One of the greatest horror movies of the 1970s, and indeed of all
time: a sexy, innovative and atmospheric depiction of psychic terror.
This 1973 British production, adapted from a novella by
Daphne du Maurier, is one of the masterworks of the sometimes-great
Nicolas Roeg. It starred the onetime box office draws Julie Christie and
Donald Sutherland, and proved quite influential: Dario Argento and Danny
Boyle both highly revere the film, which was all-but-remade by Lars Von
Trier in ANTICHRIST,
and Sutherland actually named one of his children Roeg after working on
The film was also extremely controversial, with a
lengthy and explicit sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie
Christie that continues to be a point of debate (with ex-studio exec
Peter Bart claiming he was present during the filming of the scene and
that the sex was real, which Sutherland and producer Peter Katz hotly
Roeg attempted to match the brilliance of DON’T LOOK
NOW in two similarly themed subsequent films, 1991’s COLD HEAVEN and
but without much success.
The renowned UK-based art restorer John and his wife
Laura are stationed in Venice, where John is restoring an old church.
Both are traumatized by the death of their child, a young girl who
drowned a year earlier while wearing a red parka--just as John spilled
water on a slide depicting a person in red seated in a church.
In Venice Laura is accosted by an old blind woman who
claims to have psychically contacted Laura’s daughter in the afterlife.
Laura faints but seems rejuvenated afterward, so much so that she and
John have passionate sex--which turns out to be the last passionate
moment they’ll ever share.
Laura goes back to the psychic woman, who goes into a
trance in which she warns that John’s life is in danger. John, meanwhile,
spots a figure in a read coat who resembles their daughter in her final
Later that night John and Laura are awakened by a phone
call informing them that their surviving son has been hurt in an
accident. Laura catches an immediate flight back to England while John
stays in Venice--where things quickly turn very dark.
First John almost dies when a church scaffolding he’s
standing on collapses. Next he witnesses a corpse being fished out of a
canal, apparently the work of a local serial killer. While on a boat
trip he spots a stony Laura dressed all in black sailing past him on
another boat. Then of course there’s that mysterious red coated figure,
who’s still running around Venice, and who John unwisely decides to
chase into a church, where everything finally comes clear…
This is one of the few movies that actually outdoes its
source novel, which was clever and diverting but lacked the mosaic-like
fracturing of reality that characterizes this film (although it omits
the novel’s immortal final line: “‘Oh God,’ he thought, “‘What a
bloody silly way to die…’”). Nicolas Roeg accomplishes this through
editing that freely juxtaposes past, present and future, a technique
that seems entirely appropriate to a story about telekinesis and
Note the use of color by Roeg and cinematographer
Anthony Richmond, which is forceful and complex. Red is utilized
throughout (in the coat worn by the protagonists’ daughter, the spilled
ink in the opening scene and the blood shed in the final one),
functioning as both a symbolic visual touchstone and foreshadowing of (bad)
things to come. Richmond’s stunningly atmospheric rendering of Venice is
another highlight, presenting its tunnels and canals in gritty yet
darkly ethereal fashion.
Let’s not forget the film’s most (in)famous sequence,
which remains one of the greatest-ever movie sex scenes. Unlike most
every other non-hardcore sex scene I know, it truly gives one the feel
of eavesdropping on an actual married couple having actual coitus. It’s
marked by flash forwards to the participants getting dressed after the
deed is done, a device very much in keeping with the overall style (although
it was apparently done to appease the censors) that enhances the sense
of prophecy suffusing the film.
Another noteworthy directorial quirk is the paired
imagery, exemplified by the pond outside John and Laura’s house mirrored
in the canals of Venice, the protagonists’ lovemaking mirrored in the
motions made by the psychic woman in her trance, a table overturned by
Laura when she faints mirrored in the collapsed scaffolding that nearly
kills John, and of the course the red coat worn by John and Laura’s
daughter on the day of her death, mirrored in the red coated figure who
may actually be the girl…or not.
DON’T LOOK NOW
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Producer: Peter Katz
Screenplay: Allan Scott, Chris Bryant
(Based on a novella by Daphne Du Maurier)
Cinematography: Anthony Richmond
Editing: Graeme Clifford
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania,
Massimo Serato, Renato Scarpa, Giorgio Trestini, Leopoldo Trieste, David
Tree, Ann Rye, Nicholas Salter, Sharon Williams, Bruno Cattaneo, Adelina