Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Don’t Look Now (1973)
I have to admit that I’m actually a bit embarrassed to say that Venice is my favorite city in Italy.
I mean, it’s such a cliché, isn’t it? Tourists always fall in love with Venice, even though the majority of us really don’t know much about the city beyond the canals and the gondolas. I spent a summer in Italy and Venice was definitely the city that had the most American visitors. Sadly, the majority of them didn’t do a very good job representing the U.S. in Europe. I’ll never forget the drunk frat boys who approached me one night, all wearing University of Texas t-shirts. One of them asked, “Are you from Texas?”
“No,” I lied.
“You sound like you’re from Texas!” his friend said.
“No, ah’m not from Texas,” I said, “Sorry, y’all.”
I mean, that’s not something that would have happened in Florence or even Naples! In Rome, handsome men on motor scooters gave me flowers. In Venice, on the other hand, I had to deal with the same assholes that I dealt with back home!
That said, I still fell in love with Venice. And yes, it did happen while riding in a gondola. At that moment, I felt like I was living in a work of art. I can still remember looking over the side of the gondola and watching as a small crab ran across someone’s front porch. That’s when I realize that, by its very existence, Venice proved that anything was possible.
I’ve often heard that Venice is slowly sinking. That Venice has a reputation as being a dying city would probably have come to a surprise to the drunk Americans who were just looking for a girl from Texas that summer. And yet, Venice has always been associated with death. Just consider Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and the subsequent film adaptation from Luchino Visconti. Consider the controversial Giallo in Venice. And, of course, you can’t forget about the 1973 film, Don’t Look Now.
Oh my God, Don’t Look Now is a creepy movie. It’s probably best known for two things: the lengthy sex scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland (which was apparently quite controversial back in 1973 but which seems rather tame when viewed today) and the film’s shock ending. It’s one of the best and most disturbing endings in the history of horror and I’m not going to spoil it in this review. The first time I saw the movie, the ending caught me totally off guard and gave me nightmares. Admittedly, it’s not hard to give me nightmares but what’s remarkable is that, upon subsequent viewings, the ending is still just as frightening and disturbing. In fact, knowing what’s going to happen makes the film even more chilling.
The film’s story is actually a rather simple one. After their daughter, Christine, accidentally drowns, John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) take a trip to Venice. Though they’re in Venice so that John can restore an ancient church, both John and Laura are mostly trying to escape their grief. Laura meets a blind woman, Heather (Hilary Mason), who claims to not only be a psychic but who also says that she can see Christine in the afterlife. Laura believes Heather and is concerned when Heather says that Christine wants them to leave Venice. John, on the other hand, believes that Heather is a fake.
When the Baxters get a phone call informing them that their son has taken ill, Laura flies back to the UK. Or does she? One day, John spots his wife riding on a boat with Heather and her sister. Has Heather abducted or brainwashed his wife? When John goes to the police, they are as skeptical of him as he was of Heather. In fact, they start to suspect that John may have something to do with a recent rash of murders.
Confused, John searches Venice for his wife but, instead of finding her, he spots a figure in the distance. It appears to be a young child, one who is wearing the same red coat that Christine was wearing when she drowned….
It’s a simple story but it’s told in a very complex fashion. Director Nicolas Roeg is best known for his fragmented narrative style. Roeg often mashes together scenes from the past, present, and future and leaves it up to the viewer to put it all together. (For instance, in Don’t Look Now, scenes of John and Laura making love are intercut with scenes of them getting dressed afterward.) Roeg’s style that can often come across as being pretentious but, in Don’t Look Now, it works perfectly. The audience is kept off-balance and is always aware that that’s more than one possible interpretation for everything that is seen. Is Laura in the UK or is she on a boat in Venice? Is Heather seeing Christine or is she just trying to con a grieving mother? Is John chasing the figure in the red coat or is she actually the one pursuing him? Is John chasing the figure because he believes that she’s his daughter or because he wants to prove, once and for all, that Christine is gone and never coming back? Roeg keeps you guessing.
Death seems to permeate every frame of Don’t Look Now, whether it’s Heather’s cheery descriptions of the afterlife or the sight of a bloated corpse being pulled out of the canal. Even when John is working in the church, he still nearly slips off a scaffolding. While John restores ancient buildings to the vibrant glories of the past, the present seems to grow more and more ominous and menacing. John and Laura may have traveled to Venice to escape their grief but their grief follows them. How they deal with that grief — both as a couple and as individuals — is what determines their fate. For a film that is full of mysteries, none is as enigmatic as Julie Christie’s smile when she’s on the boat.
I’m probably making Don’t Look Now sound like an incredibly grim film and, to a certain extent, it is. After all, early 70s cinema is not known for its happy endings. And yet, as dark and disturbing as this film may be, it’s impossible to look away from. Roeg does a fantastic job capturing both the beauty and the decay of Venice while Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are so sympathetic as John and Laura that you find yourself rewatching and hoping that somehow, they don’t end up making the same mistakes that they made the last time that you watched.
Don’t Look Now is an essential horror film and one that’s as timeless as the sight of a crab running across someone’s front porch.