It’s all about the water, isn’t it. You travel on it, you cross bridges over it, reflections in it confuse you, and when you’re lost (which most people in that labyrinthine city usually are), you end right up against another bloody canal when instead you should be strolling into your hotel lobby at two in the morning after one too many Bellinis at Harry’s Bar. It’s the prototype for Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities. At one point in it Marco Polo says, “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” There’s no place on earth quite like it. And in Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now, Venice deep in its winter is a sullen, mirthless place of steep shadows and greasy waterways where you go to die as though it were the very ends of the earth and you had run out of time.
The English have often been drawn to Venice for their literary settings, and apart from expatriate American Henry James, who chose the city as setting for The Wings of the Dove (another death, of course, in Venice), perhaps it’s thanks to film director Nicolas Roeg that Daphne du Maurier is also known for making use of the city. His adaptation of her short story “Don’t Look Now” was a critical and popular success when released in 1973, and was chosen by the British Film Institute as eighth in their top 100 British films. Both the source material (recently reissued in a collection of du Maurier’s stories by NYRB Books, selected and introduced by Patrick McGrath) and the film are superior entertainments that extend far beyond the expected frissons of genre.
The term “psychological thriller” is particularly apt in both cases. This is a tale about faith, doubt, and death. Not to mention what can only be called after-death, since we experience it twice in the course of the film. And though movie-making has generally become all about blowing things up, Don’t Look Now, almost forty years later, still retains its quiet ability to unnerve an audience, hauntingly and without ever completely giving up its secrets. What Roeg has added to the narrative, apart from a much fuller depiction of the main characters’ relationship, is a story about the thin membrane of reality. The capabilities of film draw us visually into this tale of a city, a murderer and the death of a child.
Daphne du Maurier was for many years considered a minor English novelist and short-story writer: a best-seller, certainly, but something of a “women’s writer.” Best remembered for her novels Rebecca and Jamaica Inn (both filmed by Alfred Hitchcock) she’s also known for writing the story Hitchcock’s The Birds was based upon (she hated the film as much as she loved Roeg’s version of “Don’t Look Now”). Both that story and “Don’t Look Now” reveal a subtle and psychologically astute mind at work. Where Roeg gives it to us in full, du Maurier merely suggests; she makes us do the work. In both cases, film and story, the reader is left with mysteries that are inescapably human and somehow always just out of reach. For me, as a sometime screenwriter, the finest movies are like the best works of fiction when they leave the reader to fill in the gaps. The audience should always take away something from the experience that remains unanswered. So that time and again we’re drawn back to think about it, or see it once again, and then see it in a whole new light. Antonioni’s films are like that, as are those of Krzystof Kieslowski. Art should always pose questions, not give us answers.
Like all the best cinematic adaptations (in this case, by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant), Don’t Look Now is exact not necessarily to the facts of the story but is completely faithful to the poetry of the piece, the intent of the original.
It begins with a death. It begins with water. It blossoms into grief that yearns for relief, and comes with a premonition that’s firmly planted in the viewer’s mind—in a film that works upon its audience like something read, lifted from the celluloid by the eyes and stashed in the memory, so full is it of significance, be it moments or glances—as though it were a key image in a poem that would return in a later stanza, twisted and cast in a different light but instantly recognized. At which point, as you rise from your seat and walk out into the night, you realize you have to see the film all over again to grasp its meaning. You sense that every line of dialogue, every shot that may seem throwaway or simply scenic, contributes to the growing sense of unease in this movie that, like illness setting in, comes over us as an undefined uncertain feeling before blossoming into a chill, then fever, then pain.
And then the release, which leaves one of the characters dead and the other somehow vindicated: this death had to happen, just as Venice had to happen. A death for a death; the stillness of a memory redeemed.
The film opens as John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) sit by the fire on a chilly autumn day in a cottage in northeast England while their young son and daughter play outside in the brittle sunshine of a dying afternoon. John’s an architect, about to leave for Venice to oversee the restoration of the Church of St. Nicholas. As he examines photographic slides of the building, Laura asks a question their little girl had posed to her earlier: “If the world is round, why is a frozen pond flat?” The only answer he comes up with is key to our understanding of the film: “Nothing is as it seems.”
