When it comes to horror thrillers based on a paranormal theme, none will ever get it as right as Don’t Look Now. For starters, it is exactly as enigmatic as a horror film should be, never predictable, never cliche. But when it all gets resolved with one of the best endings ever committed to the cinema screen, the result is satisfactory and everything wraps nicely. Don’t Look Now really is a treat, whether it is for the tension, for the mystery, for the drama, or simply for the performances of the cast.
Usually, the genre has its boundaries, and often conventionalities that are unable to be hammered by most movies. And on first look, it may seem as if even this story is much too similar to ones we have seen before. It is the story of a man and a woman who seek refuge by taking a job in Venice to patch up their wedding and recover after the shock of the death of their daughter. Forunately, the start of the film is very interesting, thanks to a particular style of editing that is able to tie together and juxtapose scenes of different nature and show how they relate with one another. Thinking back on it, knowing what happend in the end of the movie, and don’t worry, I won’t give the ending away, there are signs of how the film will play out in the first scene of the movie. Donald Sutherland, playing John Baxter, is the one that feels something in wrong, and senses it instantly as their little girl falls into the lake. Even though this is happening much further away, while he is in a room where it is unable to see what is happening outside, he knows that something is happening to his little girl, and gets up instantly the moment he knows. The reaction to the girl’s death is great too, because it looks genuine. After all, it’s Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, two of the most talented actors in British cinema history on my books, and that’s saying a lot because the British can act! Donald Sutherland dives powerless into the lake, trying hard not to lose his senses, whereas Julie Christie is smiling happily one moment, and as soon as she catches a glimpse of the scene, she scream in terror. It’s a nightmarish scene, and a heck of a way to start the movie. If possible, the start of the movie is made even more unsettling and is accentuated by the fact that immediately after the scene ends, and it ends with Julie Christie screaming, we are in Venice, and Donald Sutherland is smiling, so we are caught off guard momentarily, not knowing whether we are seeing the past, the present, or the future.
Eventually, we find out that they are in Venice not so long after the death of the couple’s daughter. We are also introduced to the two supporting characters that will have a great influence in the development of the plot, and accentuate the enigmatic nature of the movie. They are the two old lady, one of whom is a psychic blind woman that immediately tells Mrs. Dexter that she ‘saw’ their daughter sitting at their restaurant table laughing happily, and recognising that she was a sad woman, she says that their daughter was trying to let them know that there was no reason for them to be feeling so sad. This deeply shocks Julie Christie who faints once in the toilet and the second time on her restaurant table. She is rushed to the hospital and there, she tells him about the incident. He doesn’t believe the two old women and dismisses what happened as nothing to be concerned about. But she can’t help it, and curiously meets the old ladies again, who offer her to get in contact with their daughter. Eventually, the mysteries begin, as the daughter seems to warn them of imminent dangers, and they tell her that her husband too has prophetic powers, but he either doesn’t know it or tries desperately to fight them back. This last thing is also vitally important for the development of the movie, and according to the ending, means that some of the things that Sutherland see are signs, premonitions, warnings that something bad could happen to him, and he should try and stay out of trouble.
The plot could have been hard to follow, but if the viewer will pay the right amount of attention, it will be worth it in the end. I also understand that the fact that the plot is composed in a seemingly confusing is a strange way of building up a mystery, but it too is meant to throw us off guard and make us unaware of what could possibly happen next. The random storyline, or the way that the storyline gets random sometime, can definitely be forgiven in sight of the fact that everything will be resolved in the very satisfactory ending.
Playing a very important part, and I even dare say, as a very important character in the movie, is the setting of Venice in winter, not so much as filled with tourists and people as it would be during the seasons of fair weather. It is a treat for the eyes to see this different portrayal of the city, as its buildings, monuments, shapes and art forms pick up a more sinister and beautiful charm in a winter light; it turns it into something that can remind a viewer of the German expressionist era, and certainly, the plot and development of the story of this film is something that would have been worthy of the German expressionist film era. Venice is the perfect setting also for one other reason. It is not Britain, the Dexters do not speak Italian, and although Mr. Dexter tries and would nee to know it for his job, he really only repeats ‘si, si, si’ all the time, making him look quite awkward in his interactions with people and all the more out of place when the story requires him to become some sort of investigator. On a personal note, this is another thing that I initially didn’t like but worked out for me in the end. I’m Italian and am fluent in Italian, and when I saw he was an architect working in Italy, I instantly assumed that he knew Italian, and that Sutherland did an awful job at speaking the language, something that tainted his performance quite a lot. As the movie progresses, we find out that he actually didn’t need to know Italian as much as he does as the movie goes on, so he gets less confident in his interactions with people, and in the end, we find out that it was the character that was supposed to be awful at speaking Italian. Another thing is, of course, the lack of mobile phones.
I know there are a lot of smart people that wouldn’t even think about it, but after Sutherland realises his wife is still in Venice when she was supposed to be back home in England (or was that really her, at that stage we don’t really know), I kept wondering why he didn’t call the place she was going to, and then I realised how much it would have cost in the seventies to make a phonecall abroad, and this is further shown by the fact that when he does ask to make that phonecall, he has to pay and even sign out a form. These all may seem like small things, but all show a meticulous style that the film has, and that makes it if not perfect, almost. This is the style of Roeg, a very european style in the way he handles the way the camera works out in the shots, as he doesn’t shy away from zooming in and out of the frames (and although Peter Weir once said that an audience didn’t like it when they were messed with by the camera zooming in and out, he would have to rethink himself after watching this movie), and follow the characters in the outside world, making the shots in the small ways of Venice look easy, although anyone that knows a little about the filmmaking process would be able to say that filming so many walking scenes in the settings of Venice and doing it so well, wouldn’t ever have been easy.
There are plenty of iconic things to keep a horror fan happy. Swaying away from the shocking image of the little girl ala little red riding hood image, we see the ordinary things that would interest a horror fan in any movie. The freaky sisters, the figures of the witches. Paranormal interactions with a dead daughter and a tension filled mystery to be solved. For those who like a good scene filled with tension, there are plenty of near death experiences and death scenes to keep one’s heart thumping fast. For anyone looking for an auteur touch, there is the deeply emotional and intimate sex scene, a scene so genuine that is to be remembered forever, a scene that openly depicts the way a married couple, a grown man and a grown woman, see sex after having been so long together, but most importantly after a shocking event like the death of their daughter. More simply than that, there portrayal of sex as two persons’ empty confessions of loneliness and the brief need for affection. Psychologists could write books about a love scene so emotionally gripping as that. Here too the editing plays an important stylistic part, as the images of the lovemaking are juxtaposed to images of the two putting their clothes back on again.
WATCH FOR THE MOMENT – The ending. ‘Nuff said.