Don’t Look Now: an eerie and profound Gothic horror film of grief, trauma and misperceptions

Nicolas Roeg, “Don’t Look Now” (1973)

Adapted from the short story with the same title by Daphne du Maurier, this famous British cult horror film is ostensibly a study of grief and how it affects a family’s ability to cope with life’s daily routines and informs family members’ perceptions of the world around them. On another level, the family affected by the death of a young child lives in a universe where time appears to be of a different dimension than how we experience it, in the way the past, the present and the future seem to bleed into one another and people may just as readily have premonitions of what will happen as they have memories of past events. After losing Christine in a drowning accident back home in the UK, John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) Baxter dump their son in a boarding school and flee to Venice where John has taken up a job helping to restore a Roman Catholic church’s mosaics. The couple meet two elderly sisters, one of whom is blind but has the gift of second sight: she sees the spirit of Christine, still clad in her red raincoat in which she died, hovering around the couple, and tells Laura. After a fainting fit, Laura informs John of what the sister has told her but John remains sceptical.

Over the next several days, while continuing to reside and work in Venice, John and Laura experience flashbacks of the drowning accident and John himself has strange visions in which a small figure in a red raincoat roams the bridges and streets of Venice, and in which (after Laura returns to the UK on being informed by long-distance phone by her son’s school that he has had an accident and is in hospital) his wife is still in Venice but is clad in black mourning clothes and flanked by the mysterious elderly sisters sailing on a vaporetto draped in black. Meanwhile the police in Venice are finding dead human bodies in the canals of the city and realise there may be a serial killer on the loose.

The plot is very clever if not completely plausible: the tragedy is that John has been gifted with second sight, as one of the elderly sisters recognises, but because of his scepticism and belief in rationality, his ability causes him endless trouble and also gets the two sisters detained by the police, which event forces the sighted sister to make arrangements to leave Venice permanently, a move which upsets her blind sibling; and his inability to recognise his gift but to confuse it instead with his memories of his daughter’s drowning leads him on a path to tragedy. In this, the past, present and future intersect in a way that suggests in the universe in which the Baxters live, the events of one’s life really can be predetermined by the decisions and actions one takes.

Various occurring motifs of bright red raincoats, breaking glass, images and their mirror twins, doppelgangers and duplication, and water as the giver of life and bringer of death run throughout the film to reinforce the notion of the Baxters living in a seemingly time-less world where the past could be the future and the future could be the past. Even John’s work in the restoration of the church’s artistic works involves duplicating old glass pieces with new pieces. Misinterpreting incidents and mistaken identities are a major theme in the film. The climax of the film is shocking and viewers quickly realise nothing is what it originally seemed to be: people thought to be innocent turn out not to be so, and those believed to be sinister turn out to be protective.

The film works as it does by drawing inspiration and elements from the work of Alfred Hitchcock and from the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges whose literary concept of the world as a labyrinth is extended to the portrayal of Venice as a city of seemingly endless mazes through its paths, bridges, tunnels and even its canals. Roeg’s use of editing in which shots of two events are spliced so that they appear to be running at the same time, most famously in the scene in which John and Laura have passionate sex and get dressed to go out for dinner, reinforces the idea of a universe in which past, present and future do not follow a linear structure. The actors do excellent work in their roles as the troubled Baxter couple, experiencing the usual ups and downs in their relationship while at the same time recovering (or trying to) from a major trauma. Venice is a significant character in the film: a grittier and darker side of the city is shown, with buildings almost falling into disrepair, streets and tunnels conveying sinister menace, and the city’s bright facade for tourists hiding bureaucratic incompetence and corruption. The film could not have been made anywhere else in the world but Venice.

Roeg’s unusual filming techniques and the way in which he places his motifs at significant points in the film to advance the plot and send the characters on their destinies from which they are unable to deviate give “Don’t Look Now” an eerie and haunting Gothic feel that in its own dark way is very profound and beautiful.

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