(Including, I might add, the infamous love scene that comes some thirty minutes into the movie. Censored in some countries, it earned the film an X rating when it opened in Britain and for years had been censored and re-edited on video releases in the US. What looks on the screen like the real thing was, according to Sutherland, all acting. Roeg would say put your hand here, turn your head, and so on. It looks like genuine passion, but of course nothing is as it seems.)
John is the rational man, the author of a book glimpsed early on, Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space (Joseph Lanza’s long out-of-print book on Nicolas Roeg, entitled Fragile Geometry, is well worth reading; if you can find and afford a copy, that is) who clings to his need for hard reality, the patient precision of rebuilding a church. Laura is the emotional one who hasn’t been able to let go of her lost daughter who drowns while her parents mull over why a frozen pond is flat. Laura comes to Venice in a fragile state, hoping that she’ll be able to find her footing and discover clarity.
In this watery city reality is fluid, as if the minds of the characters had molded Venice to fit their anguish, confusion and inability to accept the truth of things. On top of all this there’s a serial killer loose in Venice. Two people have been found with their throats cut. There will be another before the credits run nearly two hours later.
Two sisters, twins from Scotland, stand at the center of this story. In du Maurier’s we meet them in the first sentence: “’Don’t look now,’ John said to his wife, ‘but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.’” As du Maurier suggests, they may even be men in drag. One is blind; though sightless, she possesses vision. She has a connection with the spirit world, and when she reveals to Laura minutes later at the restaurant that she “saw” the dead child happily sitting with her parents, dressed just as Laura remembered her, Laura suddenly sheds her grief. Life can now start anew. But John thinks that his wife, aided and abetted by a phony medium, is losing it.
When Laura returns for a quick visit to their son, hurt in a sports accident (appendicitis in the du Maurier story) at his school in England, John is certain that he’s seen his wife in Venice with the twin sisters, on a vaporetto, chugging up the Grand Canal. What he’s seeing, we’ll learn, is some later moment when he’ll no longer be there. He’s looking into a future that lies beyond his time. In this world, past and future are contained in the present, as though it were a universe concocted by the grand magicians of matters temporal, Marcel Proust and, in his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
We’re in the opening minutes of the film, in that cottage in Suffolk on a cold Sunday afternoon. Just before their daughter in her red plastic raincoat drowns in the pond, John spills a glass of water over one of his slides, a shot of the interior of the church, where sitting in a pew appears to be a child in a red coat with a hood. The water distorts the celluloid, and the red of the coat blossoms over the transparency like blood spilling from a murdered man’s throat. As Mark Sanderson points out in his book-length study of the film, that scene—in fact the entire seven-minute opening sequence—tells us everything we are about to see in Don’t Look Now. Everything is figuratively or literally second-sight in this movie: both what the blind medium sees, and what we watch. We’ve seen it all before, right at the beginning, and now, because it needs to draw us deeper into the story, we get to see it again.
Of course in prose this wouldn’t work. We can parse too much at our leisure, examine the words, understand their meanings, see the subtleties. A movie possesses a literalness that a truly good piece of fiction doesn’t, or shouldn’t. Because we can’t, in the first instance, flip back to an earlier scene (though DVDs make this much simpler), and because it’s presumed (and hoped) that we’re seeing this movie for the first time at the cinema, we experience it as one continuous unspooling of narration. It’s on subsequent viewings that the rewards of Don’t Look Now truly emerge. We see how much we have to work to look at all the elements in a scene, how much Roeg is compelling us to linger over the objects in a hotel room, the expressions on Julie Christie’s face, the mosaic tiles in the Church of St. Nicholas. And yet it remains a mystery to us. It eludes us in the end. We feel we have witnessed a kind of ancient sacrificial rite playing itself out in an unreal city, and that something necessary has happened. We see it on Laura’s face as, the two sisters beside her, she stands on the vaporetto as it makes its way up the Grand Canal to a funeral. Winter’s about to break, and spring’s only weeks away. The gods have been served.
Like all the best works of fiction, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now makes us want to experience it all over again. And still we won’t be able to find the words to say exactly what it all means.