Don’t Look Now (1973)

Nicolas Roeg | 1hr 50min

To live through the tragic death of your own child is a horrifying enough prospect on its own, but in the convergence of past, present, and future that emerges in architect John Baxter’s unwieldy, indistinct hallucinations, that grief becomes a sea of despair, pulling him down into its cold, all-consuming depths. The layers of subtext and symbolism that flow through Don’t Look Now may take multiple viewings to fully appreciate, but in Nicolas Roeg’s fluid editing which swirls between cryptic images of blood, churches, water, and grotesque representations of death, its feverish atmosphere takes hold, haunting us with the ghosts of events that have already taken place, and some that are still yet to happen.

The supernatural clairvoyance that plagues John’s mind may be considered a curse in this way, but as we witness in Heather, a blind psychic he meets in Venice, such mysterious gifts need not be so detrimental. Though she cannot see, the special vision she possesses allows her more insight into the world than anyone else, and the abundance of mirrors and reflective surfaces surrounding her frame her as such, becoming distorted yet enlightening filters of reality.

Mirrors all through Roeg’s mise-en-scène, reflecting and distorting reality like psychic visions.

Water consequently becomes an especially potent visual metaphor, particularly early on when an upside-down pond reflection of John and Laura’s young daughter, Christine, ominously portends her imminent drowning. She is not the last person in the film to die in such a gruesome manner either, as in a subplot concerning a loose serial killer in Venice we observe bodies being drawn up from the canals, rotted from the time spent submerged in their murky depths. If John’s own supernatural ability can be likened to these bodies of waters that contain splinters of answers, then it is important to recognise the necessity of coming at them from purely figurative angles, and avoid submerging oneself in the overwhelming, suffocating currents of literalism.

Roeg’s magnificent use of water as a strong visual metaphor.

It is the latter course of action which tragically defines John’s own arc, as in the wake of Christine’s death he decides to accept a commission in Venice to restore an ancient church, and ironically dig deeper into his own scepticism. Unable to accept the possibility of the supernatural, he takes all his visions at face value, living them as if they were immediately present rather than considering their underlying significance. All around Venice he continues to chase a small figure dressed in a red coat, identical to that which his daughter wore when she died, and warnings of his own impending fate continue to emerge all around him. This city of deep canals, misty alleys, and ancient architecture becomes its own mysterious force in John’s journey, constructed just as much through Roeg’s masterfully inventive editing as it is through the location’s own unique layout of disconnected islands.

The architecture, blocking, and lighting of Venice makes for a powerful, ghostly setting.

In those few moments where the gravity of the present outweighs all else, Roeg delivers weighty, slow-motion sequences, dramatically underscoring John’s discovery of Christine’s body as well as Laura’s fainting in the restaurant. Outside these scenes though, he delivers a masterclass in montage and parallel editing, intercutting the couple’s love-making with their morning routine the day after, and then in the very final of the sequence of the film smashing together the fragments of foreshadowing we have seen throughout the film to form a complete puzzle. Roeg’s magnificently frightening reveal flows in graphic match cuts between symbols, premonitions, and shots whirling across church interiors, all the while bells clang chaotically in the background.

From Heather’s clarified perspective, these enigmatic icons can be contemplated from a distance, allowing their underlying implications to arise organically. For a man like John though, so wrapped up in his own grief and scepticism, the reckless pursuit of logic only delivers answers after he has plunged right to the gloomy depths of his mysterious visions. And as Roeg’s persistent foreshadowing drives home over and over through Don’t Look Now, there is no hope of surfacing again this far down.

Long dissolves, parallel editing, and montages creating some truly striking sequences where barriers of reality and time are broken down.

Don’t Look Now is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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