Based on a very brief short story from 1971 by Daphne Du Maurier, Don't Look Now, adapted with a script written by Chris Bryant and Allan Scott, is first and foremost an exploration of grief and loss as the Baxters, John and Laura (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), attempt to cope with the death by drowning of their daughter Christine. A significant part of the grieving process takes place in Venice where John is working on the major restoration project of a local church. As the couple struggle to revive their relationship Laura meets two sisters, Heather and Wendy (Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania). Heather, although blind, claims to have the gift of second sight and convinces Laura that she can see the presence of the dead Christine with them in Venice. John is entirely sceptical and believes that the two women are exerting a malign influence over Laura. However, throughout John experiences his own visions, Christine in her red mackintosh and of Laura and the two sisters on a Venetian funeral barge as the police deal with a killer stalking the streets of the city. It is only as he pursues a similar figure in red through the fog enshrouded back streets and canals of Venice that the true nature of his predestined fate is finally revealed to him.
"nothing is what it seems"
Therefore a child's ball thrown across the frame is mimicked by Laura throwing a pack of cigarettes to John and Christine's reflection in the pond doubles for the red coated killer mirrored in the canals of Venice. Water and reflections abound, in the shattering mirror as one of the children rides over it on a bicycle, in the stamped on puddles and ultimately in the juxtaposition of a spilt drink, a slide of the Venetian church with its already present malevolent red figure fogged in liquid and the drowning of the little girl. These connections leap-frog into the film, powered by John's prescience of the death of his daughter, and they spin us and John and Laura forward to the labyrinthine sub-conscious world of Venice, where trauma is momentarily healed and doubled, and provide further moments of reflection and connotation as John's visions escalate.
The opening sequence therefore offers a jigsaw-like prediction of the future, symbolised in the missing pieces of the fresco that John Baxter is restoring in the church in Venice, while the horrifying climax crystalises the random coincidences throughout the film where John (and the audience) not only sees his past life flash before him but in the moment where Laura reaches through the gates of the decrepit palazzo and calls out 'Darlings' she, and we, see Christine and her father reunited. The gate itself has already been pre-figured in the film, as many of the overlapping visual motifs are, where Laura again meets the two sisters and speaks to them about the haunting figure of Christine through a a set of iron gates.
"Seeing is believing"
They set out on their divergent paths, Laura attempting to find answers in the parapsychological arena and John stoically believing in what he can see in the reality around him. The editing, also suggesting a convergence of voyeuristic but tender foreplay and post-coital preparation for dinner, of peeping into the past, present and future, is superlative and evocative of the kaleidoscopic nature of seeing and looking in the film. Indeed, the film's sense of space and time is both suggested by the title of the book, "Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space", Laura is reading in the opening sequence and the spiral patterned ball, presumably Christine's, we see appearing throughout the film. Winding corridors, spiraling staircases, cavernous churches and foggy canals imprint on the mind's eye as John searches Venice for the phantoms of his wife and child and only finds an echo of his own pre-ordained destiny.
The nature of seeing is a major axis upon which the story is fixed. The two sisters, Heather and Wendy, are introduced in the cafe when a piece of grit is lodged in Wendy's eye and Heather, blind, claims to see Christine between John and Laura. John is constantly peering at slides and images of the church, people watch from bridges or canals as Laura, fainting in the cafe, is ferried away or as the latest murder victims are dredged from the water and, later, the canals provide a maze of exaggerated sounds and fleetingly seen images. "Seeing is believing" as John assures Laura when she demonstrates to him that since her meeting with the two sisters she's never felt better.
When they get lost in the dark streets of Venice and John briefly sees the red-coated figure flitting through the streets, he declares "I know this place" and suggests more of the sense of psychic déjà vu that he carries with him. After this vision, he suddenly snaps back into focus and points the way to Laura, offering "I've found the real world, it's down here, come on" as he runs from the eruption of psychic phenomena. Note that the street they run down has a huge sign for an opticians overhead in the form of a pair of spectacles. The physical/psychical inversion of sight and sightlessness, the loss and reclamation of reality is bound up within the maze of streets and canals in Venice, as if the city is a representation of an inner journey that is full of fateful, often partially seen and understood coincidences. As John struggles to place a statue on the outside of the church he sums up the whole giddying tale of precognition when he observes that the statue is "off centre" - just as the entire film is.
