My third selection from the Studiocanal streaming catalogue is a film that I’ve regularly returned to, ‘a gift and a curse’, as one of the lines of dialogue suggests. A grieving couple encounter two sisters, one a sightless psychic, in Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story. It’s a mystery unlike any other; highly influential, it’s regularly picked apart for its style, the use of the colour red, the photography of Venice in winter, the famous sex scene, the lush Pino Donaggio score, the abrupt, shocking ending.
I saw this on its first tv screening, a Sunday late-night slot on BBC 2 during the festive season in 1979; Dec 30th, 10.50pm to be exact. I expected some kind of scary movie, but Don’t Look Now dared to be something else, something deeper, primal and more unsettling. And yet viewing Roeg’s film in different formats over the years suggested that some investigation was in order. I visited Venice, tracing the locations and even running into Donald Sutherland on the Lido, in ruddy good health and something of a contrast to the way this film leaves him.
The baroque beauty of Venice is a deliberate counterpoint; the taboo subject of the death of a child is hard material for any film to cover, and yet Roeg, working from a script by Allan Scott (The Man Who Fell To Earth, The Queen’s Gambit) and Chris Bryant, chooses to set his entire film within adult grief. After their daughter’s death, John Baxter (Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Christie) are in Venice while he restores a church. These houses were built for God, but ‘God doesn’t care about them’ says the despondent priest who is watching over his painstaking restoration of a mosaic, a work of art that reflects a faith that Baxter doesn’t share. It’s Baxter who first senses that his daughter is in danger from drowning, yet Baxter doesn’t seem to sense that the red rain-coated figure he pursues through the darkened Venetian streets is not his daughter. On a second viewing, there is some foreshadowing that a maniacal killer is on the loose, but on a first viewing John’s sudden death is a shock to the system.
Even on a first, unexpected viewing, Don’t Look Now gets its big idea across; Baxter spotting his wife in Venice, at a time he knows she’s in England visiting their injured son, is something that neither he nor we immediately recognise as a premonition. It’s only when death finally catches up with Baxter, or perhaps the other way around, that things become clear. The sinister-seeming psychics see the real danger, but are unable to change the course of fate and their warnings go unheeded in the finale. Centuries old questions of fate and predestination apply, but the answers the film gives only affirm the spiritual in the face of obscene violence.
Don’t Look Now was the UK’s second most popular film of 1974 in the UK, a worthy second to box office champ Confessions of a Window Cleaner. Perhaps the sex did have something to do with it, but shock is surely the over-riding emotion that a first time viewer experiences. The mystery is not solved, any theorised solution creates far more questions than it answers, the inquiring die in a pool of their own blood. Don’t Look Now is one of cinema’s great puzzle-boxes, a scary movie yes, but the real horror is in the suggestion that we’re all utterly powerless in the hands of fate.
About STUDIOCANAL Presents
STUDIOCANAL Presents is the new streaming service from STUDIOCANAL, available now. From home-grown crowd-pleasers and world cinema greats, to acclaimed independent movies and modern and classic horror, STUDIOCANAL PRESENTS offers subscribers access to a wealth of exceptional film and series from its renowned and world-spanning library. A variety of new titles will launch on the channel every month, many of which can’t be streamed anywhere else in the UK. Fans can sign up via an Apple TV-compatible device for a seven-day free trial and subscribe directly to STUDIOCANAL PRESENTS for £4.99 a month. STUDIOCANAL PRESENTS is available through the Apple TV app on iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, iPod touch, Mac, popular smart TVs from Samsung, LG, Sony, VIZIO, TCL, and others, Chromecast with Google TV, Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices, and PlayStation and Xbox consoles.