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.

Scenes From a Marriage (1973)

Ingmar Bergman | 6 episodes (41 – 52min) or 2hr 47min (theatrical cut)

True to its title, Scenes From a Marriage never sways from its tight focus on six isolated episodes of Johan and Marianne’s married life, using each to piece together a collage of a fragmenting relationship. The couple often speak of other people who are important to them, including their unseen children and extramarital lovers. Yet the only ones who ever take up a substantial amount of screen time are those who act as counterpoints to them, as we watch Marianne’s mother reflect on how disconnected she felt to her late husband, and two married friends spill out a verbal stream of visceral disgust towards each other. 

“I find you utterly repulsive. In a physical sense, I mean. I could buy a lay from anyone just to wash you out of my genitals.” 

At first, Johan and Marianne might seem like the most ideal couple of them all, especially since we first meet them confidently answering a journalist’s questions about their strong, ten-year marriage. But even this early on, there are still loose threads that quietly go unaddressed, and with just a few small tugs their lives unravel in a messy, irreparable heap.

Bergman plays with the distance between his actors all throughout Scenes From a Marriage, emphasising their disconnection in these perfectly staged wide shots.
And then bringing them together in these tightly framed, intimate close-ups.

There is no denying the screenwriting achievement here, and lengthy essays could be written about the nuances in Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson’s sparring performances, but it is worth pausing first to note how Ingmar Bergman lifts what could have been a flat, stage-bound drama into a cinematic realm through his immaculate blocking of bodies and faces. Between wide shots and close-ups, he paints out the flow of isolation and connection between both actors. In moving from one to the other, he often resists the urge to let his actors play straight to the camera, tightly framing their faces in shots together so that one partially conceals the other, or otherwise slightly turning them away from our view in a display of emotional restraint.
When emotional extremes run particularly high at the climax of Marianne and Johan’s relationship breakdown, the two make love and collapse on the floor. In this shot, Bergman frames their faces resting against each other from an upside-down angle, emphasising the absurdity that allows such a profound display of affection to emerge in the middle of this bitter feud. It is in his long, lingering takes that he gives Ullman and Josephson the time to let their tiny micro-expressions emerge organically, turning their faces into landscapes upon which the narrative’s progression of emotions are mapped out. Few filmmakers are able to so effectively harness a performance and turn it into a key component of their mise-en-scene, and yet in praising these two central performances, much praise must also be given to Bergman’s direction.

It is just as much about how Bergman frames his actors in close-ups as it as about their expressions, at times partially concealing their faces through profile shots, and in this key scene, flipping them upside-down.

When Bergman’s camera pulls back from his close-ups, these intimate interactions turn into tennis matches, in which his actors are staged symmetrically on either side of a bed, table, or couch, and trade barbs across this even playing field. His production design is minimalistic, but claustrophobic nonetheless, confining these interactions inside a bubble segregated from the outside world. When Marianne begins to consider how their separation might be judged by her parents and friends, Johan impatiently shuts her down, demanding that this separation remain solely about their own personal issues. This may seem ironic at first, given that Johan’s mistress, Paula, is consistently brought up as an alternative to his wife, but it is evident that she was not the catalyst for their breakup. Instead, Johan has been trying to use her as a distraction from the inadequacy he feels from having his identity so closely intertwined with Marianne’s, only to find that this imitation of love just makes him feel worse. 

“Loneliness with Paula is worse than being alone.” 

Divisions between husband and wife, even as they share the same bed.

More than an interrogation of a relationship, Bergman dedicates much of his screenplay to examining the institution of marriage itself, and how the limitations of this contract restrict their bond, rather than nourishing it. No longer do Johan and Marianne feel comfortable being themselves, as instead the rigid roles of husband and wife are thrust upon them by a one-size-fits-all culture. Their identities have been warped beyond recognition, and Marianne even reflects on how little the two resemble their younger selves who got married all those years ago. 

“When I think of who I used to be, that person is like a stranger. When we made love earlier, it was like sleeping with a stranger.” 

Johan and Marianne quarrel, deliberate, chat, cry, and shout their way through all six episodes until words can no longer do these matters any justice. In moments such as these, all that is left for either of them is to sit in silence, whether it be out of bitterness, understanding, or both, and the distance between them feels greater than ever. For all the acerbic back-and-forth sparring that Scenes From a Marriage has rightfully been celebrated for and which has gone on to influence so many other relationship dramas over the decades, it is two specific images which continue to linger in my mind above all. 
On the verge of signing their divorce papers, Johan sits across a table from Marianne, his head in his hands, and she reaches a hand out to comfort him, only to pause and withdraw before he notices. Later in the same scene they sit on either sides of a couch, he reaches out to hold her hand, and they finally make contact. With these two mirrored images, Bergman reveals the chasm which exists between these “emotional illiterates”, turning their marriage not into a battle of husband versus wife, but rather lovers versus the space between them.

