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Don't Look Now

Paramount // R // September 3, 2002
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by D.K. Holm | posted September 8, 2002 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

Don't Look Now is great art and great entertainment.

You don't often get both in one package.

On the one hand, Don't Look Now is a complex of recurrent images, ideas, and themes, all intermingled superbly yet seamlessly and rendered with variations. There's the theme of looking (seeing, blindness, avoidance of seeing, "psychic" reading, as well as the idea of "watching over" someone, both poorly or successfully). Then there's the theme of red (a child's red coat and a another person's equally red coat, the red of ink, of blood, and mosaic tiles). There is the theme of scary decay (Venice in disrepair, empty hotels closing for winter, strange and dangerous alleys, a serial killer on the loose). And there is the theme of communication (letters, 'phone calls, psychic communication, not hearing what someone says to you from another room, making love as communication).

It's also a scary movie with a creepy setting and a puzzle buried at its heart. It's not The Haunting or Halloween level scary. It's more thoughtful, but still with a surprise ending that should still manage to shock unsuspecting viewers (don't read now if you wish to retain that surprise).

Don't Look Now is the story of John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, who became lovers for a time). When their daughter Christine dies in a freak drowning accident, John, an architectural restorer, soon after finds himself in Venice renovating the church of St. Nicholas, partially as work, but also partially as therapy for himself and his wife, who took the death terribly. While there, Laura meets a pair of old Scottish spinster sisters the bossy Wendy (Cielia Mantania) and the blind Heather (Hilary Mason). Heather also has psychic capabilities, and almost instantly talks to Laura about seeing Christine. Meanwhile John experiences a series of strange incidents and accidents, culminating in his chase through the decrepit and dark streets of Venice after a small figure in a red coat whom he thinks is his daughter. He is wrong to a disastrous degree.

Don't Look Now is based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, whose work was frequently adapted by Hitchcock (Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and The Birds). Writing ran in the du Maurier line. Her uncle wrote the popular novel Trilby, about an artist's model who falls under the spell of a hypnotist named Svengali, and Daphne du Maurier's books and stories were widely popular. Which is surprising, because her tales are weird, strained, and grim.

Screenwriters Chris Bryant and Alan Scott (who has worked with director Nicolas Roeg on other films) have remained true to du Maurier's bleak vision and written a film that doesn't flinch from the tragic nature of life. It's one of the saddest horror films ever made. And not just because it deals with the death of a child. The film is sad also because it is about a man who denies his gift (John is psychic and doesn't even know it, and in fact calls psychism "mumbo jumbo"), and because it is about a happy marriage assaulted by the forces of fate. Don't Look Now wrestles with the sorrowful fact that we cannot escape death.

Don't Look Now is one of the great "Venice" movies. Like Death in Venice and The Comfort of Strangers, it takes a rather dire view of life in the watery city. In fact, the only "happy" Venice movie I can think of is David Lean's Summertime.

Much, much more can be learned about Don't Look Now in Mark Sanderson's BFI monograph on the movie (ISBN 0 85170 572 3).


VIDEO: It must be horrible shooting a movie for a DP-turned-director, but that's what cinematographer Anthony Richmond did here, to beautiful effect. Roeg himself had shot Christie two or three times before for other directors, and, in her tweedy clothes, she has rarely looked lovelier, giving even more poignancy to the situation she is in but can't predict. Paramount's single-sided, dual-layered disc gives a good transfer of the film (sometimes it looked a little grainy on the desktop of my iMac). By the way, this is suppose to be the European version of the film, with a longer, uncensored sex scene, but the box gives the same running time as the old version reviewed in Maltin's book. Still, 110 minutes is also the time given in Sanderson's book.

SOUND: The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack comes in both English and French, and is adequate for a movie that could benefit from better sound re-production, what with its echoing Venetian alleyways. Part of the poignant effect of the film is found in Pino Donaggio's superb score (he also did the music for movies ranging from Carrie to Tourist Trap). Donaggio's score uses about three basic themes, and each of them is humable and enduring in the best, Bernard Herrmann sense.

MENUS: The static, silent menu offers 15 chapter scene selection for the 110 minute movie.

EXTRAS: Supplements are minimal and consist solely of the film's trailer. In effect, it comes across like the stunning last two minutes of the movie itself, which you only realize in retrospect. The disc would have benefited from several supplements that are not here, such as a reprint of the source story, and commentary tracks from Roeg and from Julie Christie, who contributed marvelously to the Criterion disc of Billy Liar. Someone mentioned a European DVD with some solid supplements, but I haven't been able to run down any information on it. It may be that the this American disc is a trial run, and if it proves popular a "special edition" might appear later. [11 Septermber, 2002: A reader, whose return e-mail address doesnt work, has written in with details about the British version of the Don't Look now disc, which contains "a theatrical trailer, full frame and in decent shape. Also included is a 20 minute featurette entitled Don't Look Now - Looking Back which includes interviews with Director Nicolas Roeg, Director of Photography Anthony Richmond, and film editor Graeme Clifford. The featurette is an excellent addition to the package and nice supplement to the feature itself. Last up is a DVD ROM feature including a PDF of advertising materials." Here's a complete review of the British disc and another."]

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