Venice provides the stage for an eerie nightmare about a grieving couple in Nicolas Roeg's classic film
Often imitated, never bettered, Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg’s unsettling nightmare about a couple struggling with the death of their daughter, has been restored in a new and glorious 4K print. Watching it again, it’s obvious how much the canon of horror owes to Roeg’s grief-stricken film, based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier of Birds fame: it practically invented the template for a specific sub-genre in which a person struck by a terrible tragedy attempts to find solace in some far-off location – usually Europe. Of course, the location only later serves to enhance the grief, often resulting in a kind of hallucinatory breakdown.
The site of this particular breakdown is Venice, where John (Donald Sutherland) and wife Laura (Julie Christie) have moved after the drowning of their daughter in a pond outside their England home. When Harrison Ford took a moment to remark, “Ah, Venice,” in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, though, he certainly wasn’t talking about this place. The skies in Roeg’s Venice are never blue, but grey, or white. The waterways, lacking any of the associated romance, are brown and murky. The little bridges seem ready to swallow up anyone who dares pass beneath them. With its metal gates and labyrinthian passageways, this is Venice as an evil fortress. And the people here, from hotel managers to police officers, seem “off,” like they’re all hiding something – a collective secret.
It’s not long before John, in Venice to oversee the restoration of a church, begins to experience visions of what he assumes to be his late daughter – brief flashes of a child-like figure in a red coat, moving in the alleyways. Roeg, one of cinema’s great visual stylists, uses a vibrant red as a major thematic device throughout the film, an eerie juxtaposition against the city’s washed-out look. After a pair of psychic sisters inform Laura that John is in danger, the intensity of these visions begins to heighten. John, it turns out, also has a clairvoyant gift of his own. But his lack of self-knowledge, coupled with the mounting guilt over the drowning, will only lead to disaster.
There are almost too many great moments to count. The infamous sex scene between Sutherland and Christie, intercut with shots of the couple getting ready to go out, is mesmerising in its explicitness (and made perfect by Pino Donaggio’s strange, sentimental score). An accident in a church involving some very dodgy scaffolding is brilliantly jarring and nerve-shredding. And then the denouement – a quiet chase sequence made eerie by the noise of shoes on cobbles, followed by a shocking reveal that feels so bizarre and random and yet so very right at the same time.
It is probably just a brilliant coincidence that Don’t Look Now is being re-released in theatres the same week as Ari Aster’s pagan folk yarn Midsommar, a film which mines similar territory in its depiction of grief as hallucinogenic horror. But Midsommar, for all its successes, still feels like a film made by human hands. Don’t Look Now has an intangible, otherworldly quality – it exists as though made in a different plain, formed of dreams and nightmares. There really is nothing else quite like it.
By: Tom Barnard
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