29 October, 2010

Don't Look Now (1973)

What makes Don't Look Now such an effective horror film is its coyness about letting the viewer realize he's watching a horror film.  I don't know how the movie was marketed in 1973, but I went into watching this film about a married couple coping with the recent drowning death of their daughter expecting a depressing family drama in the vein of Ordinary People only with some fantastical elements.  That it would be one of the most haunting films I've ever seen is something I couldn't have predicted until the final minutes, when Nicholas Roeg unveils the final details that rack the entire picture into intense focus.

Don't Look Now conveys the story of John and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland), an educated, loving couple who live in Britain with a young son and daughter.  John is an artist and architect who meticulously restores deteriorating medieval churches, and though his job puts him in close contact with religious imagery and people, he is a firm atheist.  His wife likewise is a woman of few religious or spiritual convictions.  When their daughter drowns in a pond behind their home, they cope with the grief as well as could be hoped.  The death of a child is a strong precondition for divorce, but John and Laura maintain their love and sanity despite their underlying pangs of sorrow.  To help move on with their lives, they send their son to boarding school and take an extended working vacation to crumbling Venice, where John has been contracted to restore a cathedral.

Venice, however, is an old and musty city some sixteen hundred years old.  Its ancient mode of life and imposing stone buildings tower over the present, blending the centuries together.  War, plague, political intrigues, assassinations, and greed have given the city its share of ghosts, which stroll the dark, labyrinthine alleys and haunt the mildewy, stone-cobbled corridors.  Venice has steadily been sinking into the muddy foundations on which it is built for several centuries.  The city's doom is fated, and any life there is fleeting and unstable.  A thriving tourist business insures its economic survival, but when the tourist season ends, the city begins to resemble a ghost town in the truest sense.

So it isn't long before John and Laura encounter a haunting reminder of what they are trying to escape.  In a restaurant guest room, Laura encounters a blind woman (Hilary Mason) and her sister (Clelia Matania), two batty spinsters who arrest Laura with an impossible message from beyond the grave.  The blind woman cannot see the world, but she has been gifted with a second sight that enables her to see what no one else can, and what she sees is their dead daughter, happy, giggling, accompanying them on their vacation.  Don't be so depressed, the blind woman tells Laura.  Your daughter is very happy, and you should be too.  The details are impossibly accurate, and Laura is convinced by the woman's message.  She experiences an exuberant release knowing that life can be eternal.

But John is a skeptic, and he dismisses Laura's happy turn as a dangerous placebo effect and accuses the two women of being hustling charlatans.  His daughter is dead, he declares, and the only way to move on with life is to accept this fact in all its cold truth.  The disagreement leads to the harshest division between the couple as events in the film begin to spiral into dark directions.  John begins to doubt his wife's sanity as she delves deeper into supernatural and religious beliefs.  Has she lost her mind to grief?  Laura, meanwhile, mistrusts her husband for cynically denying what to her is so obvious.  And as this conflict escalates, a number of inexplicable dark premonitions--undeniably felt by John and supported by the predictions of the blind woman--manifest in unfortunate moments.  Are the two sisters up to no good?  Is John, Laura, or their son destined for death?

Don't Look Now is a tour-de-force of editing, which was done by Graeme Clifford, likely with strong direction by Nicolas Roeg.  Every scene elicits precisely the intended emotions.  A rather audacious sex scene early in the film, fluidly intercut with shots of the couple dressing for dinner, is simultaneously erotic, loving, and mournful.  A brief glimpse of the two sisters laughing confirms all of John's (and our) suspicions that they are up to devilish mischief.  The opening scene in which the daughter hits her head and drowns while the couple hang out in the living room and the son fixes his bike tire in the backyard is edited with such synchronicity as to make the death seem preordained.  Though the three separate fields of action seem suitably distinct at first, actions begin to overlap with a sinister momentum.  Motion in one direction by the wife, for example, mirrors motion by the daughter.  A tossed remote control becomes a falling baseball.  Eventually the three scenes become part of one inseparable action--the turning of the universe around its center--so that when John spills red ink on a slide he is studying, we know with certainty that the daughter has died.

This exquisite control is exercised not only within individual scenes but within the film as a whole.  The theme of the film is predestination and psychic premonition, and Roeg gives us a taste of these, working minor images into our subconscious so that when they reoccur later they seem to arise from the deepest stirrings of our collective unconscious.  When John watches from afar as police pull the half-naked body of a drowned woman from the canal, the unidentified corpse in its wet, white underwear bears an unsettling resemblance to something we once saw--Laura in her underwear in the bathroom prior to the sex scene.  The deja vu is palpable, as it must be for John, who immediately enters a whirlwind of anxiety wondering where his wife is at that particular moment.  Window panes, trickling water, the color red--as these motifs repeat with dizzying intensity, we surrender to the conviction that disaster is imminent and unavoidable.

Don't Look Now, based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier (who also wrote Rebecca), is an unsettling masterpiece. 

Don't Look Now (1973)
d: Nicolas Roeg w: Allan Scott, Chris Bryant
(Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie)
TSPDT?: #143
10/10

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