Thursday, July 3, 2014

Don't Look Now

DON’T LOOK NOW        A-         
Great Britain  Italy  (110 mi)  1973  d:  Nicolas Roeg

A film that thrives on what’s happening under the surface, a mood of disaffected emotions, a series of endless searches, missed connections, various mediums, overlapping dialogue that sometimes fades out altogether, and deteriorating ancient relics that need restoration that may as well stand for the declining morals and deteriorating importance of the Catholic Church.  Adapted from a Daphne du Maurier short story from her book Not After Midnight, 1971, who interestingly wrote a letter to Roeg congratulating him on making such a strong adaptation of her story, this film was released in the same year as THE EXORCIST (1973), received some notoriety as an art film, for the sex scenes between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie who were offscreen lovers at the time, and remains downright gloomy to watch, with its icy disconnected emotions captured in the back alleys and canals and dark shadows under the bridges of Venice during winter.  The surface detail shot by Anthony Richmond as well as the director, also the over-the-top musical score by Pino Donnagio accentuates the unsettled psychological mood that only grows more macabre by the film’s end.  

Nicolas Roeg trained for twenty-three years in the British Film Industry before getting a shot as a director, starting out as an editing apprentice and camera operator for twelve years before getting the chance to work under infamous British director David Lean on the second unit photography for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), eventually becoming the lead cinematographer on Roger Corman’s THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964), François Truffaut’s FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966), John Schlesinger’s FAR FROM THE MADDENING CROWD (1967), and Richard Lester’s PETULIA (1968), before co-directing his first film at age 42, the legendary PERFORMANCE (1970) starring Mick Jagger in his film debut, amusingly voted best performance by a musician in a film by Film Comment in the September/October 2009 edition.  Roeg brought his own camerawork into WALKABOUT (1971), his first solo effort, a uniquely visualized, magnificently beautiful film.  Roeg’s films characteristically are beautifully filmed, where each shot displays a mastery of composition, framing, focus, and color qualities, breaking free from conventional film narration, exhibiting an experimental use of editing, creating an impressionistic film mosaic told out of time, challenging the viewer to understand the work as a whole, even as the fragmented parts may be puzzling to comprehend, heavily influencing modern era directors such as Christopher Nolan, Francois Ozon, Danny Boyle, and Steven Soderbergh.   

Innocently enough, the film begins with raindrops on a lake, showing the reflection of Christine (Sharon Williams), a little girl wearing a bright red raincoat playing around the water’s edge on a giant estate while her parents, art restorer John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie), sit in the warm comfort of their home oblivious to what’s happening outside, until suddenly and unexpectedly John races outside without any warning and discovers Christine’s body too late, as she has already drowned.  The scene shifts to Venice where the couple hopes a change of scenery will lift their grief-stricken spirits, where John is working on restoring a church, to the complete indifference of the Bishop.  Venice with its waterways is certainly an interesting choice to recover from the shock of a drowning, where it’s used as a location of eroticism and violence, while another is Sutherland’s impeccable unsubtitled Italian, which is prominently featured throughout, a subtle yet effective device to keep the audience in the dark.  Adding to this curious mixture, Laura meets two inseparable sisters, one of whom is a blind psychic that communicates with the dead, claiming their child is trying to contact them and warn them of imminent danger, a complete stranger accurately describing her physical appearance, which sends Laura in a swoon. 

John thinks these women with their séances are a bit daft and refuses to take them seriously, even after they are issued a warning that something terrible is about to happen to them, while simultaneously there are reports of recent serial killings in Venice, which doesn’t stop them from having a passionate sexual experience, a curious mingling of sex and violence.  The psychic mentions that John is a seer himself, though he may not yet understand his gift.  A call in the middle of the morning conveys the news that their son has had an accident in his school in England.  Laura takes the first flight back to England, but later that same morning, John sees her with the two sisters in a barge on the canals in what appears to be a funeral procession, but can’t understand why he hasn’t heard from her.  With news of a serial killer on the loose and his wife missing, he makes a police report implicating the sisters.  But just as baffling, he later receives a call from his wife in England reporting that their son is fine, which leaves John in a state of flux, as he could have sworn what he saw was real, yet what he mistakenly thought was the present may have been a vision of the future, a premonition of events yet to come, opening the floodgates for strange and mysterious occurrences that resemble the occult.    

From that point on, things appear out of a different supernatural dimension, where red deliriously begins to overwhelm the color palette, as John catches glimpses of a young child running around wearing his daughter’s red raincoat.  He politely walks the blind seer home from the police station where she was being interrogated, at John’s request, inexplicably abandoned by her other sister, setting in motion an investigation of an event that apparently never took place.  When the seer gets agitated, telling John he must leave Venice immediately, John leaves, but the psychic screams for him to come back as he disappears into the shadows outdoors, out of which Laura appears instead.  John catches a glimpse of the red raincoat, believing now this is the ghost of his missing child, and follows the trail up and down the dark walkways which remain otherwise eerily empty.  Oddly resembling a hallucination dream sequence drenched in a wafting fog, the murky atmosphere matches the deteriorating stability of John’s state of mind.  What happens next is shocking, one of cinema’s most terrifying climaxes, like the increasing waves of dread and anxiety in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), suddenly reaching a level of surreal visual hysteria that predates David Lynch, ending the film with a “life flashing before your eyes” sequence, as the brilliantly edited, disconnected pieces finally start to make sense in this collapsing world of psychological terror. 

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