“Age makes women grow to look more like each other. Don’t you find that? Old men decay and each becomes quite distinct. Women seem to converge.”
‘Don’t Look Now’, directed by Nicolas Roeg in 1973, is a haunting, elegiac movie that, once watched, demands repeated viewings. The film tells the story of John and Laura Baxter whose daughter is drowned in an accident and leaving their son in an English boarding school, they decamp to Venice. There, John Baxter takes on the job of renovating a church while his wife recovers from the family tragedy. While recuperating in Italy, they encounter a pair of psychic sisters who claim to be able to contact the Baxters’ daughter. But meanwhile, in the background, a serial killer is stalking the dark, autumnal canals and alleyways.
“Isn’t that the film with the sex scene where they really ‘do it’?” is the usual media reaction to ‘Don’t Look Now’. This traditional reaction is somewhat reductive and it ignores the brilliant artistry of the film. Roeg’s highly individual and influential movie is densely packed with repeated visual themes and neat transitions between scenes. His use of water, glass, mirrors, smoke, the striking touches of red against the otherwise drab colour palette of the film have all been recognised as touches of brilliance – a perfect collaboration between director, art director and cinematographer.
Behind the obfuscation of the smoke and mirrors and the shocking daubs of colour lies a surprisingly simple plot – a murder mystery. Because ‘Don’t Look Now’ is visually so distinct, the labyrinthine narrative structures and the plot twists that underpin the movie tend to go unrecognised. The layer plots and visual quirks of ‘Don’t Look Now’ are a game played by Roeg – designed to unsettle and confuse the audience. The infamous sex scene can be seen as a fundamental part of this complex play of genre and narrative subversion.
‘Don’t Look Now’ is a murder mystery but it’s one in which the murders are constantly being pushed into the background. The killings in Venice are a key driving force behind every plot beat and, in retrospect, each character is defined by them. Many characters, including John Baxter himself, are suspect. Roeg hides the more conventionally thrilling aspects of the murders by focusing instead on the domestic details of the Baxters and on John Baxter’s psychic visions. This generic subversion is similar to ‘The Wicker Man‘, a British film released at the same time and on the same bill as ‘Don’t Look Now’. The main characters in both films appear to be investigating a mystery while they are, in fact, being lured to their deaths.
While ‘The Wicker Man‘ blurred and subverted the generic expectations of the audience, ‘Don’t Look Now’ takes the traditional murder mystery narrative and decentralises it. Throughout the film, Roeg directs the viewer’s attention away from the deaths in Venice – both visually with smoke, water, distracting colours and stark, skewed mise-en-scene, but also narratively, by focusing on the personal details of the Baxters’ life and Laura Baxter’s attempts to communicate with her dead daughter.
The effect of this is to heighten the feeling of unease that comes from watching the movie – the full impact of this becomes clear during and after the climactic final scenes. After the death of John Baxter we realise that Roeg has been concealing the truth from us. What’s more, by fixating on the intimate details and movements of Baxter – his body, his journey through Venice, his psychic visions, Roeg is inviting us to both empathise with him but also to stalk him. During those last scenes where Baxter pursues what he thinks is his daughter, Roeg (and by implication we as the viewer) push him towards his fate. It is a carrot and stick approach. The promise of rescuing his daughter is the carrot – the lure that drives Baxter onwards – but the stick is our own desire for Baxter to uncover the truth. Baxter pursues the girl, but Roeg’s camera (and the audience) relentlessly pursues Baxter. In the end as Baxter is shocking murdered, we are simultaneously in Baxter’s shoes and complicit in his death.
Finally, when the dwarf turns and stares directly into the camera and shakes her head in that utterly uncanny mixture of pity and threat, she is telling us, as well as Baxter, that we have both been deceived.
Would I recommend it? It’s my favourite movie of all time. The combination of visuals, setting, music, performance and script, for me, is the most sucessful of any other film and Roeg’s direction means that as a viewer of the film, you experience the same feeling of precognition and dislocation as the characters. As with Fellini’s best movies, ‘8 1/2’, ‘Amarcord’ and ‘Roma‘, this is a film that makes you feel like you are dreaming.