Don’t Look Now is one of the most frustrating films you’re
ever likely to experience; which is why it is quite possibly one of the most
ingenious.  In order to discuss the lasting
effects of Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film, the twist ending will have to be discussed,
so if you have yet to see the film (correct your error immediately and watch
it) and don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading now. 

After the tragic death of their young daughter, John, an
American architect, and his wife Laura move to Venice in order to start a new
life.  Once in Venice, John experiences a
series of odd premonitions… one of them being the image of his daughter in a
red raincoat running throughout the streets. 
Things get a lot more complicated when he and Laura meet a pair of
sisters who claim to be psychic.

The subject matter addressed in Don’t Look Now would have
been unbearable if it weren’t for the way in which Roeg intertwines a truly incredible
mystery around it.  The story is like a
living, breathing Pandora’s Box.  And
like a Pandora’s Box, it can be a challenging, frustrating and infuriating
experience.  The film addresses guilt and
the effects it can have on an individual and a marriage, ESP, the supernatural,
the way in which foreigners sometimes arrogantly perceive their surroundings
and, most importantly, death and whether or not it is pre-destined.  Interestingly enough, it isn’t until the very
last scene that we understand the importance of every single frame and spoken
word of dialogue.  It is a film that
literally demands more than one viewing. 
To more modern viewers, Don’t Look Now may not carry a sucker-punch
ending like The Sixth Sense, nor was that its intention.  The ending in Don’t Look Now was meant to
be the final piece of the puzzle and immediately altered the film from a
supernatural suspense to a murder mystery in the blink of an eye. 

Essentially, Roeg is a director who likes to combine genres
and create something completely different in the process.  Like The Witches, Don’t Look Now is a
visceral experience, one that tightens the noose around the audience’s neck as
it unfolds before our eyes.  The suspense
isn’t in your face; like a classical piece of music, it slowly builds to a
crescendo of mystery and suspense until the tension is unbearable. 

Stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie make the emotionally
defeated characters of John and Laura their own.  Their portrayal of these realistic individuals
looking for a new life is nothing short of extraordinary.  And for some odd reason, there is something
eerily beautiful about watching them act opposite one another in the sublime Venice
setting.  The way in which they don’t allow
their characters to resort to melodramatic exchanges further proves Roeg’s
intelligence in regards to the purpose of the story and the methods by which he
directs his actors.  Body language speaks
volumes over a shouting match.

The film was notorious upon release due to the sexually
explicit (though, according to today’s standards, it’s quite tame) love scene
between John and Laura.  Surprisingly, it
wasn’t due to the nudity; instead, it had to do with the way in which it
unfolded.  Intercut throughout the actual
act, John and Laura (post-lovemaking) get dressed and, through the use of body
language, explore the depths of their guilt and depression regarding their
daughter’s death.  This isn’t a scene
meant to titillate; rather it is one that’s meant to explore the true healing
power of physical love.

Over the years, however, Don’t Look Now has been unjustly labeled
as a horror film.  This is due to the last
five minutes of the picture.  By the time
the film reaches its third act, John has been seeing whom he believes to be the
spirit of his daughter running throughout the streets of Venice.  As the story develops, Roeg introduces a
seemingly unrelated storyline involving a string of murders occurring throughout
the shadow cloaked city.  At first, the subplot
teases plenty of tension, since John has a tendency to scour the streets at night.  But as the picture closes in on the
conclusion of the third act, the supernatural and the realistic cross
paths.  At this point, the audience believes
in the presence of supernatural agents and thinks that perhaps John really is
seeing the spirit of his dead daughter. 
When he finally corners the little girl, he realizes that it isn’t his
daughter at all.  Rather, it is the
murderer that has been stalking the streets of Venice.  What’s more, the murderer turns out to be a
physically deformed dwarf and John is her next victim.  Believe me, while it sounds odd on paper, the
execution of the scene is absolutely haunting based on the fact that the
premonitions John and the sisters were having throughout the film were, in
actuality, images of John’s impending death at the hands of the Venice murderer. 

In a lesser director’s hands, the conclusion of Don’t Look
Now
would have been a train wreck.  But
Roeg is smart enough to know that if we, the audience, are emotionally invested
in the characters and the story we will invest ourselves in anything that
occurs.  And, like The Witches, Roeg
introduces us to the somewhat supernatural world of Don’t Look Now from the
very first scene, so as it develops, we are entangled in its macabre world,
which turns out to be quite normal after all. 


The Cinema of Nicolas Roeg: Part 1