British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is based on Daphne du Maurier’s short story by the same title (or Not After Midnight in England). With a mysterious, much jiggled theme, Don’t Look Now is an arresting supernatural occult thriller with a chilling climax—perhaps the eeriest climaxes in the genre of horror and thriller. The plain showing of the chilly town of Venice, reminiscent of the gothic age, and the narrative of the story splashes uncanny resemblance to the atmosphere projected that is both mystical and paradoxical.
John Baxtor (Donald Sutherland) is a restoration expert, an architect assigned to restore an old Church in Venice. His wife Laura, played by the ravishing Julie Christie, accompanies him to Venice away from the misgivings and tragedy in London. Having lost their daughter, the couple is immersed in sadness and a heartbreak that remains subdued. That is, until, Laura comes across two Scottish sisters Heather (Hilary Mason) and Wendy (Clelia Matania); Heather being a Psychic. Once in close contact with the sisters, the lives of both Laura and John spiral into ambiguity—into the lap of destiny and fate, not exactly kind and blissful rather murky, torrid, and surreal.
Don’t Look Now is notoriously popular for the eyebrow raising lovemaking scene between Sutherland and Christie. In many ways and much significant to the contextual aspect of the theme, the lovemaking scene between the two desolated couple is the only time the two act as a couple, hence, symbolizing the vacancies in their lives. It represents the final regeneration of their psychics—what would remain as the final act of intimacy for the two before their lives twist and turn around in the brooding ambience of Venice. The scene is starkly edited with back and forth cuts from nudity and intimacy to sensuality and desire injecting the absurdity of their lives—free, open, and one as souls, yet split into a void by destiny.
If there is a movie where the atmosphere on the screen matches the ominousness of the story, Don’t Look Now is the movie. The horror of the isolated canals, the silent tension surrounding the night and the foggy days—every breeze of air carrying a menacing message—the aloof environment of the secluded town of Venice; Don’t Look Now captures agony in the atmosphere giving it a mystical feel of desolation, of gloom, and of a sadistically impending apocalypse… As a movie, right from the beginning until the end, it is artistic in exhibition, chilling in procession, uncompromising in its tone, and unnerving in the emotions it invokes in viewers.
The story in itself is somewhat of an enigma. With constant flashbacks and flash-forwards to the past and the future and the present intermingling somewhere in between, the chronicling of the lives of the couple is shown in a distinctive, limited style. Roeg manages to keep the viewers engrossed, whilst revealing as little as possible—showing events from the point-of-view of the two characters, mainly John, and keeping the mystery tight and intact until the end. When viewers receive the denouement, the whole tale comes off with tremendous magic and appeal—leaving the viewer perplexed and in admiration for the style of filming, the story, the natural personification of Sutherland and Christie as John and Laura, and the overbearing climax that spikes the viewer.
The story also uses some of the smartest foreshadowing and buildup in films of any genre to arrive to the peak of the movie, the climax. It’s unpredictable, and when the story does take a U-turn in the climax leading to the finale, the application of intricate foreshadowing seems so simple, but ever more powerful and ultimately, it makes the movie one rich story in film and a tremendous feat in cinema.
The way the movie is shot, cinematically, brings the story to life taking it closest to reality. Cameraperson Anthony Richmond demonstrates visual artistry romancing with the camera, whilst the production team (Art Director, Giovanni Soccol) creates a mini world that validates the mood of the story and the rhythm the movie.
The editing is another sensation in the movie and is much inspired from the school of Alfred Hitchcock. Those layerings, constant cuts, flash-backs, flash-forwards, the transitions, and the sequences leading from the beginning until the end, not to ignore the subtle, almost non-linear plot, compliments the tone, dull and gloomy, creating a depressing mood within the observer. All of it combined—the shot composition and overall photography, the foggy editing, and the piercing background score—they implant an eye-shutting prophylactic feeling of a catastrophe in the viewers. Chilly, spooky, and bizarre would be understatements.
Exotic in mystery, painfully displeasing, unforgivingly cruel, Don’t Look Now is a classic—an exemplary depiction of art in cinema. It is the pinnacle of storytelling, and a thrilling escapade into the mysteries of life and death, the occult, and the horrors of misery. With layers of themes and symbols suggesting secrets, the movie is identical to the visual Bible of psychological thrillers and occult mysteries—written beyond words by du Maurier and adapted in style by Alan Scott and Chris Bryant on the screen.
It remains one of the classiest and richest stories told on film; this is filmmaking at its best and stands tall, even today, as one of the finest movie adaptations of a book, East or West. Don’t Look Now defines spine chilling and blurs the line between reality and the beyond—romancing tragedy with the absurd, physics with metaphysics—it is art on the screen, atonement off the screen…