Tuesday 29 December 2015

Movie Review: Don't Look Now (1973)

A masterpiece of psychological suspense, Don't Look Now travels to the damaged recesses of two souls traumatized by a child's death. Nicolas Roeg's adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier short story is an intricately constructed visual gem, where the quick, abstract details and glances are all that matter.

In rural England, church restoration expert John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) suffer a tragedy when their young daughter Christine, wearing a bright red overcoat, drowns in a stream while out playing. Some time later, John and Laura temporarily relocate to Venice where John is managing the reconstruction of an old church. They bump into Heather (Hilary Mason) and Wendy (Clelia Matania), talkative elderly sisters who are touring the city. The blind Heather claims to have the gift of second sight, and tells Laura she can see Christine and that the child is happy.

Laura is excited and rejuvenated, and wants to hear more from Heather. John is happy that Laura is moving past her grief, but much more sceptical about Heather's gift and the premise of contact with the after-life. Meanwhile, Venice is experiencing a spate of murders, with dead bodies found in the canals. The Baxter's trip takes a dark turn when they receive disturbing news from England, Heather starts to warn John his life may be in danger, and he starts to catch glimpses of a child-like figure in a bright red overcoat.

Don't Look Know is a monumental achievement, an outstanding intellectual thriller where every scene counts, each frame is composed with elaborate care, and the details at the edges of the screen are as important as the main focus, if not more so. The premise of parents grieving for a dead child, carrying dark clouds of guilt and anguish into their Venice trip, creates a chilling tableaux. Roeg builds upon it with hints of much worse to come, with Laura's damaged psyche eager to grasp at the visions of a blind woman, leaving John behind to immerse himself in the foreboding world of a dark church undergoing a restoration.

The cinematography by Anthony B. Richmond and editing courtesy of Graeme Clifford add immeasurably to the film's mood. Rarely has Venice appeared so gloomy, Roeg and Richmond finding dark alleys, narrow passages, congested, chaotic canals, nondescript doorways and cold, unwelcoming hallways for the Baxters to navigate. Rather than celebrating romance and beauty, bad things can and do happen here, and when the police start fishing dead bodies out of the canals, it is apparent that evil can and does creep into idyllic settings.

Clifford's editing is hypnotizing, with snippets of events from the past and future colliding in the present, and creating an unhinged reality where water and the colour red insist on serving as reminders of Christine's death at every turn. Roeg and Clifford collaborate on editing one of the most erotic sex scenes ever put on film, John and Laura celebrating life again in a brief moment of pure happiness. The passionate lovemaking is silently inter-cut with the couple getting dressed to prepare for a dinner outing, Roeg using the juxtaposition both to get past the censors and capture ardent intimacy within the ordinariness of married life.

Donald Sutherland delivers one of his best leading-man performances as a husband trying to tie his life back together again while accommodating the fragility of a marriage rocked by tragedy. His portrayal of John is filled with muted emotion and an imperceptibly creeping sense that the events triggered by Christine's death have not yet concluded. Julie Christie gets to provide the brighter light, allowing Laura to cheer up and smile at life once Heather assures her that Christine is happy. It's what a devastated mother wants to hear, and Christie provides the streaks of optimism that occasionally enliven the film.

Don't Look Now demands that everything be looked at. The agony of a child's loss resides in every corner of the heart, and the search for the tantalizing path to emotional recovery travels through the more sordid corners of a beautiful city.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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