Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Don't Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

[This is my (very belated) August entry in Blind Spots.]

Don't Look Now begins with a fade out from rain cascading upon a puddle to shutter-shielded glass windows letting a few obscured rays of sunlight through the slats. These are soothing images, the first in a film filled with sights that would normally offer comfort and warmth. In Nicolas Roeg's hands, however, they become unsettling in a way that cannot be pinpointed or explained, an imperceptible dissonance that gradually creates discomfort. This mood carries through to the following scene, in which tranquil shots of a young girl, Christine, in a red coat playing by a pond are intercut with her brother riding on a bike nearby and her parents, John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie), working in the house.

Roeg sets up the scene with gliding camera movements and dives into and back out of cuts. It instantly establishes the movie as a gravity elevator, constantly sucked through the core, propelled back out and slowed by the pull until the camera begins to fall and start the process all over again. Reflective imagery inverts Christine, who is then warped further by a red-coated doppelganger seen in a slide John has of a Venetian cathedral he has been commissioned to restore. The vague intensity slowly building in these swooning movements and careful editing reaches its apex when the three separate but linked images run together: the boy runs over a pane of glass inexplicably on the ground and crashes his bike; the red-and-white ball Christine was playing with floating on the surface of the water as a stand in for the red-clad, white girl now dwelling under it; and John sensing something wrong when he spills some water on the image and the girl's Venetian "double" disappears in a thick streak of red. A suite of domestic horror, this opening scene captures the full feature in miniature and stands on its own as a complete action of mood, construction and tragic execution that would make for one of the greatest short films of all time if the movie stopped there.

Don't Look Now ripples out from this exquisitely agonizing nightmare, replicating its curving, subtly dissonant layering of natural, even beautiful, imagery until it becomes a breathtakingly tense, impressionistic display of the inner mind. So thoroughly does Roeg visualize John and Laura's grief as an outward manifestation that the next time we see them after their daughter's death, they live in Venice, its renowned waterways an omnipresent reminder of the pain with which they attempt to cope. As with the opening images, the overwhelming beauty becomes a nightmarish shade of itself, some mirror dimension where everything looks as inviting as one would expect but conveys a strange threat. So bizarre and uncomfortable is the tone Roeg creates that the introduction of supernatural elements such as premonition and séances are almost to be expected, if not an outright relief. These fantastical elements ironically serve as the film's anchor, offering a clearer sense of what is happening than the far more naturalistic shots and performances that propel the film. At least with Laura attempting to contact her dead child through a blind medium and John having visions that conflict with the film's timeline, we know something screwy is going on.

Never has a film so strongly given the impression of something lurking around every corner even without the crutch of jump scares or jolting music. Roeg even does throw in his version of a jump scare as a minor joke: at one point, the psychic's sister turns on a light in a room and there her sibling sits cheerily. With the old woman appearing in long shot and her immediate launch into speech rather than a yelp of surprise wryly undermine what shock the moment might have. Otherwise, Don't Look Now operates on its off-kilter warping of realism edited into tone poetry, the knotty European lanes and waterways of the city folded into the constant refraction of the married couple's pain back onto themselves.

Yet the same skewed naturalism that makes the rest of the film so disturbing also makes its most notorious scene, the explicit sex interlude, so overwhelming and affecting. Constantly cutting back and forth between thrusts and images of the couple, post-coitus, dressing, the sequence stuns for the total drop of traditional filmic representations of sex. Roeg visualizes the distinction between "fucking" and "making love," largely by showing that none exists. Sutherland and Christie roll around, laugh, caress, improvise. They communicate the couple's tenderness through the explicitness of their actions. The whole sex vs. love chestnut has become a tired cliché in movies, but only because movie characters themselves have seemingly been warped by movie sex, with its male gaze distortions and pedestal placement. Roeg's editing, in addition to being a deft side-step around major censor cuts, places sex within the context of normal behavior, not elevating the couple's lovemaking to some mythic stratus of segmented body parts and dreamy lighting but a matter-of-fact part of life. Roeg included the scene to show a modicum of happiness amid the couple's consuming grief, and it works so well precisely because it is so unfettered.

But this is but a momentary reprieve for the couple, and especially John, who denies his daughter's death as much as he denies the foresightful powers that account for some of the more bewildering blips in the narrative. Unable to face thoughts of his daughter, John finds himself captivated by images of Christine's photographed doppelganger as she wanders in and out of John's view. The film's climax revolves around John finally chasing down this figure, only to reveal the person as a grotesque creature and the serial killer obliquely referenced earlier in the movie. Yet the premonitions that led John to his fate suggest a complicity in his own death, and the warped figure he sees wearing his daughter's coat may nevertheless still represent his child, whom he puts out of mind as a defense mechanism and whose gnawing memory literally rips him open at the end. It is a horrifying depiction of the capacity for the dead to ultimately kill the living. The only thing more unsettling is Laura's reaction: where her husband drove himself to suicide manifested as a murder by his repressed memory, Laura found demented peace in the clairvoyant's claim that the girl still walked with her and John. Thus, she ends the film in haunting contentment with her husband's death, so shattered that she sees his passing (and, implicitly, her own) as a deliverance back to their child. As if watching the movie herself, Laura twists the dénouement into a happy ending. For the actual audience, however, her muted joy plunges Roeg's elliptical masterpiece to new depths of despair.

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