... a kind of blindness
Perhaps it's ironic that John's almost fatal accident, as he's examining the partially restored mosaic, happens in the church he's restoring just after Laura has left to tend to their injured son back in England and him receiving a warning from the two sisters that he should leave Venice. There's a slowly escalating sense of dread as we are made to feel, as Barbara Creed emphasises in Phallic Panic, that all of the women, including Laura, Heather, Wendy, the dead Christine and the weird female dwarf, are ganging up, as uncanny feminine figures, and seek to supernaturally usurp the father figures in the film, John Baxter, the bishop and the rather inept police inspector.
Then we have the significance of the colour red - of danger, of blood, of life and death - that vividly doubles Christine's red coat with that of the malevolent dwarf stalking the streets of Venice, with the red blot that covers the slide in the opening sequence, with the cascade of blood as John lies bleeding to death in the film's climax. The film's colour scheme is almost monochromatic - a blend of grey, brown and green caught in the cold light of a Venetian winter - punctuated by the sudden appearance of red as danger looms nearby. Venice itself is a major character, a decaying place in which the Baxters are never entirely comfortable or certain about where they are, its recesses flagged by sudden bursts of red as bodies are hauled out of the canal or strange figures scuttle in the dark.
As well as the match between the coats of the diminutive Christine and the dwarf, there is also the sinister man, wearing a bright red dressing gown, who chases John away from the hotel where the sisters are staying and the caps of children watching the police recover the latest murder victim from the murky waters. As is pointed out in Paul Newland's Don't Look Now: British Cinema of the 1970s, "colour is routinely perceived as dangerous, that it is a drug, a loss of consciousness, a kind of blindness resulting in a loss of focus, of identity, of self... a loss of mind, of delirium. It is therefore no wonder that John's first experience of second sight is linked directly to an eruption of colour within the mise-en-scène. It is as if it is the presence of red... that brings John into a state of 'delirium'." Colour therefore alerts us to the physical overlap of Christine/the dwarf but also to John's own submergence into a paranormal realm. It is also a realm defined by exaggerated sound. The film's score emphasises beautifully the deep state of grief that the two parents have been plunged into but their anxieties are also underlined by heightened use of running water, clanging bells, echoing footsteps and boat horns.
Don't Look Now does not rely on its plot to succeed but rather accumulates associations to give you an approximate understanding of the events in the film. Therefore it has never yielded all its secrets and can withstand repeated viewing, always providing a heady collision between subjectivity and objectivity, between the real and the uncanny. Roeg's project is more than capably supported by Clifford and Richmond and provides two great central performances from Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. It's a beguiling, enigmatic piece of British cinema, perhaps one of the best British films ever made.
A beautiful transfer that definitely improves upon the previous DVD releases. Crisp detail is evident throughout the film, although not entirely consistently, and colour is especially vivid, underscoring Roeg's use of colour as a symbolic motif in the film. The transfer handles detail on the crumbling buildings of Venice, clothing and fabrics, faces and water rather brilliantly. The gloomy, shadowy streets of Venice offer deep contrast and robust black tones that are certainly better reproduced here than on DVD.
One of the major issues with the previous DVD was the often distorted soundtrack and I'm happy to report that this restoration has also provided a less distorted audio track. This is crucial where a film such as this is as much a montage of heightened sounds as it is a mosaic of unforgettable images. Dialogue and score are not as prone to the same distortion, with Pino Donaggio's poignant music fittingly interwoven into the film's complex soundstage that is now refreshingly clear.
Introduction by Alan Jones (7:11) - A concise overview of the film and its themes, originally included on the special edition DVD, but it's clear that Jones is reading off an autocue and it is rather distracting that he's looking at the autocue rather than directly into the camera. It not only covers Roeg's career and the film's production and release history but it also provides much food for thought on the major plot points and themes in the story.
