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The Brits have a very layered way of moving up in the world of performing arts: you start at the bottom, and work your way up. I rather prefer that over the hope-you-get-noticed-and-rocket-to-fame model of American show business. One of the more interesting of these rising through the ranks stories is Nicholas Roeg, an intriguing cinematic voice who managed to keep his extremely singular nature in his ascent to the director’s chair.
After his debut feature, Performance, and its follow-up Walkabout, Roeg directed this mind-bending movie, described by himself as “an exercise in film grammar”. Based on a Daphne du Maurier short story, it’s the tale of Laura and John Baxter (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland), a couple in the months after the accidental drowning death of their daughter. They’re currently living in Venice, where John is supervising the restoration of a decaying church. At dinner one night, they encounter a pair of vacationing English sisters (Hilary Mason and Clella Mantania) , one of whom is blind, but psychic. The blind one tells Laura she can see her dead daughter, who is attempting to warn John he is in danger if he stays in Venice.
There is a lot to what she says: there has been a series of unsolved murders, and John keeps seeing a tiny figure darting about in the shadows of the winding streets, seemingly wearing his daughter’s favorite red raincoat – which she was wearing when she drowned. John himself also has the Second Sight, a notion which he vigorously denies, until he has a vision which sets in motion his doom.
Roeg is messing with the viewer from the beginning, presenting the daughter’s death in a early morning scene snipped into several converging, simultaneous storylines, separate realities that eventually merge into one harrowing whole. John’s psychic ability is foretold as he spills a drink on a slide of one of the Venetian churches he’s researching, his daughter in one of the pews; the drink causes the red dye of the slide to run (she is, of course, wearing the raincoat in the picture), bringing a dreadful premonition to him as he runs out the door to the nearby pond, too late.
This fragmented vision of reality, strings flailing about in an effort to wrap themselves into the cord of fate, runs throughout the movie. John wandering lost in the alleys of the seedier side of Venice, stopping suddenly and saying, “I know this place,” unaware that he is foreseeing his own eventual death; the final shock that we see coming from a mile off (like John, if he would only let himself see as the blind sister does) which is nonetheless so visceral, so shocking, (and it must be said, Christie and Sutherland are so good in their roles) it burns itself into your mind, even though you thought it prepared.
This movie was a bit of a cause celebre amongst my classmates at the time, probably as much for the sex scene as the horror story (oh, hush, you were in high school, too, at some point). Don’t Look Now presents a universe where everything is connected, but it is still a chaotic, uncaring place, full of danger and terror. I’m actually kind of glad I didn’t receive that message in high school; I’m a little better prepared for it now.