I take a great deal for granted. When I go to sleep at night, I assume that I will wake up the next day looking approximately the same (bed head notwithstanding). My wife and I leave for work every morning with the belief that when we return home in the evening, our things will be as we left them. More importantly, we assume that we will still recognize each other from when we last said goodbye. I know we're not unique in this respect. Don't Look Back exploits our collective certainty in the day-to-day aspects of life and weaves a tale of paranoia, perception and tragedy.
Jeanne (Sophie Marceau) is a woman in flux. Although a journalist by trade, she wants to shift gears in order to focus on a more personal project. She has been writing a semi-autobiographical story with mixed results. As her editor puts it bluntly, the childhood of her lead character is too cold and clinical. This may stem from the fact that Jeanne has no memory of her own life before the age of 8. Adding to her stress, Jeanne starts to notice things at home that are a bit off. At first it's small stuff like a kitchen table that may or may not have been moved when she wasn't looking. She catches her husband and daughter performing elaborate but nonsensical hand movements when her back is turned. It's definitely creepy but it could also just be a prank.
Then the seriously weird dookie hits the fan. Little by little, facial features of Jeanne's husband and kids start to change. I don't mean to say that they look evil or demonic. They just look different. It's almost as if they have started melding with other unseen people. Before you know it, Jeanne notices changes in herself as her Sophie Marceau face takes on Monica Bellucci features. After her mom undergoes a similar transformation, Jeanne heads off to Italy where she believes she will finally get to the bottom of this mystery. To reveal anymore would be unfair, to the film and to you, but I want to draw your attention back to the 8 year long gap in Jeanne's memories. That is too curious a detail for it to be cast aside and wasted. I assure you no such thing happens.
Director Marina de Van does something truly impressive with Don't Look Back. She conjures up an atmosphere of suspense and then actually sustains it for much of the film's running time. To be fair the sequences in Italy don't carry quite the shocking wallop that the early ones do and the final reveal tests the tensile strength of my disbelief but these are minor quibbles. The scenes where Jeanne and her family start swapping faces with strangers are masterful examples of restraint. In most films, the transition would have been sudden, shocking and spent. Here, the changes come slowly and almost imperceptibly. We can tell something is wrong based on Jeanne's reaction but the source of wrongness eludes us. A closer look suggests that the eyes on her husband's face are mismatched and then we chide ourselves for not noticing it immediately. There are numerous such examples including the scenes where Jeanne is played by a CG meld that I will call Sophica Marcellucci. While both actresses are stunners in their own right, mixing and matching their facial features gives unexpected results. The effect is seamless and downright creepy.
While I can heap praise on Marina de Van and her talented crew behind the scenes, a lion's share of the credit still has to go to Marceau and Bellucci. Both actresses portray extreme aspects of the same character and pull it off admirably. Admittedly Marceau has the showy role here and she runs with it. She packs Jeanne to the brim with paranoia and frayed nerves. The intensity of her fear is compelling and sets us up nicely for Bellucci who takes a more soulful approach to the tragic revelations of the film's second half. Frankly it's Bellucci's delicate portrayal that carries us through some of the film's minor rough patches. Once the action shifts to Italy, the pace slips a little but Bellucci keeps us engaged in the core mystery. Unfortunately she can't prevent the final reveal from feeling a little tacked on. I suppose it's in keeping with the film's internal logic but given the sensational buildup, I was hoping for something more meaningful. At least, the film manages to close on a satisfying note of bittersweet hope. For a tale that takes as many twists and turns as this one, that is an unexpected but welcome final trick.