Filmsite Movie Review
Don't Look Now (1973)
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Background

Don't Look Now (1973) is British director Nicolas Roeg's haunting and classic "shattering" supernatural thriller (his greatest film), and depiction of grief, based upon the 1971 Daphne du Maurier short story tale. The fatalistic and portentious film was advertised as a "psychic" thriller (the film's tagline was cautionary: "Pass the warning. A psychic thriller"), interweaving the macabre and everyday life. The film's title was quite appropriate - referring to imperfect vision. It delivers both danger and warning ("Don't"), and seeing, watching and reflecting ("Look") in the present ("Now"), and hints as a whole that one must overlook tragedy, find grace, forgiveness and meaning, and move on with life.

The pretentious director Roeg was well-known as the creator/director of a number of daring, striking art-house films with random, non-linear sequences (both flashforwards and flashbacks), fractured and fast-cutting editing (and enigmatic visual clues), images that suggest memories or dreams, skewed camera angles, and recurring motifs and themes of alienation from culture, sexual obsession, and apprehension. This was his third feature film, following Performance (1970) and Walkabout (1970). His next films were the sci-fi The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (1980), Eureka (1982), Insignificance (1985), Castaway (1987), the surrealist Track 29 (1988), and even the notorious Full Body Massage (1995), a Showtime movie with Mimi Rogers and Bryan Brown.

This intense, disorienting, chilling mystery/drama told with a calm and leisurely-pace, was in the same year as another scary "horror" film The Exorcist (1973), and contained many of the more traditional elements of the horror genre: a serial killer on the loose with corpses of victims piling up, psychic-ESP abilities and premonitions of death, and a dark foreboding setting. It told about a recuperating, grief-stricken married couple, Laura (Julie Christie) and art restorer John Baxter (Donald Sutherland), in Venice for work and relaxation after the tragic accidental drowning demise of their daughter Christine (Sharon Williams) at their English country estate. At every turn in the ancient port city, the bereaving heartbroken couple were reminded of death.

Its notorious explicit extended sex scene between the two principals has made the film a legendary example of erotica, although it was deliberately filmed to portray a normal married couple's routine - with both dispassionate, preoccupied dressing for dinner, and passionate love-making. The scene was so explicit (and seemingly real) that it had to be edited before the film's US theatrical R-rated release. Many questioned whether the sex was real or not, although many years later, Sutherland rebutted the rumor that he had engaged in unsimulated sex with Christie. In fact, only nine individual frames were required to be cut from the film in order to move it from an X rating to an R-rating. [Note: The intercutting sex scene was imitated in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight (1998) between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez.]

The popular, fabled Italian tourist city threatened by rising waters (apt for a film about a tragic drowning) figured prominently in the film, although it wasn't portrayed as an attractive city of romance and passion. It was filmed in the dead of winter by gifted cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond, and was seen here as old, haunted, doom-laden, frosty, foggy and damp - with sinister, splintered shadows, grey skies, and darkness, labyrinthine dead-end alleyways with rats, rotting buildings and churches, half-empty cafes and hotels, peeling walls, tarnished stone, desolate streets and murky canals (Heather: "It's like a city in aspic left over from a dinner party and all the guests are dead and gone").

In addition, the off-kilter city was plagued by a series of grisly, unsolved murders. The fleeting image of a figure in red, a premonition of death, has been seen in many films since, including: Flatliners (1990), Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993), M. Night Shyamalan's The Village (2004), Dark Water (2005), Hostel (2005), The Omen (2006) and even James Bond's Casino Royale (2006). The dreamlike images of reflections and mirrors, cavernous walkways, and sightlessness hinted at the world of the afterlife - are all John's self-fulfilling dying visions that culminate in his own death.

The repetitive thematic images in the film include the following:

Significant Recurring Themes Examples

Water

Raindrops splash onto a pond's surface
A ball splashes into pond water
A step is made into a puddle
A failed rescue attempt of a drowned girl
Corpses in water
Many instances of glasses of water, and spilled glasses of water

young daughter Christine throws her red and white ball into a pond, setting up a chain of deadly events; she steps into a puddle; John spills his water - a foreshadowing of the drowning; he splashes and plunges into the surface of the cold pond water to try and save Christine; water symbolizes the drowning death of the daughter; the criss-crossing Venice canals are for navigation, and also hold corpses; Wendy's brooch is of a mermaid - a creature that lives in water; later, John gives Laura a glass of water during their argument about whether Christine is dead or not; by his bedside after his fall, Johnny has a glass of water; a corpse is dragged out of the canal; John fishes a child's naked doll from the water's edge in Venice, and John asks for a glass of water in the sisters' hotel room just before his final confrontation with the killer-dwarf

