Don’t Look Now starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie
Usually, when people reference Don’t Look Now, they mention:
1. that sex scene
2. How terrifying is that little creature in the red hood
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.
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.
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.