March 14, 2019

Palpable Trauma in Cinema: Don’t Look Now (1973)


Don’t Look Now is a seminal film in Nicholas Roeg’s filmography that explores grief in the most…

Don’t Look Now is a seminal film in Nicholas Roeg’s filmography that explores grief in the most intimate and frightening way. Adapted from a short story by Daphne du Maurier, the film famously and ominously opens with a harrowing, accidental death scene of a little girl wearing a red coat playing near a pond while her parents are inside the house. The immediate reactions of the married couple (John and Laura) at the centre of the film, played brilliantly by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, sent chills down my spine during my first viewing of the film; the worst thing parents can be subjected to is witnessing the loss of their child. Julie Christie’s scream following the tragic incident is etched on my mind to this day, as is the rest of this tragic, mysterious and inexplicably frightening piece of film. I had quite simply not seen a film presented so upfront and visceral at that point; it redefined my relationship to films. The aforementioned scene is only the first few minutes of the film; what follows is the aftermath of that opening scene and its effect on our central characters. They have to try and continue to live life after the incident has left a huge, dark spot in their marriage.

The majority ofthe film takes place in off-season Venice where John has accepted a job torestore an old church building; this opportunity gives the devestated couple amuch needed escape from their dreadful English countryside home. Roeg usesVenice, much known for its romantic and touristy setting, to unsettle audienceswith the grim look of the city during the winter. Some time has passed sincethe death of their daughter, and while they are in Venice they have left theirson in a boarding school back in England. In Venice we get to see an honestdepiction of their marriage and their dynamic despite the fact that they are constantlyreminded of the tragedy everytime they look at each other. This unresolvedfeeling only intensifies after the couple run into two old sisters at a localcafé, one of the sisters is blind, and quite possibly clairvoyant. The blindsister convinces Laura that she has seen their deceased daughter wearing thatvery same red coat, sitting at their table with them. John being the skepticthat he is refuses to believe that these peculiar sisters have any contact withthe dead; he finds the whole thing upsetting. Laura on the other hand isdesperate and willing to do anything to see her daughter again. It is in thesemoments that their marriage is tested as they must face what they left behindin England and also face each other. In a later scene, we see one of the mostfamous love scenes in the history of cinema between John and Laura. The scenein which they are making passionate love is beautifully intercut with a scene ofthem slowly dressing up to go out for dinner afterwards. Both of thesecharacters are so well realized that every emotion is felt; the audience isinvested in their marriage and distraught by the tragic loss that looms overthe entire film.

The first image that comes to mind when discussingdeath in cinema is the iconic “death” character from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) that is engrainedin film culture. It has since appeared and been parodied on everyhting from WoodyAllen’s Love and Death and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey to Family Guy. At the start of the film theDeath character, fully clothed in black and a cape to go with it, revealshimself to Max Von Sydow (the knight) to tell him that he has been by his sidefor a long time and that his time had finally come. The knight knows thatDeath, according to Swedish folklore, has a strong affinity for chess. So theknight cunningly lures Death into a long game of chess to buy more time onearth; the game for his soul is then played figuratively and literallythroughout the rest of the film.

Facing death inall its inescapable glory is explored brilliantly in the Swedish classic throughthe knight character. It is important to note that the entirety of The Seventh Seal is set in medievalEurope where a Plague has taken the lives of millions of people. The knight isa man of faith who is going through an existential crisis after returning to aplague striken Sweden from a ten year crusade. He is afraid to talk to God andask “why all the suffering?” because he fears he will hear nothing back. Hestill can’t fathom a life without faith and hope despite all that is happeningaround him. The concept of life versus death is best explored in these type of meditativefilms rather than say Final Destination (for all intense and purposes a film Ithoroughly enjoyed in my tween years) where inescapable death is tackledhead-on and in a slasher flick-mode. In TheSeventh Seal, Bergman explores death in relation to faith and externalizes andpersonifies death; Death is as conniving and elusive as one would expectalthough perhaps not Swedish.

Don’t Look Now on the other hand is a film that internalizes deathand its somewhat contagious nature by exploring grief and agony that results inloss of hope and purpose in life. That opening scene leading up to the incidenthints at John seeing a premonition of sorts that he can’t perceive. Certain thingsare revealed to him throughout the film, but as a man of reason who doesn’tbelieve in omens he simply dismisses them until it is too late. While they arein Venice, the couple witness a dead body being pulled out of the river andthere are constant murmurs of a killer on the loose; death seems to havefollowed them all the way to Venice. Their daughter’s striking red coat that isestablished in the beginning of the film inexplicably reappears in Venicenumerous times.  Don’t Look Now has themes of faith throughout with the believers,represented by the two sisters and Laura herself, versus the non-believer(John) whose disconnect with the spiritual world leads him on a wrong and darkpath. Even the very church he is restoring turns against him halfway throughthe film. If there is anything terrifying about the film besides the heftysubject matter, it is the incredible editing mixed with the melancholic andpoignant score. Above all Don’t Look Nowexcels in depicting inexplicable dread; that sense we all get that somethinghas gone horribly wrong. It also has one of my favourite endings of all timethat involves a scene that the audience has already seen earlier in the film,but takes on a completely different meaning in the context of the ending. Ihave never seen Venice the same since, and if I am ever lucky enough to visit thecity I will be reminded of this haunting film.

During his pressjunket for First Reformed (a filmthat has more in common with The SeventhSeal), Ethan Hawke said something about the viewers’ relationship to filmsthat resonated with me. He described the magic of movies, at least the goodones, to be found not in meaning necessarily but our emotional attachment tothem. Part of the job of the movies is to make sense of the questions that wemay have in life; a good movie articulates these questions. There are stillfilms that are continuing the tradition of envoking terror by way of tragedy. Arecent film that successfully did this is Hereditarywhich also has a scene in which Toni Collette screams her lungs out following amuch crueler family death that is reminiscent of the Julie Christie scream. Don’tLook Now is already a massively celebrated and influential British film, andits genius only becomes more evident as more time passes by.