Smashed Glass

at the same time as Christine steps into a puddle, and son Johnny breaks a pane of glass with his front bike tire and falls off his bike, the father spills his water glass in the study; Johnny removes the broken glass from his bike tire, as a 'blood-like' drop of water, turning red, moves destructively across one of father John's slides; pondside, Johnny also nervously twirls a broken piece of glass in his hand, drawing blood; later, glass breaks on the table as Laura collapses in the restaurant; in the church where John is working, a wooden plank smashes a glass screen on which pictures, transparencies, and photographs have been put; John kicks out glass with his shoe as he convulses and dies

Doppelgangers (or Duplicates)

Subthemes:

Seeing or not Seeing

The Persistence of Obscured, Half-Seen Objects

as Christine stoops next to the pond to retrieve her red and white ball, her reflection is seen; while viewing slides, John sees a seated figure of a red-hooded small person in a church pew; he also makes a comment about the "good question" asked by his daughter about flat pond water: "Nothing is what it seems"; Christine's red-figure is reflected in the pond water as she runs along the edge; wife Laura states that she put John's duplicate slides in her tray; the bloody red globule drop on the slide is the same shape as the drowned Christine in John's arms (and later, of Wendy's mermaid brooch, and the map of Venice behind the Police Inspector); later, John restores (or creates duplicate fakes) of a church mosaic and makes them indistinguishable from new ones (Laura: "I can't tell the difference between his repaired windows and the originals"); one English sister Wendy, has a cinder in her eye and temporarily cannot see; the two English sisters explain how they like to stare - they are similar duplicates (both can see, although only one is blind and psychic); a boy in a hospital in Venice plays with a ball similar to Christine's; the walls of the headmaster's study (the wallpaper appears to be hung paintings); throughout the film, John misconstrues the murderous red-hooded dwarf as the spirit of his deceased daughter Christine; John is mistaken for a Peeping Tom; other duplicates include many mirrored images (e.g. the two English sisters in the restroom mirror, John and Laura in their hotel bathroom before love-making, etc.), more reflections in water or mirrors, photographs, and the police sketches of his wife's face

The Motif of Falling

young Johnny falls off his bike; Christine's Action Man pull-string doll commands: "Action Man patrol - fall in"; Christine falls into the pond; John struggles and falls as he attempts to save her and carry Christine's body back to the house; later, Laura falls in the restaurant and must be taken to a hospital; son Johnny accidentally falls at boarding school during "fire practice" and bumps his forehead; John almost loses his own life in a near-fall from a rickety scaffolding in a church; the church's bishop mentions that his father was killed in a fall

The Color Red

an oozing, blood-like red globule spreads malevolently from the red-garbed figure in the pew across the slide-picture of the interior of a Venetian church - to destroy it; red flowers in the Baxter home; other instances of the color red: the red raincoat of the daughter and the dwarf in the pew, the dominant color of John's multi-hued scarf, Johnny's bed blanket after his accident and a small red mark on his forehead, a Charlie Chaplin poster on a wall with red lettering, a pair of woolen red bobble-hats, red flowers in the hotel porter's back office, a red sweater hanging upside down on a clothesline across a Venetian canal, the bishop's red cap, the glass red-lined case in the bishop's study, the red candle on the bishop's bedroom mantelpiece; blood from the slashed neck of the murdered father, oozing down the wall; the red flowers and red-capped Johnny on John's funeral barge

Staircases (Whorl-Shaped) and Bridges

a symbol of self-destructive obsession (Laura's illness, and John's bizarre visions); the swirling pattern of tiles in the church restoration's mosaic; also reflected in the maze-like alleyways in Venice in which John and Laura often become lost; and in the final sequence - the shape of the swirling foggy mist and the staircases that John ascends before his death; omnipresent bridges in the film symbolize crossing over to the 'other side' (the afterlife), or being able to touch or connect (communicate), but are also barriers

Miscommunication

John misinterprets his daughter's play outside as harmless although it is deadly; spoken Italian in the film is not subtitled for the film viewer; there are Italian language barriers for John; Heather communicates with the dead, not the living; the call from the Headmaster about Johnny's fall is not clearly understood, so the Headmaster's wife completes the call; arrangements for Laura's transport to the airport are in untranslated Italian; John has difficulty speaking to two sunglasses-wearing Italian ladies in the pensione; Laura is greeted at the airport by a misspelled sign: "Sig-ra Baster"; directions during Laura's water-taxi trip from the airport are to the police station rather than to his hotel; John miscommunicates to the red-garbed serial killer that he is a friend


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