There's a horrible, gnawing sense of inevitability about the way events transpire in Don't Look Now. Every moment in the film is driving its central characters towards a predetermined fate, and by the time John (Donald Sutherland) realises that the clues were there all along – if only he had opened his eyes to then – it is too late. Even when you know where Don't Look Now is leading us, even when you've followed Nicolas Roeg down those dark and narrow Venice pathways many times before, the film never loses its power to unsettle and shock. It opens with a scene of unimaginable trauma and closes with a startling revelation, and the intervening 100 or so minutes holds our nerves in its steady grip. At times it appears confusing or irrational in the way it develops, but its storytelling has the devastating logic of a nightmare.
In adapting Daphne Du Maurier's story, screenwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant found intelligent ways to expand upon the narrative and deepen our understanding of the characters. While John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) are already in Venice at the start of Du Maurier's novella, the film opens with the death of their daughter, who drowns in a backyard pond despite her father's desperate efforts to save her. It is a chilling scene, and one that taps into the most primal fears of its audience. This opening sequence also establishes some of the crucial recurring motifs that will form key elements of its structure later on – smashing glass, water, and the colour red that haunts John throughout.
Don't Look Now is not the kind of horror film that is continually searching for ways to make its audience jump. It spends time with the characters, allowing us to see how their relationship works and how they are dealing with their grief. Christie's Laura is a fragile character who finds a new sense of optimism and happiness when she receives an apparent message from their dead daughter, delivered via a mysterious pair of sisters (Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania). John is fearful of the effect that these women have had on his wife's state of mind and sceptical about any such connections with the afterlife. Their marriage feels real and lived-in, never more so than in the famous sex scene that occurs around half an hour into the movie. The intimacy that exists in this sequence has rarely been matched in other cinematic sexual couplings. It is frank without feeling gratuitous, and it serves a purpose in its portrayal of a husband and wife slowly learning to reconnect.
Much of the magic in this sequence, and much of the power inherent in Don't Look Now, comes from Roeg's distinctive editing patterns. His cuts feel instinctive, driven by the emotional needs of the story, and they lend the film a transfixing rhythm. From 1970 to 1985 Roeg went on a run of films that stands alongside that of any other filmmaker. Each of these pictures was a special achievement in its own way, but I think Don't Look Now is his masterpiece and his most perfect melding of form and content. It is the film in which his disorienting approach to time and space infused the deeply human qualities of the story being told, which gives this particular picture a richness and depth that his always dazzling films occasionally lack. It is often classed as a great horror film but Don't Look Now is much more than that; it is a love story, a ghost story, a puzzle to be solved and a work of art to be revered. It is a masterpiece, and it still has the power to chill to the bone as we watch John chase that small red-coated figure in the shadows.
I was a little disappointed by the commentary track provided by Nicolas Roeg, whose rather dry, croaky delivery makes it something of a chore to listen to, and despite the best efforts of co-commentator Adam Smith, little of note is illuminated. The interviews on the disc more than compensate, though. In a collection of lengthy and wide-ranging chats, Allan Scott, Donald Sutherland, Pino Donaggio and Tony Richmond discuss all aspects of the production, while Danny Boyle speaks intelligently and enthusiastically about the film's influence on his own work. The two retrospective documentaries also give plenty of context to this remarkable film.
Don't Look Now will be released on Blu-ray on July 4th
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