Don’t Look Now (1973); Dir. Nicolas Roeg

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Don’t Look Now starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie

Usually, when people reference Don’t Look Now, they mention:

1. that sex scene

Or

2. How terrifying is that little creature in the red hood

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Or

3. how radical the film was for the time, and what an important moment for British cinema it was

The first time I saw the film, there were times I got so freaked out that I had to watch it in “diamond vision”. (This phrase stolen from Ann Marie, as so many genius phrases are) “Diamond vision”, obviously, is when a movie is so scary that you put your hands over your eyes, and yet you feel compelled to peek out between the diamond-shaped spaces left by your overlaced fingers.)

That little red-coated creature glimpsed through the murky dank streets of Venice caused much diamond vision.

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What beautiful and deep performances by Sutherland and Christie. They create a sense of a real marriage. It has that kind of casual intimacy that comes from a day in day out knowledge of one another, NON-sexualized nudity, which is so hard to do on film. I’m always delighted when a film gets the right tone and can get away with something like that. Because it’s part of life. A naked body isn’t necessarily sexual. People are naked all the time without having sex. There’s a really nice feeling between these two characters. You can tell they’re “over it”, past the first flush of a relationship where nudity is always sexual. They have (or had) two kids. They’ve been together a long time. They’ve been through a lot. They’re married. The way it’s filmed, Sutherland brushing his teeth, nude, while she sits in the tub, the two of them are talking about something – casually, the way couples do – does more to create a real sense of marriage than any dialogue ever could.

And so when that sex scene comes, it’s not like a gymnastics soft-lit scene , the way you so often see in Hollywood movies, where people take off their clothes, cease being human beings and just become People Having Sex. As though everyone has sex the same way – married couples, one-night stands, whatever, and everyone is good and graceful at it, and nobody has body issues, and there’s always a soundtrack … We all know scenes like that. This scene, which comes in the first half of the movie is, indeed, striking, and there’s a reason why it is referred to all the time. First of all, as the scene goes on and on, there are intercut scenes, glimpses of them getting dressed afterwards because they’re going out to dinner. So we get a close-up of her buttoning her blouse, him zipping his trousers, interspersed with the love-making. Couples behave this way all the time. You are naked having crazy hot monkey sex, then an hour later you’re clothed and you’re at a dinner party. The roles are not split. You are a sexual being AND you’re the person mopping the floor the next morning. The world doesn’t stop for sex. Sex is just one part of a relationship, and the way the scene was edited really hit that home.

In that scene, I felt like I was watching their relationship occurring, rather than two naked bodies having sex. It takes a lot of guts and trust to do a scene like that, and Sutherland and Christie appear to be in a totally private love-making space, they are all about each other, completely engrossed. It’s actually quite beautiful. I didn’t find it all that sexy, because it felt more private than that. It felt as though the camera wasn’t even there. And instead of it having just a titillating purpose, it had a real purpose in the plot-line. Laura (Julie Christie) has been in mourning, ever since their little girl died. Their relationship has become rote. They are hiding their grief from one another, and from their remaining son. Their marriage is on auto-pilot. They are wounded. That is, until Laura meets the blind psychic woman who gives her hope by telling her that the dead daughter is laughing, and happy, and okay. The sex scene becomes indicative of Laura’s reawakening to life, her re-vitalization, her memory of her love for her husband. John (Sutherland) feels like he has his wife back, it is a life-affirming moment. But of course, there’s a sinister side: Laura’s re-blossoming is based on the knowledge that her dead daughter is actually still with them and trying to communicate. And John, who despite his restorative work on the church, is definitvely anti-religious, thinks she might be going mad. He refuses to believe in this “second sight” of the blind psychic, thinks it is all silly, and is frustrated at Laura’s insistence on belief.

Something is not right.

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The opening scene showing John and Laura sitting in their house in England as their children play outside is arresting, visually. Watch the jump-cuts. Watch how it is edited. It immediately sets you up in an uneasy position as the audience. It’s not that anything scary is happening, but the way the edits come, unexpected (the red-hooded figure in the photo John is looking at, and how Laura looks up and off, as though she hears something “not quite right”, then cut back to the outdoors, with the rain falling on the pond, and the little girl in the red plastic jumper walking along in the grass, cut back to Sutherland at his desk) make the mood terrifying in a nameless way.

None of us know what will happen next in life. Terrors and horrors await us at every turn. One moment we sip a quiet cup of tea in the living room, the next moment reality as we know it shatters.

Ebert writes about this style in his Great Movies series piece on Don’t Look Now:

Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film remains one of the great horror masterpieces, working not with fright, which is easy, but with dread, grief and apprehension. Few films so successfully put us inside the mind of a man who is trying to reason his way free from mounting terror. Roeg and his editor, Graeme Clifford, cut from one unsettling image to another. The movie is fragmented in its visual style, accumulating images that add up to a final bloody moment of truth.

The audience member is put in the position of being a collaborator in film-making like this. The story unfolds mysteriously, with missing links. We don’t hear why they are suddenly in Venice, we are left to figure that out on our own. Pieces of information do come, but they fit together a bit jaggedly, the same way they do in life. All we know is is that this couple has been through a wrenching ordeal, and they are trying to survive. Trying to either numb themselves to the loss, or find escape in work or sleeping pills.

Sutherland feels that he is losing his wife to her new ecstatic knowledge that their daughter is still with them. He doesn’t want to puncture her bubble, but he is worried about her.

