Film Classic 1973

Don’t Look Now

Director: Nicolas Roeg

Main cast: Julie Christie & Donald Sutherland

“Venice in peril,” reads a sign in Venice, midway through the late Nicolas Roeg’s film Don’t Look Now. That’s all I know, even if you freeze the frame  you can’t read the small print below. But perhaps it echoes the film, the city’s past that it presents or its modern era. Possibly it’s simply referencing the plot, since there’s a series of mysterious murders taking place in the city. But perhaps the peril is the neglect you can see in every frame, during those years the old classical beauties of Europe weren’t in vogue and brutalism reigned. Now the peril is of a different kind, I assume all those run-down houses have been painted by now – but unfortunately nobody can afford to live in them any longer.

I’ll mention the plot in a minute – but first I should mention it hardly matters, the film is first and foremost a love letter to Venice, this city that remains a unique beauty even while it’s fading away into disrepair. Perhaps even more sot hen. Nicolas Roeg started out as a cinematographer before becoming a director – and the cinematography is the main reason the film is magical at times. When we see Donald Sutherland run in desperation through those narrow streets you don’t think too much about his anguish, you’re too busy thinking: what beauty, what a city.

Roeg’s films do in fact often focus on the observant eyes of the foreigner, observant yet naive in it’s folly. The lead characters are a British couple in Venice,just like David Bowie was an alien who had just landed on earth in The Men Who Fell to Earth and Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing is an American in Vienna. Which reminds me of the film I imagine might have been the main influence on Roeg, The Third Man.

Both are psychological thrillers whose biggest advantage is the setting, one of those ancient continental cities with History around every corner, but also mysterious and long forgotten stories that you feel rather then see. Those are expats films in a positive way, foreigners filming a moody love letter to cities that have touched them. When a character mentions that Newton loved this city, we get a feeling it’s really a confession from the director.

What separates The Third Man from Don’t Look Now however is a decent plot. The latter film’s main weakness is the horror element, which is rarely convincing. The two old ladies, one possibly blind and psychic (although we’re given reason to mistrust their every word) are sometimes truly creepy and eerie, but at other moments simply camp. And even if Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie deliver strong performances they fail in the hour of greatest distress, the biggest moments are too big, overplayed. On the other hand, some of the smaller moments are beautifully underplayed, and therefore much more involving, giving you a real sense of a looming dread.

Oh yeah, I promised to mention the plot: Sutherland and Christie play a couple who lose their young daughter at the very beginning of the film and then go to Venice because of his work, but mostly they just go there to grieve. The way they, or at least him, see the daughter they lost flicker in every face and every red item of clothing tells you a lot about loss. [Spoiler warning] And if Roeg had just skipped that cheap horror stunt in the end that part of the film would have been perfect. But the devil in the machine is just a cheap as trick as god in the machine. [Spoiler warning ends]

Sutherland delivers a good performance and a nice Kurt Vonnegut haircut, yet you can’t help but miss Julie Christie when she goes away for an extended period, since she’s great as usual, a true force of nature onscreen, illuminating most scenes. And after an overplayed reaction to the first possible psychic sighting of the blind lady (although at least one scene sows some serious doubts about her actual blindness) her overstated happiness after it is a much more interesting display of grief.

But forget Venice and all that horror, we all know what really makes the film famous. One of the most famous sex scenes in film history. And does it deliver? Well, if you came to be shocked or offended, no. Film history contains a lot of sex scenes way more graphic and disturbing. But not many that match the beauty of this one. And we can possibly thank the censors for that. Roeg inter-cuts the scene with Christie and Sutherland getting dressed, combing their hair, doing everyday routine things. This was meant to throw the censors off the scent, not having each shot of intercourse too long and play down the sexuality a bit. But those detours make the scene much more compelling, seeing how the clothes become part of their nakedness, how all their existence before and after are connected in that moment, that moment when they are connected.

And thanks to this scene and the stunning performance of Venice, and also one vertigo-inducing scene in a church, this remains a fine film. Even if it’s not such a great horror film.

Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson