Adventurous director Nicolas Roeg’s breakthrough movie, the sexually charged psychological thriller Don’t Look Now, is one of those rare films that enjoys both cult-fave notoriety and deep critical respect. Yet try as I might, I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the thing, despite having watched it at different times of life. The picture feels intelligent and provocative, so it’s possible I’m missing something, but Don’t Look Now’s opaque storyline and its perverse preoccupation with human suffering has always struck me as needlessly pretentious and grim. Therefore, I can’t find a whole lot to praise beyond certain aspects of acting and technical execution, but it’s clear many other viewers experience Don’t Look Now differently.
Anyway, the quasi-Hitchockian storyline begins in England, where John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) live with their young daughter. During an eerie, fragmented opening scene, the daughter drowns on the Baxters’ estate. After the tragedy, John and Laura relocate to Venice, where John has work, as a means of escaping their traumatic past. However, Laura remains unsettled, especially when she meets a pair of strange older women, one of whom claims to be a psychic receiving messages from Laura’s dead child. Worse, John has a series of jarring experiences suggesting he’s doomed. Eventually, it all gets very weird, with freaky imagery ranging from cataract-clouded eyes to a homicidal dwarf. Throughout the picture, Roeg deliberately jostles the audience’s sense of time and place with brash editing, creating an effect that might favorably be called dreamlike. Less favorably, the effect might be called confusing or simply annoying.
At the center of the picture, consuming much more screen time than seems necessary, is an intense sex scene between Christie and Sutherland that’s meant to represent their characters coming back to life after a period of grief. Whatever its story purpose, however, the scene has become infamous after decades of rumors that the actors actually had intercourse during filming. (The gossip has been corroborated and denied so many times that, at this point, it’s anybody’s guess what really happened.) Considering that the sex scene should only be one color in the larger painting—if anything, the picture’s gruesome ending is a more appropriate subject for analysis—the fact that Don’t Look Now is best known for a few moments of carnality says something about its diffuse nature.
And to those who adore this picture, I can only say that I envy you the pleasure of seeing the great film I’ve never been able to find in the thickets of Roeg’s brash artistic posturing. While I can recognize the fierce commitment of the leading actors’ performances and I can tout the craftsmanship of the picture’s cinematography and editing, I just can’t swing with Roeg’s cinematic insouciance.
Don’t Look Now: FREAKY