Film Appreciation: Don’t Look Now

Film Appreciation: Don’t Look Now

“Nothing is what it seems.”

John Baxter

This line, spoken casually in the opening minutes of Don’t Look Now (1973), almost serve as a tip-off to the audience. Very little in Nicolas Roeg’s film can be taken at face value, or understood in isolation.

John (Donald Sutherland) is a professional restorer of buildings. At the beginning of the film, he and wife Laura (Julie Christie) enjoy a leisurely afternoon while their two children play outside. John spills a glass of wine on a slide, and this evokes a vision of his young daughter Christine in her red raincoat. Filled with foreboding, John runs outside. It is too late. Christine has drowned in the lake by their house.

A church in Venice hires John for its restoration, and he convinces the grief-stricken Laura to come along. While they are at dinner, Laura meets sisters Heather and Wendy (Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania). Heather is blind, but has the gift of second sight. She claims to “see” Christine and convinces Laura to participate in a séance. Afterwards, Laura tells John she has received a message from Christine: that John is danger and must leave Venice.

John, a rational man, wants no part of this. Even so, he begins to notice odd goings-on. Reports of a serial killer in Venice make him worry for Laura’s safety. John suffers a near-fatal accident at work. When he begins seeing a child-like figure wearing a red coat very similar to Christine’s, John wonders if there might be more to Heather’s warning that he supposed.

Don’t Look Now is adapted from a Daphne Du Maurier short story by the same name. Roeg, working from a script by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant, creates a nonlinear storyline where the film itself appears to be an unreliable narrator. He is aided in this by the expert work of editor Graeme Clifford. Ample use of flashbacks, flash-forwards, montage, and jump cuts helps to keep the viewer off-balance. Pino Donaggio’s score (his first) is a contributing factor here as well.

The film is also known for its recurring motifs and homages to themes from Hitchcock’s work. Roeg uses the color red throughout-in coats worn by Christine and the Venetian childlike figure, the design on the ball Christine plays with, the Cardinal’s hat, boots Laura wears. Water-often considered a symbol for change, troubled times, and cleansing- occurs via the lake where Christine drowns and the Venice canals. There are several scenes in which glass shatters, and this nearly always means something bad is going to occur. For example, Laura knocks a glass off the table right before she faints in one scene.

Don’t Look Now employs the Hitchcock technique in which plot elements shape characters’ behavior and state of mind. Christine’s death causes John to accept the job in Venice and encourage Laura to accompany him. Laura’s mood improves markedly once she meets the two sisters and learns that Heather “sees” Christine.

Shortly after this, in one of the film’s best-known sequences, Laura and John make love passionately before going to dinner. During this sequence, the audience becomes largely a voyeur- another nod to Hitchcock. They get lost on their way to dinner, and John catches sight of the film’s MacGuffin: the childlike figure in the red coat.

Don’t Look Now is a complex, engrossing film that stands the test of time, but that is not all. Daphne Du Maurier generally detested film adaptations of her work, but there are two exceptions: Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Don’t Look Now.

Theme: Inspired By Daphne Du Maurier

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