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'Don't Look Now': Venice in Film

This article was previously published in the special edition, VENICE (July 2019).

‘Venice is like a city in aspic, wrapped over from a dinner party, where all the guests are dead or gone,’ utters an elderly blind psychic around the ninety-minute mark of Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 cult thriller Don’t Look Now. All milky-eyed and with silent footsteps in a peculiar patent green coat, she conjures the image of a city pickled in gelatine. It could also be the island equivalent of Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde menagerie, the antithesis to our loved ones’ gondola clad postcards from summers spent in the city.

Still from 'Don't Look Now', 1973, dir. Nicolas Roeg (Image: Eldorado Films & Studio Canal)

In an issue dedicated to Venice in this poignant year, Don’t Look Now provides the perfect synthesis of the chic, yet gothic sensibility of the Italian city in garish technicolour. Is this anti-advertisement to tourists subtle enough to permit us to slightly peer behind the artifice of the Biennale in our present time? Or is it merely a piece of modernist dislocation, a nod to Roeg’s forebearers: Hitchcock et al?

Draped in the elegant but disturbed eroticism of Roeg’s lens, Don’t Look Now is about a young couple (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland) whose drowned daughter appears to haunt them through the meandering backstreets and canals of off-season Venice. Leaving their surviving child in school in England, they move to the deserted city, where the husband, fittingly an art-conservator, works on restoring decaying church mosaics. The film too takes the form of a mosaic; it interrupts itself with glimpses of the future, alluding to the husband’s propensity for supernatural premonitions, of which he takes no notice, a mistake that ultimately destroys him. Typical features of the neo-gothic film are present: unheeded warnings, an unseen mass-murderer and two dumpy sisters holidaying – one of whom is the aforementioned psychic. Yet these tropes are executed with style and elegance, employing an otherworldly dislocation to update Daphne du Maurier’s short story for a sexually liberated audience in the year that marked the end of the Vietnam War.

Still from 'Don't Look Now', 1973, dir. Nicolas Roeg (Image: Eldorado Films & Studio Canal)

Amidst this oxymoronic, muted-yet-kaleidoscopic Venetian odyssey, a special gothic ambience is achieved within the confines of the film. Pauline Kael describes this sensation which Roeg imparts to the environment as an ‘unnerving cold ominousness’. Roeg makes the decay of Venice clear to the viewer: an eternal grey sky overhead, disintegrating gargoyles, the dank wet walls of passageways and the labyrinthine canals. Yet the dislocated modernist style of filming says otherwise; the worldly and artificial, splintered and flitting back and forth to a near-subliminal effect, highlight how there is nothing worn and tired about Roeg’s direction. Following Walkabout (1971) and Performance (1970), both psychedelic romps through the Australian Outback and London’s underworld respectively, Roeg’s Don’t Look Now adopts an impressionist approach to its imagery in a more frontal manner than his previous works. In altering the audience’s perception of reality, the film alarms and deceives; the only constant is the colour red as it traverses different chronological and spatial planes.

A red stain on a photographic slide, the daughter’s red hood floating in the pond, the same red hood appearing in Italy, red boots, a red scarf and essentially, the muted reds of Venice’s decaying rooftops and decrepit walls are just a few of the red elements present in the film. Roeg paints a world haunted by the unexplained supernatural through the use of only one colour. The beholder is lured to the rouge shade, just as the couple is lured to Venice under the guise of it being something entirely different, a retreat from the memory of their daughter. Where the city is in ‘aspic’ to the elderly sisters, to Sutherland and Christie’s characters, the psychological impairment of bereavement renders them too in a state of immovability. It is as though the colourless city has been vacated to permit them time to grieve; cool indifference from the locals and a key sensual encounter arguably permit this. The sex scene in question has the couple nude in bed, intercut with flash-forwards to their post-coital dressing, which in Kael’s words, ‘is almost the opposite of a strip-tease’. The mood of this erotic encounter prevails throughout the duration of Don’t Look Now, but the taboo of death, sexuality, and the implied impending divorce combine to create a noxious soup of discomfort and terror.

Still from 'Don't Look Now', 1973, dir. Nicolas Roeg (Image: Eldorado Films & Studio Canal)

There is a scene where Sutherland’s character finds a discarded glove and a face-down plastic doll that is partly submerged in the Venetian canals. Holding the toy, water runs down from its face; is this a baptism or another drowning? Artificially blinking, the lifeless eyes stare back at him and Pino Donaggio’s soundtrack soars, a crescendo against the desolate pallid sky. Littered waterways do not belong to the image of Venice we expect. All of Roeg’s stylistic choices in his depiction of Venice refer to the didactic message at the core of the film: things are not as they seem.

Forty-six years since its premiere, Don’t Look Now is to be re-released in cinemas this July. Whilst Roeg’s film is kitsch, overly stylised, and the dénouement probably a little bit too ridiculous to be considered a serious piece of art, we are still presented with a lesser-seen Venice, a rarity in an art world that elevates the city’s history above all else. Since the biennial boom of the 1990s, the face of Venice as a cultural centre has shifted, even becoming rotten for some. At the climax of the film, as the camera sweeps to reveal what lies beneath the Venetian red hood, we see the truth for the first time, the whole rotten disfigured truth.

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