Alan Morrison argues that there’s more to Nicolas Roeg’s British classic than the best sex scene in the history of cinema

by Alan Morrison

Venice is a city like no other. Decay and splendour sit side by side within a maze of narrow pavements and canals. Tiny streets lead to sudden dead-ends, and forbidding churches loom into sight around every unexpected corner. Footsteps bounce off centuries- old stone, echoes deadened by the water, approaching and fading even though the streets appear to be empty of human life.

Once the city of Casanova’s amorous trysts, Venice shows its dark side in Don’t Look Now. This isn’t the Venice of St. Mark’s Square and the Grand Canal, but of back-alleys caught in the weak light of winter. It’s here that husband and wife John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) come shortly after the death of their daughter, Christine. As John begins the restoration of a Byzantine church, Laura meets an odd pair of English sisters, one of whom is blind but has psychic powers. She ‘sees’ Christine happily sitting between her parents in a restaurant, but warns Laura that John’s life is in danger if he stays in the city. Meanwhile, a series of murders have been confounding the Italian police. Is the small, red-coated figure John has seen scurrying into the shadows a vision of his dead daughter or a killer at large?

An Anglo-ltalian co-production, Don’t Look Now came out when British cinema was overshadowed by a resurgent Hollywood. In America, 1973 was the year of Mean Streets, Badlands, The Sting and The Exorcist. Despite a few honourable exceptions, the UK industry was caught between its ‘kitchen sink’ glory days of the 1960s and the low-budget renaissance brought about in the ’80s. That said, there was no greater visionary talent on British soil in the 1970s than Nicolas Roeg. For a single decade, Roeg fused art and entertainment via a distinctively fractured editing style. From Performance (1970) to Bad Timing (1980), he didn’t put a foot wrong. And then – Eureka (1984), Insignificance (1985), Castaway (1986), Cold Heaven (1991) – his skills slowly evaporated.

Don’t Look Now remains the most approachable film from Roeg’s artistic peak. It is simultaneously a textbook exercise in film grammar and an unsettling, utterly engrossing psychological thriller. The source material puts flesh onto the bare bones of a short story by Daphne du Maurier, a favourite of Hitchcock, who turned three of her tales – Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and The Birds – into movies. Roeg and his screenwriters, Allan Scott and Chris Bryant, aren’t averse to falling back on some Hitchcock MacGuffins, throwing in red herrings and plot tricks to confuse audience perceptions and increase the narrative’s mystery. What is the significance of the sisters’ photographs? The ornate brooch? There are no correct answers. Beneath the film’s intellectual surface lie the fun and games of a thriller, and Roeg caps them all with an ending that’s as shocking for first-time viewers as Psycho, Carrie or The Blair Witch Project (whose final enigmatic image owes a clear debt to the climax of Don’t Look Now).

As a former cinematographer, Roeg is led by his visual sense and so treats Venice as a unique physical space. But he’s also interested in the concept of time, and it’s his treatment of chronology that lifts the film above the level of a mere thriller. You can question the wisdom of a grieving couple choosing Venice of all places as an escape from the memory of their daughter’s drowning, but it is clear that the loss of a child is having such a corrosive effect on the Baxters’ marriage that time itself is falling apart. John and Laura have different ways of coping with, and succumbing to, the power of grief. He believes that he has some control over time by restoring a crumbling church to its past glory. She clutches desperately to a supernatural kind of faith – that the dead are still with us.

Roeg shatters their grip on reality in the editing suite. Flashbacks are triggered by emotional memories – cutting from the glint of sunlight on a canal to the rain on a car window at Christine’s funeral – rather than plot logic. Visual symbols are established early on, then echoed through the film. Take the colour red: in the opening sequence, Christine dies wearing a red raincoat, the same colour as the hooded figure sitting in a church in the photographic slide her father is studying. Later, red reinforces the link between Christine and the killer, between John’s premonition and spilled blood. Roeg links the past and the future, sealing John’s fate.

Bold editing also distinguishes the film’s sex scene. Directly ripped off by Steven Soderbergh in Out Of Sight, its infamy was assured by rumours that, driven by their offscreen affair, Christie and Sutherland did it for real. It’s certainly an explicit sequence, but one that conveys a level of intimacy rare in cinema before or since. Roeg contextualises the sex with everyday details of bathing and dressing. Here is a married couple who are comfortable with a shared nakedness that’s far removed from film-star nudity, where Christie’s hand on Sutherland’s back becomes a caress, not a calculated act of seduction. Roeg cuts the before, during and after together so that making love literally becomes part of a bigger relationship.

Don’t Look Now was overlooked at award ceremonies and its more European approach to film language didn’t exactly influence the British films that followed in its immediate wake: Don’t Look Now’s sex scene in 1973, Confessions Of A Window Cleaner in 1974. However, there aren’t many films that more perfectly shatter a story, scatter the clues and reassemble the complete picture only at the very end. In this way, Don’t Look Now was decades ahead of 21 Grams, The Sixth Sense and The Others, even if it avoids their closed endings in favour of encouraging further questions. Ultimately it is a film best enjoyed as an abstract experience rather than a conventional narrative. It is soaked in an atmosphere of menace that you can’t quite put your finger on, where a definitive meaning remains as elusive as the source of those footsteps echoing alongside a lonely canal.

Empire, September 2006

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