DON'T READ NOW
By Ben Reiser, UW Cinematheque Programmer and Accounts Manager
(There are some mild spoilers below, but if you want to experience this film the way it should be experienced, maybe wait ‘til after you’ve seen it…)
I first saw Don't Look Now on the tail end of a double bill with Rosemary’s Baby at Cinema Village in NYC when I was 14. My friend Steve and I had gone (and gotten some adult to buy us tickets to this R rated double bill) to see Rosemary’s Baby which I had seen parts of on TV. We didn’t know anything about Don’t Look Now, and weren’t really even planning on staying for all of it, unless it really grabbed us.
Well, by the end of the first scene it had indeed grabbed us. By the end of the movie I was a wreck, the wind knocked out of me, unable to get up from my seat or say anything to Steve. That’s only happened to me two other times at the movies (I saw Halloween in 1978 when I was 12, that was also the only time I’ve ever actually hid under a seat, and later, in 1988, I was unable to move for a good five minutes after the ending of The Vanishing).
Don’t Look Now immediately became one of the cornerstones in my lifelong love of scary movies. I’ve since seen it, talked about it, recommended it, thought about it, argued about it, and dreamt about it so many times I feel like I’m too close to it now to be able to say or write anything about it, but I’ll try.
To prepare myself I finally scouted out a copy of Daphne Du Maurier’s original short story of the same name to see just how much of the DNA of this film is Du Maurier’s and how much is Nicolas Roeg’s (and screenwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant). What I discovered is that the film is surprisingly faithful to the short story in terms of it’s plotting, but the overall tone is different and there are some rather important cinematic embellishments and differences in terms of character and theme:
First, the title. I’ve always wondered what, if anything, it signified. Ultimately I decided it was meant as a cautionary flag for the audience, and that at a certain point towards the end of the film, it was best to look away. Perhaps it should have popped up as an onscreen warning along the lines of the countdown clock that allowed viewers a chance to retreat to the "Coward's Corner" before the ending of William Castle's Homicidal (1961), or the infamous countdown before the climax of Gaspar Noe's I Stand Alone (1998), but in Du Maurier's short story, which for most of its length is more of a comedy of manners, the most likely refers to the main character (John Baxter)’s humorous attempts to keep his wife from seeing a pair of sisters (twins in the short story) who claim to have a psychic bond with the couple’s dead daughter. The humorous tone and mild satire of British class warfare in the short story is replaced by a more somber meditation on grief and on the dangers of misperception and miscommunication in the film adaptation.
Towards that end, Roeg makes even better use of Venice as the setting of the story than Du Maurier does, doubling down on the language and cultural barriers only hinted at in the original story. By making Baxter an American with a British wife rather than a fellow European, and as played by Donald Sutherland, Baxter conveys a different kind of entitled arrogance than that of the original story’s upper crust Brit. He’s even more a fish out of water and his struggles to understand and be understood are a constant source of unease. Venice in the film is not only a dank, shadowy maze that feels like a twisty, open air haunted house (every hotel and restaurant in the film is shuttered, closing down, covered with sheets, it’s the end of the tourist season and it feels like there will never be another one) it’s also a very foreign land, with strange customs and a language that for the characters in the film and most American viewers is a definite roadblock, an obstacle where important nuances are lost, never to be recovered.
Roeg adds a haunting prologue not found in the short story that firmly establishes a mood of dread and sorrow as well as introducing a number of recurring visual motifs: water, broken glass, the color red. These elements provide a roadmap that viewers will find difficult to decipher upon first viewing, and indeed it’s this wonderful “form mirroring content” that makes Don’t Look Now such a master class in filmmaking. The film sprinkles clues and hints throughout in a way that leads the audience to come to the same conclusions as the characters, right or (frequently) wrong. We never get a clearer picture of events than the characters do, but it’s done so expertly that we don’t register the manipulation. Through his use of unconventional editing and sound design, Roeg disorients us as viewers much as Baxter and his wife, Laura (a radiant yet haunted Julie Christie), are disoriented in the back alleys of Venice and adrift in their lives as they struggle to deal with the death of a child. The visceral cinematography tends to put us in the center of the action, and in a terrifying sequence, we are dangling by a thread, high above a hard floor after some broken scaffolding leaves Baxter hanging on for dear life. We as viewers are right there with him, fists clenched, hearts racing.
The film’s infamous sex scene is but a mere mention in the short story. Much has been made of this scene between Sutherland and Christie in the movie, it frequently ends up on lists of the top sex scenes in cinema history. Eschewing a linear trajectory, we see shots of the couple making love interspersed with shots of the two of them going through the routine motions of getting dressed, post-coitus, for dinner. There is a vérité quality to the lovemaking that is rarely seen in such scenes using movie stars, awkwardly angled body parts, and the fairly explicit indication of cunnilingus. Perhaps what caused such a stir is that this sex more than most onscreen sex resembles the way an actual married couple might commingle, with a knowledge of each other’s bodies – what works and what doesn’t.
And then of course there’s the ending. I’ve always thought that Don’t Look Now has one of the best shock-endings in the history of cinema, but perhaps that’s not an uncontested opinion. I mentioned this week’s screening to a longtime friend recently and he said something about how he could never get past the dumb ending. I couldn’t disagree more, but it’s true that for as much as I love it I always assumed that it was a Roeg revision, not part of the original story design. I was happily surprised to discover this week that the ending is Du Maurier’s completely. I think it’s perfect, and devastating, and unforgettable. The same can be said for the film as a whole.
A 35mm print of Don't Look Now will screen on Friday, October 17 at 7 p.m. in the CInematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.