Don’t Look Now (1973) spans genres, encircling suspense, horror, and psychological thriller. In terms of technique, it’s a virtuoso accomplishment. Director Nicolas Roeg cross-pollinates core elements of filmmaking – cinematography, editing, acting, costumes, script, sound, location, and casting – into a kinetic defensive line, parts moving together, empowering each other. It’s really a masterful performance. But pound for pound, doesn’t work.
Donald Sutherland has long been a master of the thyroid stare, alternating between mild confusion to consuming shock. The skill comes in handy when making a psychological thriller, among other things. Julie Christie, who plays his wife, manages to subdue her radiant, offbeat beauty to the point where it doesn’t interfere with her performance. That takes skill.
The couple move to Venice following the drowning death of their daughter. (Note to film study students: there’s a lot of water in this film. Aside from taking place in the most aqueous city on Earth, think about the bridges, rats, et al).
Sutherland accepts a commission to restore a church while his wife meets two sisters, one of whom is blind and a clairvoyant (nice touch that), who warns Christie of impending danger. Naturally, Sutherland dismisses it all as jabbering from a grieving mother – until, that is, weirdness descends.
There’s an intense sex scene which, at the time of release, really bothered the censors as it seemed to verge on pornographic. Aside from the skin, does it work in the film? Does it further the plot? Are we treading along the fine sex/death tightrope so well established by the James Bond flicks? Death can only be defined by life? The old shall cradle the young? In the end, does it work?
The underlying fallacy – or conceit – of the film is a disruption of standard narrative flow. We are accustomed to the ‘language of film’ (film students again, take note), one aspect of which is the manipulation of time – flash forward, flash back, slow motion, etc. Still, such ‘language’ typically adheres to a progressive, start-middle-end narrative. The audience has a pre-existing trust. When that trust is disrupted for use as a thematic device, tighten your seat-belts because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Some films survive the trip – but most can be found, their engines still smoking, off to the side of the road, only half-way up the mountain. Don’t Look Now stalls out, dragging too much baggage for too long.
Even evil, in whatever form, needs motivation: why we expect ‘reason’ is likely unreasonable, but we do. In ghost stories, the departed usually have a good reason for hanging around. In Don’t Look Now, the narrative attempts to lower grief and guilt into the dark waters of the supernatural, and have them function as energetic plot stimuli.
Evil can be unreasonable, but in films especially, we require explanations – though in life, such explanations may never arrive. When evil loses its context, it becomes emasculated and dull. Too bad, because Don’t Look Now hits so many green lights.