Don’t Look Now at 50: Nicolas Roeg’s mesmeric horror of inescapable grief


In the opening scene of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, a young girl wearing a red raincoat drowns in a pond in the English countryside, while her parents are safely tucked away in a nearby estate. Roeg masterfully switches between shots of the girl playing by the pond in her boots and her father, John (Donald Sutherland), working inside on an image of an Italian cathedral he plans to restore. This editing builds suspense, leaving the audience feeling helpless as they watch this inevitable tragedy unfold. However, it also serves a deeper purpose beyond simply evoking emotions. Through the use of color and montage techniques, combined with shots such as a spill that bleeds over John’s slide, Roeg foreshadows and foreshadows the future, hinting at the heartbreak and terror that is to come.

In the film Don’t Look Now, time is compressed and the past and future are combined with the present. Those familiar with director Nicolas Roeg’s other works during this period, such as the atmospheric Walkabout and enigmatic sci-fi The Man Who Fell to Earth, will notice his experimental editing style that challenges traditional filmmaking. However, there is a unique quality to how specific patterns and visual themes recur throughout the film, serving as a reminder that grief can resurface at any moment for John and his wife Laura (played by Julie Christie), regardless of how much they try to avoid it.

Based on Daphne du Maurier’s short story, the movie quickly progresses from the death of the girl to the couple’s move to Venice. John has been hired to work on a church and it is unclear how much time has passed, but it has not been enough. John is throwing himself into his work as a distraction from his guilt and grief, while Laura is consumed by her emotions, taking pills and feeling overwhelmed with sadness. This makes her susceptible to the influence of two elderly sisters, one of whom is a blind seer claiming a psychic connection to the deceased girl that changes Laura’s demeanor. Meanwhile, a series of murders are adding a heightened sense of danger to the city’s canals and catacombs.

Before Kenneth Branagh, Roeg and his expert cameraman, Anthony Richmond, create a chilling atmosphere in Venice 50 years ago. The once romantic city is now a gothic nightmare, devoid of tourists and shrouded in gloomy weather. The focus is on the decay eating away at the city’s façades. While it may be cliché to refer to a city as a “character”, Roeg successfully portrays Venice as a hostile presence towards the outsiders struggling to adapt. There’s also a eerie feeling that seeps into the story, especially for John, who continues to have premonitions similar to the ones he had before the drowning incident. The vibes in this city are far from perfect.

Despite its overall gloomy tone, Don’t Look Now surprisingly contains one of the most sensual love scenes in cinematic history, akin to a desert flower emerging from concrete. In a brief respite from their troubles, Laura and John engage in a passionate encounter in their hotel room, which was considered daring at the time due to the reputation of actors Sutherland and Christie. However, director Roeg cleverly intercuts between the intense lovemaking and the aftermath as the couple prepares for dinner, mirroring the film’s theme of time loops. This sequence would go on to inspire director Steven Soderbergh in his own steamy scene between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight, over two decades later.

John briefly experiences happiness. He sees a small person in a red raincoat who reminds him of his daughter, but his sporadic ability to perceive beyond the five senses is difficult to understand and may be connected to both his past and future. He tries to immerse himself in work, but it is unfulfilling and risky, causing him to disconnect from his wife who is chasing illusions. The couple is stuck in a disconcerting state of uncertainty, emphasized by recurring imagery that evokes feelings of familiarity and a gradual decline in mental state. While not strictly a supernatural thriller, the events are seemingly influenced by inexplicable forces, more cruel than destiny itself.

The captivating nature of Don’t Look Now causes the viewers to become entranced, as if the cyclical patterns of the characters will continue indefinitely. Despite their attempts, John and Laura are unable to escape the pain of losing their child, and it seems as though the universe is determined to keep those memories at the forefront. Therefore, it is even more surprising when Roeg delivers a shocking jump-scare at the climax, as John finally catches up to the child-like figure in the red raincoat and the timelines collide in a heart-stopping burst of aggression.

However, the connection that Roeg creates between this scene in Venice and the drowning in the beginning of the film gives Don’t Look Now a sense of circularity, a never-ending curse of death and sorrow. While du Maurier’s story adds an eerie element to the film, its exploration of grief remains its most enduring aspect and one of its most enigmatic. John and Laura are struggling to come to terms with an inexplicable loss, carrying a constant ache that manifests as sudden and sharp pain. This real-life horror lies at the core of the supernatural tale.


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