Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) is one of those rare films that is at once accessible — the narrative is relatively simple, easy to follow, and generally appealing — and eternally mysterious, filled with shadows and jagged edges, thanks in large part to the brilliant work of Roeg and his team, including cinematographer Anthony Richards and editor Graeme Clifford, who didn’t settle for conventional cinematic techniques to make this horror film. Today, after years of hopeful speculation, The Criterion Collection is releasing the film on both Blu-ray and DVD in the United States.
The film opens with a tragedy. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play John and Laura Baxter, a happily married couple working at home in England one Sunday. Their two children are playing outside, and the youngest, their daughter Christine (Sharon Williams), gets closer and closer to the water. John somehow senses something amiss and jumps up to run outside. Eliding the terrible moment, it’s one of the most traumatic openings I can remember watching, made infinitely worse this time around since I now have young children of my own.
What follows is a film about grief: the couple is still loving, working through their loss together, naturally and authentically; it’s not a film about how grief makes us do terrible things or how mourning destroys those left behind. On the contrary, it’s a film about searching for consolation, answers, meaning, though confusion creeps in from around hidden corners.
And it’s a horror film. Obviously, it’s horrifying to lose a child, but I mean this film is a horror film in the conventional sense: I’ve seen many cite Don’t Look Now as the scariest film they’ve ever seen.
That said, the horror itself is not conventional, which is one main reason the horror is so tactile and invasive. From the first seemingly innocuous moments, the sense of foreboding creeps up on us through the recurring use of red, particularly the red coat Christine was wearing, and the strange, disorienting editing that suggests patterns where they shouldn’t be and breeches of time and space. An example of such a breech comes, unnoticed, in the first scene. We are in the English countryside, and we hear church bells. This is not such a strange thing until later in the film we hear those same bells in Venice. This dislocation is further emphasized when we note that the strange windows we saw in that countryside home are the same we see later in Venice. The film’s concept is reliant on foresight, but this technique also serves to collapse time and space to some ever-present here and now, a sense of being that is both emphasized and subverted by death.
After Christine’s death, the Baxter’s put their son in an English boarding school and move to Venice, with its watery roads and labyrinthine alleyways, where John has been given the job of overseeing the restoration of a crumbling church, a nice metaphor for the Baxter’s attempt to move on from Christine’s drowning and rebuild, find some purpose again. Laura, however, is escorted even further into the realm of the spiritual — or spiritualism — when she meets two old sisters. One of the sisters is blind but claims to have the gift of seeing beyond this space and time. She has seen Christine, she delightedly tells Laura. Christine was with John and Laura, sitting between them at the restaurant. Laura chooses to give this some credence. John, on the other hand, is adamant that their daughter is dead and isn’t visiting them through some strange medium.
Notably, though they disagree, John and Laura maintain respect for each other’s beliefs. John stands aside when Laura wants to go visit the sister’s hotel room to chat a bit more. The blind sister tells Laura that Christine is trying to warn them of some danger. At about this same time, John himself starts to see a small figure running around Venice in a bright red coat.
The story continues to build nicely, adding mystery upon mystery. When Laura goes back to England to check on their son, John is shocked to see her still wandering the streets of Venice with the weird sisters. He worries about what might be going on in their relationship, which seemed fine, but perhaps worse is that we have a serial killer on the loose in Venice, dumping bodies into the canals and he doesn’t want Laura to become a victim.
It’s a compelling story that never forgets it was initiated in grief. But it’s the little touches that keep all of the elements on track and that refract the image just enough to suggest multiple perspectives on grief and terror. At the same time, the editing style can make time and space feel expansive and ever present, and then later, particularly when John is caught up in the labyrinth, chasing the red coat, the technique can make time and space, as we typically experience it, claustrophobic and strangely elusive. Contradictions against contradictions, and it all works together nicely to explore the terrible effects death has on life.
First, we have Don’t Look Now: Looking Back, a 19-minute making-of documentary produced in 2002, featuring interviews with Nicolar Roeg, cinematographer Anthony Richmond, and editor Graeme Clifford. These fellows discuss how the film came about and how they shot certain scenes.
Next we have Death in Venice, an 17-minute 2006 interview with composer Pino Donaggio, who wrote the music for Don’t Look Now. Donaggio is an esteemed composer who had a successful stint with Brian de Palma, scoring Carrie, Dressed to Kill, and Blow Out, among others. Though I’m not a fan of the soundtrack (or, really, of much of Donaggio’s work), I found this interview insightful, and I loved hearing how he used the same elements in so many different ways throughout the film.
We hear from Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland themselves in the next feature, the 30-minute Something Interesting. The actors, along with others in the crew, discuss what it was like making the film and working with Roeg.
One of my favorite features was the 14-minute Nicolas Roeg: The Enigma of Film, which features nice appreciations and analyses from Steven Soderbergh and Danny Boyle.
Graeme Clifford and Bobbie O’Steen, a 43-minute conversation from 2014 between film historian Bobbie O’Steen and Graeme Clifford, talking in-depth about the editing techniques employed and their purposes. For me, this was the most interesting feature for its in-depth look at one of the most unique aspects of the film.
Last on the disc, other than the trailer, is Nicolas Roeg at Cine Lumiere, a 47-minute Q&A with Roeg that followed a screening of Don’t Look Now in London in 2003.
There is a fold-out insert featuring an essay by film critic David Thompson that looks at the film generally, but it is relatively short and, in the end, didn’t feel like it added anything that we don’t get in the rest of the package, though Thompson has a wonderful facility for writing about film (even if I rarely like his work).
The supplements are sadly missing a commentary, but I do feel that we get a nice package, particularly in the last three features that felt particularly insightful.
But, regardless of the supplements, this is a wonderful film and very welcome and nicely presented on Blu-ray.