Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now

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Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now

Post  eddie on Sat Oct 29, 2011 6:24 am

Don't Look Now: Reading the film

Nicholas Roeg's dramatisation of Du Maurier has many glories. But it's not without its flaws, either

Sam Jordison, Thursday 27 October 2011 17.16 BST

Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in the film version of Don't Look Now. Photograph: Everett Collection / Rex Feature

Comparing books and films is always a risky business since the two formats deliver on such different levels. Writers don't have the same restrictions of time and space as film-makers. They can spread out and reach places where cameras can't follow. By the same token, an essentially slight novella like Don't Look Now just doesn't have the same heft as a big-budget production containing two of the finest actors of their generation (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie). I wouldn't want to set the two in competition and …

Don't Look Now and Other Stories (Penguin Decades)
by Daphne Du Maurier

… Oh, scrub that pious nonsense. Of course I want to set them in competition. It's natural. It's fun. And if you want to know (even though nine times out of 10 I prefer books), if I had to pick one, I'd take Nicholas Roeg's film. It's worth it for the opening alone – and the terrible scream as John (Sutherland) lifts his drowned daughter out of the water. It's impossible to watch that and not to feel you are in the presence of something very special.

Indeed that opening is so effective – so traumatic – that I sometimes wonder if it's blinded most of the critical world to the rest of the film's faults. Because, good as it is, Don't Look Now is flawed. There's even one crucial area where the book succeeds and the film fails. I'll get to that shortly. But first, so you don't think I'm just playing devil's advocate, let me say again that Don't Look Now is a very good film. As every critic who ever mentions it will tell you, its visual language works a treat. There's no way I'm buying my daughter a red mac, for instance. Roeg furnishes the thing with far too many unpleasant associations – and not just because of the coats worn by the drowning girl and, later, a malicious midget. There's also the clever way the director draws our attention to every red item that comes into the frame – and gives the colour entirely unholy connotations. Likewise, water: every time Roeg shows it (and he shows it often; the film is set in Venice) water seems sinister. It's murky and dark and when it isn't bobbing reed-tangled with corpses, or creating strange echoes in dark Venetian alleys, it's transporting ambulances and funeral boats. And then there's the repeated motif of smashing glass and the doom it presages. Every time you hear the sound it cuts right into you. As Roger Ebert says, it's a "masterpiece of physical filmmaking, in the way the photography evokes mood and the editing underlines it with uncertainty."

Even without those very special effects, the film would be counted beautiful. Venice looks far more interesting than it does in most films – a real, living, decaying city, with dark dank corners, slime and grime behind the brightly impressive tourist facade. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are also electric on camera. They look good and they feel right. It's hard to disagree with the mighty Peter Bradshaw, who claims "their relationship is the most authentic portrait of a marriage that I think I have ever seen in any film."

And yet, on the subject of marriage ... All those did they/ didn't they questions about the film's infamous sex scene have overshadowed another question: whether it's any good. To which it's tough to give an unequivocal answer.

The love-making is certainly far less ridiculous than the average Hollywood seduction: it isn't carried out in the light of a thousand flickering candles, and doesn't give the impression that sexual ecstasy is mainly a question of flicking your expensive haircut the right way. It's an admirably frank depiction. The intercutting of the writhing bodies with shots of the two people getting dressed afterwards – separately – is undoubtedly clever. And then there's the disturbing way it all harks back to the traumatic opening, and John's attempts to revive his daughter.

But nevertheless, the scene outstays its welcome. It becomes dull and increasingly ridiculous, especially thanks to the addition of some laughably soppy music on the soundtrack. I know it's supposed to be the first time they've done it in a while, but even so … flutes?

Meanwhile, the film has another big problem (look away now if you haven't seen the ending, because I'm about to give it all away). Like Du Maurier's novella, Roeg's creation gets a lot of its dramatic tension from the steadily growing certainty that something nasty is going to happen to John. Unlike Du Maurier's novel, this denouement is daft. I shrieked when I saw it the first time, but not with horror. I was laughing.

You can tell things are about to go wrong when fake smoke starts billowing around John's feet. Then the soundtrack is overwhelmed with noise: screaming, bells clanging and a weird roaring sound effect when the little girl in the coat turns around and – whoops! – it's a dwarf. The illusion is shattered; the nightmare becomes mundane. It's just a person wearing an unreal amount of make up, wielding a knife in a way that looks entirely ineffectual. Then we get fake blood and a strange montage of all the visual clues and matched cuts in the film, almost as if there's a worry we missed them first time around. It's like something out of Garth Merenghi.

In contrast, Du Maurier's novel ends on a cleverly struck chord of pathos and bathos. The last paragaph (after John has been stabbed) reads:

"And he saw the vaporetto with Laura and the two sisters steaming down the Grand Canal, not today, not tomorrow, but the day after that and he knew why they were together and for what sad purpose they had come. The creature was gibbering in its corner. The hammering and the voices and the barking dog grew fainter, and 'Oh God,' he thought, 'What a bloody silly way to die…'"

Thus the key to the whole story smoothly turns in its lock and we look at everything that has passed before anew, without having it shoved in our faces. The dwarf remains horrible, we understand why he thought he saw his wife on a boat after she had left Venice, and John's almost humorous shrug of regret expresses more emotion than Donald Sutherland spasming and rolling around in tomato sauce. Literature triumphs, in the end.

Or is that sacrilege? Am I wrong to speak ill of such a rightly admired film? Or did you too feel it might be just a little overrated? I'd love to hear.

© 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

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Re: Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now

Post  Guest on Sun Oct 30, 2011 8:49 pm

user wrote: Example: THE WALKABOUT could've been the best Jenny Agutter coming of age tale after LOGAN'S RUNS, but no, it has to be cluttered with le non sequitur scenes of lecherous Italian climatologists and so on.

Hi user, I don't remember this part in 'Walkabout' .
(Would you translate from Californian to Australian for me?...I'm missing something in the translation.)

I thought the movie was weird but compelling.


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Re: Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now

Post  Guest on Mon Oct 31, 2011 1:02 am

...they sound like miners...they're everywhere over here.

For me, as an Aussie, Roeg captured a sort of slewed time that's in (generally) unpeopled landscapes here.
A sort of red reverie accompanied by the sound of blowflies.

Stepping from there into a mining canteen is like an Italian farce...a complete juxtaposition. A complete breakdown in communication.

Now I want to watch the film again.


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Re: Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now

Post  Lee Van Queef on Sat Nov 12, 2011 9:05 pm

The Witches is better.
Lee Van Queef

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