09 November 2008

TSPDT #163: DON'T LOOK NOW

The third feature by director Nicolas Roeg, Don't Look Now is an extraordinarily peculiar horror film, not least because it doesn't really act like a horror film for something like 100 of its 110 minutes. For the most part, it's an atmospheric mystery cooking along at a low simmer, tremendously unsettling but never remotely scary. But the film turns out to have a secret: no matter what it looks like, it certainly is horrific; however, its terrors are almost exclusive grown-up, and indeed it probably counts as the most adult horror picture I've ever encountered, or indeed can even imagine. The trick of Don't Look Now lies in where it locates its horror: instead of the existential fear of a hulking killer with a knife, a murderous alien hiding in the shadows, a bloody something breathing in your ear - instead of anything having to do with the terror that one is in immediate danger of dying - this film examines the subtler and no less petrifying fears of moving apart from one's lifelong companion, of surviving the death of a child, of realising late in life that you don't have all the answers and you mostly don't know the questions. Like the director's following film, the nominal science-fiction picture The Man Who Fell to Earth, this is an example of genre twisted as far as it can go in service of deeper art.

Boiled down to its simplest elements, Don't Look Now is the story of John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), whose daughter Christine dies in the film's opening scene, drowned in a pond behind their home in Britain while trying to retrieve a ball. Some months later, the Baxters are in Venice, where John is overseeing a project to restore a decaying church; at lunch one day they meet a pair of elderly English sisters, Wendy (Clelia Matania) and Heather (Hilary Mason). The latter of these is blind, but also possessed of an alleged psychic ability, and this leads her to describe with alarming detail the spectre of Christine, still in the red raincoat she died in, sitting between John and Laura. "She's happy", Heather claims.

This kicks off a quiet crisis in the Baxter family: Laura is happy for the first time in months, while John is concerned that these creepy British women are seducing his wife into some kind of crazy cult. But that doesn't explain the apparition he sees all over Venice, a figure about Christine's height wearing a red raincoat, always running away from him.

It is commonly accepted that Don't Look Now is a confusing film, which I suppose it accurate. If not for the way that the plot advances while leaving several facts, mostly minor but not always, to be explained later or not at all except by implication, there would still be an ending which absolutely defies logic, and more basically even than these things, there is the manner in how Roeg and his editor Graeme Clifford assembled the film. Throughout, scenes do not progress in a neat linear manner from start to finish: shots from the "present tense" of a scene are mashed together with flashbacks to things we've seen, flashbacks to things we have not, and visions of things yet to come. The net effect is that we're frequently unsure of where in time the film is actually taking place. There are perfectly good story reasons for this ambiguity: it is indicated that John Baxter, without consciously realising it, possesses the same psychic abilities as Heather, and since he is our chief surrogate (in all but two or three scenes, really), it feels right that we should be as confused by the fluidity of past, present and future as he is.

Throwing the film thus "out of time" also has major repercussions on the film's message, which is ultimately about the Baxter's inability to deal with changing times. The death of Christine in the opening moments is really the climax of the narrative, which details the inevitable disintegration of the couple's marriage as a result of the tragedy. Perhaps the most famous part of Don't Look Now is the sex scene that takes place about thirty minutes into the film: Sutherland and Christie rolling around and revealing virtually all there is to reveal, with so little left to the imagination that rumours persisted for many years that the actors were actually having sex on camera. There's a great deal one could say about this scene that is ultimately not that significant to the flow of the film - although of all the many gratuitous sex scenes in the lengthy history of horror cinema, few have been so honest to the characters - but the most interesting parts to me are the before and after. This takes place shortly after Laura's first encounter with Heather, when she's still at her happiest from the news that Christine is happy, and it's quite clear although nobody says it that this is the first time that the Baxters have made love since the accident. So even before the first article of clothing is shed, the scene carries the baggage of a dead child that all the naked actors in the world can't quite manage to drive from the audience's head. And then during the sex itself, Roeg plays that editing trick I mentioned: he keeps cutting to post-coital dressing and preparing to leave, so that we're anticipating the end of the sex act (the one truly happy moment the Baxters share) almost as soon as it begins. Paradoxically, one of the most erotic non-porn sex scenes in movie history is thus concerned with the forces driving the couple involved apart.

One could go on - and on, and on - about the chronology of the film, and the uncomfortable way that Roeg makes happy memories the stuff of psychological terror, but there's another element of Don't Look Now that gets frequent mention, which is the forthright way that it buries logic in favor of atmosphere, something that is often mentioned as the film's chief flaw, and sometimes brought up as a minor thing that you just have to get over, especially the ending. These are silly arguments, for at least a couple of reasons, the easy one of which is that the film is "about" atmosphere more than it's "about" plot - most of the drama takes place in John's head, so why shouldn't the film reflect his occasionally distorted perspective?

The other reason is about pure experience, and it gives me excuse to gush a little about two directors I like very, very much. In the late '60s and early '70s, in Italy (the country where Don't Look Now is set, don't forget), horror films were dominated by two men, Mario Bava and Dario Argento. I should rephrase that; good horror films, the kind that people regard as art and not trash. At any rate, both Bava and Argento were noted at various points in their careers for letting style overwhelm everything else in their movies, which often tend towards inscrutabile plots with incoherent finales (although Argento's later films, starting roughly with 1977's Suspiria, make everything prior look like social realism). But the thing is, Bava and Argento made some of the most effective horror movies in history: the kind that loop past your brain and just plug shivers directly into your spine. One after another, these men, and their less-talented colleagues, made the best celluloid nightmares the world has ever known; and despite their overall lack of narrative cohesion, I expect we've all had nightmares more unsettling than the scariest "realistic" horror movie ever.

