Friday, April 27, 2012

Don't Look Now (1973)

I've been pulling up some old DVD and Video Risk reviews from the cybertomb that once was Hope you enjoy. This review was from September 2000.

Water is used to symbolize birth, death, salvation and damnation throughout the world in both art and folklore. Water permeates Nicholas Roeg's 1973 film "Don't Look Now" with the stench of death, the joy of rebirth and acts as a hazy shroud that keeps the viewer from seeing what's around the corner...just out of reach...waiting.

In "Don't Look Now," director Roeg combines elements of the Gothic Horror, Mystery/Suspense and Occult genres resulting in a deliberately paced, genuinely chilling and erotic thriller. Roeg tells the tale of a couple, John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) dealing with the tragic drowning death of their young daughter. Sutherland plays an artist who specializes in restoring renaissance church frescos. He accepts a restoration job in Venice following his daughter's death. The couple travels together to begin their healing and grieving process. Set in the late fall, Venice is shrouded in an overcast, misty haze. While there, John is haunted by visions of their dead daughter while Laura comes under the spell of two psychic sisters (Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania). The haze also provides a veil of cover for a serial killer who preys on the city. This adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier story rewards the patient viewer with a case of the creeps they will not soon forget.

There are so many fine points to this movie. The two leads are superb. Donald Sutherland has been a favorite of mine since I saw "The Dirty Dozen" on its first run in 1967. Here, as in "Ordinary People," his "John Baxter" is just an average decent guy. This is not to imply that his character is dull, to the contrary, he is a real person dealing with extreme grief by hiding in his work. Sutherland delivers one of those "nice guy" performances that are so often overlooked by the academy. The viewer doesn't see the "acting."

John Baxter has been brought to Venice by the Catholic church to restore a crumbling fresco. The fresco is a mosaic. John examines small pieces of marble used to repair the moisture damaged fresco as if he is completing a giant jigsaw puzzle; all the while, he hesitates at picking up the shattered pieces of his own life. John believes he has found sanctuary from his grief, and the ever-growing distance between he and his wife. Only after a terrifying brush with death and the realization that Laura is falling deeper and deeper under the spell of the two psychic sisters does he refocus his energy on saving his marriage. That John desires to remain numb after the cruel event horrifyingly depicted in the film's opening scene is understandable. As a parent of three, I still have a hard time watching the drowning that begins this masterpiece.

Julie Christie shines as Laura Baxter. Laura doesn't have the luxury of hiding in her work. She faces each day with the cold realization that the beautiful little girl for whom she went through the pain of a watery, bloody childbirth fell into a stream and drowned in agony while her mother and father were busy elsewhere. I hope that I don't outlive my children. Laura's despair leads her to look for comforting answers wherever she can. She eventually meets and becomes dependent on the two spook sisters. She finds hope and renewal from their psychic visions. Christie captures the innocence of childlike faith perfectly as she tries to persuade her husband to listen to the voices of the two sisters.

The film was notorious for one of the most graphic and beautiful lovemaking scenes of its time. Notoriety aside, the scene is extremely pivotal and honest. John and Laura are not having sex, they are making love as if it was the first time. Shown in flashback as the couple dresses to go out for the evening, we see the love that has rekindled between John and Laura. There is hope that they will not be torn apart from each other by their common tragedy. This is the first time that they have lain together in the Biblical since following their daughter's death. Again water plays an important role. They move around each other in the hotel bathroom as they get dressed. Here water symbolizes rebirth. Roeg's owes a debt to Hitchcock for this scene. Laura watches John puts on his shirt. She reacts by remembering earlier when he gently began to disrobe her. The entire scene follows this pattern. Coming late in the movie, this scene is cruel in that the viewer feels such joy for this couple...they have finally begun to heal together. Roeg has set the audience up the shocking finale.

I don't want to reveal any more about this movie. Why watch Psycho if you know that Norman is his own mother? The film is fraught with more symbolism and clues, but to say more might ruin this overlooked classic for some first time viewer.

To those who like their horror movie populated by horny teens in peril, stick to "Scream." But if you've got the patience for a well written, artfully filmed, well acted movie that will chill, beguile and arouse you at the same time, then rent this movie. Do look now for "Don't Look Now."

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