Edited – March 2016
A phantom haunts Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 phantasmagoria Don’t Look Now, but the ghost is not so much situationally incorporeal as intrinsically incomplete, a lingering devastation wrought by the remnants of the past latching onto the psyche of the present. The psyche tellingly belongs not only to main characters John and Laura Baxter, who lose a child to a lagoon in the opening scene and trip to Venice to let off some steam, but to the film itself. This is because theme is sublimated into the higher realm of form in Roeg’s post-Bava sensory saboteur, a work that lithely reorients our conception of cinematic editing as it construes a complete and utter subjectivity out of discordant, hostile cutting mechanics. Horror is found not in the presence of a wraith from beyond the grave, but in the lasting haunt of the past’s icy grip on the canvas of the human mind. Ghouls and zombies do not need to rise from the Earth when they persist in the heart. Ultimately, Don’t Look Now is a master-class in “psychic entropy”, dismantling the very ligatures of cinema and blinkered assumptions of a rational, fully-knowable world order. Its vision of new knowledge is radically self-splintering, suggesting that a path to truth compromises our very foundational assumptions about time, space, and rational order. Don’t Look Now offers a form of sensory and mental awakening that is ultimately emotionally and physically catastrophic.
Don’t Look Now is a truly unnerving, dissociative film, not only taking its time waiting and watching while the horror latches on but disassembling raw notions of cinematic time altogether. It’s a masterpiece, an indelible marriage of content and form: a shattered, disordered formalist work of abject horror matched to an empathetic study of two humans wracked with nervous discomposure. The extraordinary friction of the editing, sound, and visuals radiates a toxic gloom that tethers the throes of the characters’ mental disarray to a filmic style that tears and frays itself into a shambles. In other words, it’s an internally divided film that explores two characters who exist as fragmented parts of an impossible-to-reconstitute whole.
The film expends its hopeless, melancholy minutes developing the two leads, played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, allowing their pain to slowly creep under the audience’s skin as it lashes out at the pair on the screen. The two actors give resolutely distant portrayals, emphasizing empathy over sympathy, by far the harder task. This is horror, yes, but of the most nerve-wrecking, elliptical variety, found only in the vacant, cavernous canals and streets of a Venice that doubles as a slowly unraveling landscape of the forgotten and broken-down mind. And our openings are the beaten, weary faces of two humans struggling just to find a breath that doesn’t suffocate them.
The twitching, schismatic editing of Don’t Look Now, by far its most esteemed and estimable feature, absconds with narrative clarity and continuity editing altogether, suggesting the aftereffects of past trauma on John and Laura’s life by denouncing their sense of the present altogether. The infamous sex scene, with coital sensuality intercut with shards of the two dressing plaintively in separate shots, vocally disarms the audience by denouncing the characters’ relationship to linear mechanisms of time. Progress folds in on itself, with past and present entangling in each other as impressions of tragedy invade fleeting flickers of passion. Momentary joy is undercut but the doleful remembrance of walking, shuffling nothingness that constitutes their life, as though present-tense eroticism can no longer exist as anything other than a partial flutter rather than a declamatory state. It’s as if lived event is but a half-remembered dream or an out-of-body experience. The true uncanny here is the vampire of time unwound, the monster of the spatial and temporal realms unshackled from constructions of rationalist thought. These traditional compartments of space and time are left desperately trying to feign sanity and ultimately trapped puffing in the vaguely chilly breeze as Roeg’s discontinuous editing mechanics marshal time and space themselves as lost principles, uncanny voids.
Watching Don’t Look Now is the sense of the avant-garde in harmony with the psychological. No mere showy gesture, Roeg’s subterranean cuts (courtesy of editor Graeme Clifford) interrogate the very lie of representational, linear time in cinema as they discursively entrap the protagonists in the nexus of internalized tragedy. Time itself becomes a surgical procedure into the soul, and the acme of terror is a world of overlapping, atonal memories of the past and apparitions of the future vying for supremacy until notions of an objective relationship to time are laid to rest altogether.
A statement that could also apply to Don’t Look Now’s baleful sense of place, with the expressively externalized Venice a cacophony of psychological fractures and sinister fissures that tether John and Laura to the gravelike vestiges of the city’s past even as the couple strives to break their own entrapment within the coffins of their own earlier selves. Anthony Richmond’s lustrous, subfuscous cinematography, with wells of black and piercing shards of inveterate red, sweats the psychological battlegrounds out of the characters and onto the screen. The apocryphal fiction of escape is envisioned in the depth-of-focus that provides serpentine, myriad paths off the screen in every shot, portals to nominal escape from the tomb of one’s psyche. But the continual miasma of surreptitious imagery besieges the characters still; their wandering off the screen only invites them to new visual cataclysms in the each and every shot. The depth of each composition promises ample room to move but no path to actually escape.
Although the film plays with trite symbolism, it vigorously energizes stolid metaphor by enlivening the screen with death-marked presentiment that questions the presumed meaning of traditional symbols of horror cinema and Western fiction altogether. Insofar as the film overzealously imbibes in crystal-ball spooks, it devilishly bounces devious satanist camp off of mournful, lachrymose characterization for a jarring tonal imbalance that only enhances the slantwise unease of the motion picture. The lapses in real world logic and character motivation only attune us to the fractious nature of the mirage of time we’re watching. The quarrel between the sharp, excising edits and the languid, fluid camerawork emphasizes consternation and disharmony rather than contented clarity, evoking a film as out-of-sorts as its characters. Even the baroque religious spiritualism is intentionally abstracted and almost announced as superficial symbolism, as though cordoned off in the surface level John and Laura must life their lives through; red, water, and the cross encompass a procession of false meanings that the film can’t even relate to, much like the rituals of spiritual meaning John performs throughout the film but never truly processes internally.
John and Laura rescinded the advances of the real world when their daughter died, moving instead into a plane of empty, soulless, angular labyrinths that approximate human nightmares and loss personified in the seemingly real-world location of Venice (here just one of the Devils’ hubs, or an impression of decay left on the mind). Perhaps this married couple brought themselves there, destined to do so, as a manifestation of what they were already living through. Does logic apply? Only a twisted but humanist kind, filtered through Roeg’s prodigious, unflinching empathy with the central duo as he wrings them dry. What happens in the film’s final stretches isn’t meant to conform to logic, because their lives no longer function under the dueling privileges and burdens of logic; all they have is despair and loneliness, and if the city streets appear inhumanly lonely and empty, it’s the filmic lens revealing to us what we are afraid to see with our own eyes. More than a mere character study, Don’t Look Now is an expression of tragedy as a denunciation of normative narrative progression and the domesticity and comfort of one’s own mind. The discombobulated tempo of image to image cadence not only refracts human scars but reforms our conception of the human mind and our understanding of narrative cinema altogether.