Nicolas Roeg commentary - I imagine it is rather difficult getting a straight answer out of Roeg, as he doesn't willingly unpack his films, and his mumbling style of address doesn't help when he does decide to elucidate the listener and the moderator Adam Smith about certain aspects of the film here. Therefore it's not the most energetic of audio commentaries and you do need to persevere. With a more inquisitive and demanding moderator it could have been punchier but Adam Smith, who does knows his subject, is tenacious and manages to keep Roeg talking throughout about the major themes and specific sequences in the film.
Looking Back - 'Making of' Documentary (19:31) Ported over from the DVD release and made by Blue Underground in 2002 this covers much of the film's development, production and technical aspects and imagery with cinematographer Anthony Richmond, editor Graeme Clifford and Roeg himself discussing how editing and use of colour emphasise the themes in the film.
Composer Pino Donaggio (17:36) This was originally part of the special edition DVD, again made by Blue Underground, and is a lovely little interview with Donaggio (a former singer who had had a hit with the original Italian version of 'You Don't Have To Say You Love Me' and then went on to work with Brian De Palma on Carrie as a replacement for Bernard Herrmann)that explores how he was commissioned to write the score, the development of the film's musical motifs and his working relationship with Roeg, including getting him to badly play the piano to emphasise one of the key themes of the film.
Danny Boyle (New to this release - 15:10) Boyle clearly and enthusiastically pays homage to Roeg as the British equivalent of David Lynch or as a cinematic Picasso and as a fellow director seizes on Roeg's masterful manipulation of time, cause and effect and symbolism within the film as a major inspiration.
Allan Scott (New to this release - 14:31) A welcome examination of how script writers Scott and Chris Bryant took the Du Maurier short story and built upon it, adding in much new material. He covers the process of writing and generating ideas for the film in collaboration with Roeg.
Tony Richmond (New to this release - 23:48)This provides much more background detail on Richmond's career, where he sees legendary British director Basil Dearden being directly responsible for his career as a camera operator and cinematographer, and discusses further the colour palette and lighting on the film as well as his long relationship with Roeg.
Donald Sutherland (New to this release - 23:14) Quite simply the best of these interviews. Sutherland underlines how important the film is to his career and behaviour as an actor and how influential Roeg has been on his working methods. He takes his time to consider his answers, often very wistfully, as he remembers the filming with a huge amount of respect and fondness. Plenty of recollections about his casting and the filming process, being on location in Venice and the now infamous 'sex scene'. And in answer to those oft asked questions, no, he and Christie did not actually do 'it' on film. What emerges is that Sutherland is truly an intelligent and considerate actor who feels he owes Roeg and the film a great debt and one who understood the very powerful grief that the Baxters were dealing with in the story.
Compressed version of 'Don't Look Now' made by Danny Boyle for BAFTA tribute (New to this release - 4:31) Boyle prepared this for BAFTA's tribute to Roeg and, while it may have challenged Boyle's own sense of film grammar and editing, I honestly don't see the point of it.
Excerpt from documentary 'Nothing As It Seems' (15:36)
I've been unable to track down any details of the much longer documentary from which this extract is taken but here we get a psychiatrist, Colin Murray Parkes, who dissects the film from a psychological and professional view. It's an odd piece of archive (he's on a park bench with throngs of children dressed in red milling about) even though he offers some fascinating interpretations about Roeg's themes and where his conclusions are illustrated with copious sections from the film. Still, I'm glad Optimum dug it out and put it on the disc.
Trailer A none too subtle trailer from the film's original release.
Don't Look Now
Casey Productions - Eldorado Films - DLN Ventures Partnership - British Lion 1973
Optimum Home Entertainment / OPTBD1616 / Released 4 July 2011 / Blu-ray Region B / Colour PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 / Video: BD50 - AVC - 24p / Feature Audio: Mono 2.0 / Audio Codec: PCM / English Language / Cert: 15 / Total Running Time: 111 mins approx
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