A wide gap between Johan and Marianne, yet bridged by a simple act of openness.

Scenes From a Marriage is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

The Exorcist (1973)

William Friedkin | 2hr 12min

Though it is the scarred, pale face of a possessed Regan MacNeil which has culturally persisted as the image most closely associated with The Exorcist, the film reveals its most central concern right there in its title – this is about Father Karras, a priest tasked with saving the soul of a 12-year-old girl, and his disturbing confrontation with his own lack of faith. He is not alone in his efforts, as late in the film he is joined by Father Merrin, an older priest whose past with the demon Pazuzu offers a bolstering of spiritual conviction, and the full-frontal revulsion with which the fiend provokes them is similarly contained mostly within that final act. Up until this unleashing of supernatural horror, William Friedkin builds a creeping slow-burn of a narrative, quietly drawing together Karras’ spiritual crisis and its formal counterpoint in Regan’s gradual possession.

One of the most terrifying movie monsters ever, played by a 13-year-old Linda Blair.

As Regan’s mother, Chris, walks through the suburban streets of Georgetown early on, The Exorcist’s famous tubular bells theme rings throughout, imbuing this seemingly benign location with a threatening eeriness. No longer do we have to venture into Gothic castles and creepy motels to find terrifying monsters, as the catalyst for Regan’s possession remains largely ambiguous. All we can gage is that this is an ancient spirit which humanity has wrestled with for millennia, as indicated by the opening scene set in an Iraqi archaeological dig site, and that it has invaded a corner of our modern society presumed to be a safe place for our children. The paranoia of 1970s America is well and truly alive in The Exorcist. 
As Regan’s mother, Chris, passes by the local church, we smoothly latch from her storyline onto the parallel plot thread of Father Karras, whose disconnection to his faith is mirrored in the physical distance between him and his elderly mother. As a devout Catholic woman, she is one of the few remaining links holding him to his religious belief, and the guilt he harbours over living too far to care for her properly is thereby associated closely with his own personal spiritual crisis. When she passes away, his shame and doubt only intensifies, further feeding his personal demons and thus putting him at an immediate disadvantage when he is enlisted to exorcise someone else’s.

Faith and endurance always on Friedkin’s mind.

When he finally arrives at the MacNeils’ house, these once-dainty, wallpapered bedrooms and corridors have been overtaken by the unholy force inhabiting Regan’s body. Rather than turning it into a red-hot, torturous hellscape, it instead manifests as an icy-cold wasteland, void of life or anything sacred. The demonic being which Karras is confronted with is intelligent and psychologically invasive, recognising and playing on his crisis of faith by deliberately failing his tests intended to determine whether Regan’s spiritual sickness is truly supernatural. Through vulgar acts of sex, violence, and blasphemy, it continues to force upon him questions of how this thing, whether it be paranormal or not, could exist in a world with a loving God.

Father Merrin arriving, backlit in the misty coldness emanating from Regan’s bedroom – a justifiably iconic shot.

As Karras’ strength dwindles, the arrival of Father Merrin heralds some little bit of hope. Silently anticipating the coming of its old foe, the demon’s eyes narrow, and we slowly dissolve from this extreme close-up to the street outside, where the elderly priest’s taxi pulls up. Chillingly silhouetted in the pale blue mist that has now spilled out from Regan’s bedroom and onto the footpath, Merrin finally enters this godless space.

It is an exhausting ten minutes that we spend watching the two face off – Pazuzu spewing green bile, cursing, levitating, flicking out its long, black tongue, all the while Merrin remains steadfast in his devotion, barely reacting to its provocations. No music is needed to emphasise this frightening battle of faith and corruption. Instead, it is simply underscored by Pazuzu’s rough, grating voice, Merrin’s prayers of conviction, and the violent rattling of furniture. Much of the repulsive imagery which The Exorcist is remembered for takes place here, but it is easy to forget how just about every other element of this scene, from its stark lighting to performances, is designed to wear its audience down into a state of hopelessness not unlike Karras’. 

Blue, expressionistic lighting all through Regan’s bedroom, creating haunting silhouettes such as these.

The restoration of faith for this lost believer eventually comes not in his victory over fear, but in his literal absorption of another’s sins and subsequent sacrifice, thus destroying this evil once and for all. Friedkin paints the allusion to Christ’s redemptive death in broad strokes, but after the brutally unapologetic confrontation we have witnessed, an equally unapologetic metaphor of absolution serves to bring about a perfect balance. It is in the patient narrative progression towards this shocking test of faith that Friedkin accomplishes something remarkable, bit by bit letting his demented, expressionistic imagery seep into the quiet suburbs of America, and thereby crafting not just a controversial cultural touchstone, but a masterwork of cinematic horror.

The Exorcist as available to stream on Netflix Australia, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.