film but tied it back more firmly to the loss of Christine.

In Du Maurier's short story Christine's death is the driving force of the story but at the same time an afterthought. Her death from meningitis distances the reader. It's rare this could happen to them. But by having Christine drown in an accident it's more relatable. This could happen to anyone. Plus Venice being a city on water the threat of drowning is constantly present. With water and mirrors there is this reflective quality used throughout the film not just being a constant reminder of Christine's death but how it reflects back on her parents and on us. In fact I was reminded again and again of the Michael Caine classic, Dressed to Kill. Don't Look Now has that same feeling of relevancy and horror despite being made over forty years ago.

Seeing Christine's more relatable death isn't the only way Roeg makes the trauma more real. In Du Maurier's story John and Laura are in Venice on holiday, which, to an extent, makes them feel a little uncaring to the reader. Let's just forget about our dead daughter and our grieving son at boarding school and take a little trip shall we? Yeah, not the most sympathetic of characters. In the film John is in Venice for work. By them being in Venice for work and not play makes their suffering more alive. They aren't just trying to brush it under the carpet, they aren't just trying to make do and mend, they are still trapped in the sorrow but are attempting to keep moving forward. John is burying himself in work so that he won't constantly be in pain.

Their pain is a constant presence throughout the film and this connects you to John and Laura. Anyone with an once of empathy has to feel something for them. The scene that really struck me as getting to the heart of their relationship and therefore their story was a rather graphic sex scene, bizarre armpit licking and all. The reason this scene works is it shows two humans groping toward each other, trying to connect; yet at the same time it shows the distance that has grown up between them. They are physically together but mentally apart. This scene, which is a little uncomfortable to watch, is heartbreaking. To be together and apart simultaneously, it shows us, without anything but action, what grief and despair really are.

Roeg is also able to show the seedy side of Venice. This isn't a holiday for John and his wife, they are there off season. Venice is cold and wet and full of pigeons. In the story it's almost tourist perfect, with the murders shoved as far in the background as possible until that salient plot point can't be avoided. Hence when "the end" comes you missed all the clues because Du Maurier used them so sparingly, perhaps wanting that shock to the system at the very end. Roeg uses the murders ubiquitously, but in the background. Always there, always waiting, adding a level of danger, suffusing it throughout the film but never drawing too much attention to it. I loved how one of the sisters described Venice as being "a city in aspic inhabited by the dead." There's poetry and morbidity and danger all in that one phrase. Here there are alleys and shadows and mystery. Running and rushing and the feeling of danger. We aren't just stuck in John's head, we are running along beside him.

Yet the pay dirt of the film is the inclusion of the church. This is introduced by the simple expedient of John being a church restorer. Though why it's brilliant is because it gives the story balance. We have the supernatural ever present with the sisters and their premonitions. The supernatural was built in from the get go. Yet skepticism doesn't quite balance belief in the supernatural. Skepticism can't destroy evil, only good can, and that would be embodied by the church. This addition also helps to place the film strongly amongst it's peers. Good versus evil and the church were part of the zeitgeist of the early seventies. Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, the classics of the occult horror genre all had this dichotomy. To include it in Don't Look Now? Where it logically fit? It would have been stupid not to and Roeg was cunning in his adaptation. He knew just what to add and just how to do it. No wonder Du Maurier gave it two thumbs up.


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