His work at the church and his interactions with the creepy archbishop are all filmed with an uneasy point of view, and you are not sure (until the very end of the movie) why you are uneasy. The tension is unbearable. A sudden close-up of the archbishop’s onyx ring. Back to a master shot. Sudden cut to the archibishop’s hand taking a handkerchief out of his cloak pocket. Back to a long shot of Sutherland and the archbishop walking along a canal. It makes no sense, in a literal way, but emotionally, it has great reverb. Christie says to her husband later, “There’s something about that archbishop … he makes me feel uneasy.” And yes, we as the audience feel that too, not because of anything he has said, or anything he has done, but because he has been filmed in an uneasy manner.

And be warned. The last 15 minutes of the movie are best watched through Diamond Vision.

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14 Responses to Don’t Look Now (1973); Dir. Nicolas Roeg

  1. Tommy says:

    Gonna have to add it to my queue.

    On a side note, it’s one of those love/hate things I have with reading blogs–I’ll read about a movie or a book or a show that somebody’s taken in, and add it to the list.

    I’ve found a lot of stuff that I’d never have run across myself, but dang! Where’s the time to read or watch it?

  2. red says:

    Tommy – haha I so have the same thing. I can’t keep up with all the recommendations, and the things I feel I have to see or read … It can get quite overwhelming!!

  3. Kate says:

    Wow, sounds terrific and interesting. I’ll have to check it out. Someday. . .
    Weird to think that Donald Sutherland played a husband mourning a lost child a decade later in Ordinary People. Only that wife never came back to life. I agree, he’s the real deal. A great actor.

  4. steve on the mountain says:

    Saw this movie when it came out. Loved it. I always appreciate your takes on movies and acting. I myself am from the Chris Farley School of Criticism, i.e. “Remember when those guys did that stuff to the things? That was awesome!” I could never think critically. I can only let art happen to me.

  5. Sal says:

    As a rule, I don’t watch scary movies.

    But if I want to actually see the scene without Diamond Vision, I turn the sound off and put on the captions. It’s never so frightening without the music. Wussy, but it works.

  6. red says:

    Kate – Yeah, he’s so so good.

    And I think he and Julie Christie recently did a film together – a reunion, of sorts. I didn’t see it though. I love her.

  7. miker says:

    The first time I ever saw Julie Christie was when Far From The Madding Crowd played on television in my youth. My memory is one of stunning, heartbreaking beauty combined with extraordinary acting skills, a sharp, fierce intelligence and wisdom far beyond her years. She appeared in so many extraordinary films over the years, often with many empty stretches intervening. She had movie stardom entirely on her own terms – a feat many attempt but in which very few succeed. Such a woman…

    I haven’t seen Don’t Look Now – it will be added to my queue shortly.

  8. Sheila: Don’t Look Now is one of those movies that I saw in college (around 1978-ish), and though it struck me as unnerving and effective, it also left me kind of cold. I haven’t seen it since, though my wife (NOT a fan of horror movies) is an ardent fan of the movie who bought the DVD not too long ago. But what’s striking to me not so much about the movie itself (the memory of which is, unfortunately, too lost in the past at this point), but about my experience with it is that it clearly seems to be one of those movies which, even at age 18, I was not yet fully prepared by life to appreciate.

    And I think that what you write about the sex scene in particular– the way it evokes not the relentless eroticism of the act so much as how it is interwoven and speaks to the multidimensional aspect of these two people and their relationship– illustrates why it was beyond me at the time. Though I fancied myself quite sophisticated, I was a still a virgin and had never even had a girlfriend by the time I saw the movie, nor did I know anything about grief or loss or the fear of the unknown– those lessons would be revealed soon enough, however. And as I’ve moved through tragic events in my own life on my way to establishing some coherent view of myself as an adult, I’ve felt this movie beckoning to me, if you will, over the span of 30 years, the memory of it echoing, specific images floating in and out of focus through a fog bank, convincing me that were I to see it again today it would be as if I’d never seen it– conditions which I believe would lead me to an experience with it that the adventures and lessons and horrors of my own life could only serve to inform and enrich.

    Thanks for reminding me with your fine post just why Don’t Look Now remains an important movie for me even though I was duly underwhelmed when I first saw it. You’ve led me to confront my own fear of it, and made me realize that what might be awaiting me when I see it again could be much more valuable and fascinating than a wise-ass 18-year-old could ever hope to comprehend.

  9. red says:

    Dennis -

    Wow. What a comment. An amazing realization. I know what you mean about certain movies beckoning to you … and what happens when you see something “too soon”.

    I have to say that the ending – that last scene – wasn’t QUITE as powerful as I had hoped- but that doesn’t negate the power of the rest of the movie. What it is REALLY about is not the inner workings of the Venetian police force as they try to capture this murderer on the loose- it’s really about grief, and what it can do to you – as an individual, and also as a couple.

    And it sets that up from those first moments … with Sutherland and Christie sitting in their living room, sharing space casually, unaware that everything is about to shatter.

    It really gives you chills. Makes you want to hold your loved ones close and pray that nothing bad ever happens to them.

    Thanks again for your amazing comment.

  10. Allison says:

    loved that movie… have seen it several times. but in all honesty, my favorite part??? julie christie’s wardrobe. those tall boots and skirts and sweaters. she was ravishing in this movie.

  11. red says:

    Allison – ha! You’re so right about her wardrobe. The boots, and the tweedy skirts … very 70s, but classic 70s, not cheesy.

    You’d look great in her entire wardrobe from that movie.

  12. C says:

    I just saw this movie. This is one of the most boring movies. Scary? You must be kidding. Save your time & money. It should be titled “Don’t Look Now or Ever.”

  13. red says:

    C. – actually, no. I’m not kidding when I say I found it scary.

    You sound angry. Do you normally get so angry when someone disagrees with you over what is, basically, a subjective matter?

    How about you adjust your tone to something more civil before you comment on my blog again? Thanks.

  14. watcher says:

    If you find this film boring then it obviously goes way over your head (stick to final destination). Fantastic film in my books