Now, I can't prove that Nicolas Roeg ever watched one of these Italian horror movies, but I can say with some certainty that Don't Look Now is just about the closest any English-language filmmaker ever came to exactly replicating the feel of an early Argento film (Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is the best English-language equivalent to mid-period Argento, and let us not speak of late Argento). What this means is that Don't Look Now, which often makes very little sense as a story, makes a great deal of sense as a nightmare, and being British and thus at least a bit more concerned with logic than an Italian film, it even tells us whose nightmare we're watching: John's, as he worries constantly about losing his wife, while letting the decaying grandeur of Venice - one of those great cities that almost always reminds us of death, thanks not only to Thomas Mann but to its natural state of musty decrepitude - sink into his subconscious and surround him with reminders of loss (if I were inclined towards rigidly symbolic readings of films, I'd be forced to point out that, after losing a daughter to water, the Baxters escape to the most water-logged city on the face of the Earth).

So what if Don't Look Now doesn't make literal sense? It makes emotional sense, and I'll take that over literalism every day of the week and twice on Sundays. There's no worse cop-out for a critic to take than to say simply, "let the film wash over you," but I can't think of a better way to experience Don't Look Now, at least not for the first time. It's a film whose quality lies in how it makes you feel more than what it makes you think, and I believe this even forgives that poor, unjustly-maligned ending, which I'm about to spoil: John chases that little red-clad figure through an increasingly foggy Venice (which takes on a powerful abstract beauty in the final moments), only to finally catch her up and discover that it's not his little Christine at all. It's an ugly little dwarf woman (Adelina Poerio), with a razor, that she uses to slash his throat. No, this does not make a tiny nugget of sense, but come on: the whole movie, we've had some sense that it would not be good of John to chase the figure in the raincoat, and when he starts after her at the end, we have a very clear idea that we don't want him to catch her, and when he does, she is Death. That doesn't need to be any clearer to me than it is. His morbid obsession with the past has essentially ended his life already, so why not tie things up with a neat little metaphorical bow? I don't care if the dwarf makes sense, it scares me when we see her face the first time, and frankly, it's hard for me to see what someone could demand of a horror film other than that it be scary. The fact that Don't Look Now couches most of its chills in far less visceral clothing is incidental. This is still a nightmare.

4 comments:

Daved said...

I haven't seen this in years. The first time was on television, when I was a child, and the second was on video, as an adult. The image that had stayed with me from the first viewing was the creepy way in which the dwarf character slowly wagged her finger back and forth when DS finally caught up to her. I gather that was her way of indicating -- in a 'tsk tsk tsk' fashion -- that he should have left well enough alone and not given in to his obsession, which wound up being his doom.

I now want to see this film for a third time. Thank you for the review!

jjjonatron said...

I didn't know the ending was maligned and I didn't know that people thought this movie didn't make sense. I think this movie makes perfect sense and it connects most all of the dots--we are made to understand that John has psychic powers too (especially when he sees his own funeral [but we don't know that yet]), and from various background / 'unimportant' dialogue, we are knowledgable that here is a killer on the loose (which, if you can connect the dots, you understand is the dwarf at the end). It made sense to me. This movie's fantastic. Ending included. (Sure, you can take the symbolic approach and see that the dwarf is Death, but you can take the literal approach and know that this is the killer that has been on the loose and it was dumb that John followed her.)

Tim said...

As a dedicated literalist, I'm a bit ashamed that I didn't think of that, but you're right: there really isn't any reason for it to be more complicated than it looks.

Man, this is a great movie.

Miranda said...

The reason people don't like the ending is because they don't understand how it fits into the film. Cause and effect is effectively reversed throughout it. If you accept the premise that there is a serial killer dwarf on the loose (and why not, if you're willing to accept precognition within the context of the story) then the ripple effect can be traced backwards: John crosses paths with the dwarf after falsely accusing the sisters of abducting his wife, solely because he mistook a vision of his funeral as actually occurring in the present. The sisters become involved with Laura when Christine attempts to contact her parents through them to warn them of danger. Christine has seen her father's fate, and in trying to save her father sets of the chain of events that lead to the event she is trying to warn them of. The event in a sense causes itself to happen i.e. it's the story of self-fulflling prophecy. The dwarf doesn't come out of nowhere, the events of the film come out of that climactic encounter.

Nicolas Roeg calls Don't Look Now his "exercise in film grammar" and I think what he means by this is that certain elements of the story - that of prophecy and precognition - made the story the perfect vehicle for his style of film-making. I'm not convinced he meant the dwarf to be interpreted as anything other than a dwarf, it was there in du Maurier's story so it's there in the film, but what is important to Roeg is how it fits into the overall construction of the film. Nicolas Roeg says on the DVD that he became fascinated as an apprentice editor in reversing film through the projector, and in a way that's what he's doing here: he's reversing the narrative logic of the story. It all makes perect logical sense if you start at the climax and work backwards to the start of the film.

It's a very evocative film, and very cleverly made, and I absolutely adore it.