Don't Look Now (United Kingdom/Italy, 1973)

February 16, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Don't Look Now Poster

Don't Look Now, Nicolas Roeg's nighmarish and atmospheric 1973 classic, takes the viewer on a winding, unpredictable trip that starts as a meditation on grief and ends as a supernatural thriller. It's a stark, tragic melodrama that veers off into Twilight Zone territory. Surprisingly, while this marriage of unequals might sound preposterous, it works effectively as brought to the screen by Roeg, thanks in no small part to the distinctive way in which the film has been edited. Although it would be unfair to say that Don't Look Now was assembled on the cutting room table, a key aspect of its power came to being there.

During the course of its nearly 40-year life, Don't Look Now has become known for two things: its visual style and the controversial sex scene featuring stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. The former has resulted in countless essays discussing in minute detail the elements that are unique and interesting about the way in which Roeg (Walkabout) filmed and assembled the movie. The latter has resulted in a stream of salacious rumors (most notably that the sex was unsimulated) that, despite having been debunked, have made this one of the most famous on-screen couplings of the first full post-Hays Code decade.

Don't Look Now is based on the Daphne Du Maurier story of the same name. Du Maurier's fiction has become a proven fertile ground for filmmakers over the years. Hitchcock used her writings as source material for two movies: Rebecca and The Birds. Other Du Maurier titles, such as My Cousin Rachel, have received multiple adaptations. Du Maurier's best-known tales have in common a melding of character-based melodrama with the lurid, gothic, and/or supernatural, and Don't Look Now is no exception. Although Roeg and his screenwriters, Alan Scott and Chris Bryant, take numerous liberties with the manuscript, Du Maurier was on record as having loved the finished product.

The movie begins on a dreary morning in the English countryside. John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife, Laura (Julie Christie), are going about their business inside while their two children play outside. Suddenly, alerted by a "second sense" impulse of an impending tragedy, John bolts from the house. He is too late, however, to save his young daughter, Christine, from drowning. Laura emerges, realizes what has happened, and screams.

The scene moves forward several months. After sending their son to boarding school, John and Laura opt for a change of scenery and move to Venice. There, John uses his work - restoring an old church - as an outlet for his grief while Laura relies on pills. One day at lunch, they encounter a strange pair of elderly spinster sisters, Heather (Hilary Mason) and Wendy (Clelia Matania). Heather, who is blind, claims to be able to communicate with the spirit world. She convinces Laura she has seen Christine. While John contemptuously views this as meaningless "mumbo-jumbo," Laura goes along with it - even participating in a séance. At first, John is delighted at the positive change in his wife but he soon becomes concerned that she is falling under a pernicious influence. To make matters worse, he is beginning to experience strange visions. Then Heather claims Christine has approached her with a dire message: unless John leaves Venice, he will be in great danger. Shortly thereafter, he is almost killed in a workplace accident. Meanwhile, there is a serial killer on the loose in the canals and winding backalleys of the city and the police take an interest in John as a possible suspect.

The first half of Don't Look Now is an absorbing look at how grief can fracture, without completely shattering, a marriage. Christine is a flash-point in John and Laura's relationship. Although John accuses Laura of not being able to cope, it's plain that he too has not come to grips with her death and the accompanying issues of guilt. (He insisted the children should be allowed to play outside without supervision.) It is he, not Laura, who sees visions of what might be their daughter. And it is he who reacts with overt hostility to the possibility that two old women might be communicating with Christine.

The way in which Roeg shifts the tone from that of a domestic tragedy to a supernatural thriller is one of Don't Look Now's subtle pleasures. It happens so gradually that the change is almost imperceptible. Suddenly, there's tension, suspense, and an ominous sense of dread. The introduction of a serial killer forces us to consider suspects: the taciturn Bishop (Massimo Serato), the mistrustful Inspector (Renato Scarpa), the two sisters, or even John, whose actions are increasingly erratic. By the final frame, all the pieces have fallen into place, but there are moments of delicious uncertainty and chaos that erupt before the resolutions have been provided.

Some of Roeg's cues are taken from Hitchcock, but the aspect of Don't Look Now's style most remembered by movie-goers is the cross-cutting. This happens throughout the film, creating a sense of parallelism between events that would not normally be connected, but it is most evident in two scenes. The first is the opening one, with John and Laura inside as their children play outside. The second is the sex scene, which interweaves images of the two making love with post-coital shots of them dressing for dinner.

The sex scene invariably comes up when discussing the movie. At the time, it was one of the most graphic non-pornographic depictions of intercourse in a mainstream movie (with cunnilingus thrown in for good measure). In fact, even by today's more permissive standards, it's racy enough to push the envelope of the R-rating. In 1973, Roeg achieved an R by cutting a mere nine frames, but his use of intercutting sex with the mundane action of getting dressed was likely instrumental in avoiding an X. Had the same images of sex been shown uninterrupted, it's hard to imagine the MPAA having allowed this to pass without attaching the most restrictive rating. The scene is important because it shows the tenderness that exists between the two despite the tragedy that has infringed upon their relationship. It was not in the original shooting script but was added on-the-spot by Roeg when he realized something was needed to counterbalance the frequent arguments between John and Laura.

Venice comes alive but not in ways the tourism bureau was pleased with. The canals, long part of the city's romantic image, are shown to be murky and unappealing. Trash floats on their surfaces and rats scurry along the banks. The streets are dim and dank - the kinds of places one rushes through unless in a large group. Clouds hang low over the city, casting a gray pall over daylight scenes. One of Italy's storied cities of beauty and color has been re-imagined as a location from a gothic horror story.

The two lead performances are strong, with Sutherland's defensive interpretation of the devout unbeliever contrasting effectively with Christie's warmer, more desperate portrayal. We come to sympathize more with her than with him. Laura is a naturally tragic character; John is a little too dour to relate to on an intimate level. Laura's virtual absence from the movie's final third is a narrative necessity but it creates an imbalance. With the Laura/John dynamic broken by distance, an important element is missing as John turns detective.

One element that doesn't work as well as it might is the movie's handling of "second sight," which results in some overwrought, overacted scenes that verge on self-parody. When we first meet the sisters, they are appropriately creepy. Later, however, they become increasingly difficult to take seriously, almost as if the Monty Python crew had hijacked their scenes. Had Roeg toned down this aspect of the film, Don't Look Now might have been damn near perfect.

Critics in the 1970s generally greeted the film with positive notices, although there were dissenters, such as Vincent Canby of The New York Times. The passage of time has been kind to the movie. British critics now regularly cite it as both one of the best U.K. productions of all time. Some critics who dismissed it in 1973 have revised their opinion. Aside from Sutherland's hairstyle, little of Don't Look Now feels dated. It works effectively as a period piece and, because of Roeg's atypical style, it retains a freshness and grittiness that allows it to work for a new generation of film-goers in much the same way it worked for those who experienced it four decades ago.

Don't Look Now (United Kingdom/Italy, 1973)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 1973-12-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: In English and Italian without subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1