Sunday, August 3, 2014

Vital Viewing: Don't Look Now (1973)

Don't Look Now  comes to us by short story, written by Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca). And though a lot of short stories don't seem adequate enough to elaborate on with a feature film, Don't Look Now is a near-perfect example of adapting a story from the written word and making it your own. 

John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) are on a working vacation in Venice, where John is overseeing the restoration of an old church after a tragic accident at their English home resulted in the drowning loss of their only daughter, Christine.  While it seems like the perfect distraction to keep their minds off their sorrows, their trip ends up only causing them more grief. 

When John and Laura meet for dinner at a restaurant, Laura meets a pair of sisters, Heather (Hilary Mason) and Wendy (Clelia Matania) in the rest room.  Heather is blind, yet claims to have second sight, and tells Laura that her daughter is essentially watching over her and John.  Laura is perplexed at first, even a bit dazed- and in fact is so overcome with emotion that when she returns to the table she passes out (in what is perhaps the best fainting over a table full of food and drink that I have ever witnessed!)  She is rushed to the hospital, where she is soon feeling quite well.  When John is set to take her home, Laura attempts to convince him that their daughter is "among them".  She explains that Heather knew details about Christine, and was able to describe her so vividly that there's no way she couldn't be close by.

John is nothing if not a reasonable, sensible man.  He dismisses the sisters, warning Laura that it is just a scam of some sort. Though Laura's mood - previously rather despondent - has done a complete 180 after her encounter with the sisters, he's even less convinced of Heather's other-worldly powers after a second run-in with the women has Laura claiming that they have warned her that his life is in danger. She pleads with John to come visit the sisters with her, that Heather is going to try to contact Christine on the other side.

Furious, John refuses to hear any more about it, and though angry at first, he quickly warms to Laura's charms when the two retire to the bedroom.  In one of the more controversial sex scenes in horror (or in film in general, for that matter), the couple engages in some pretty graphic (at least for the time) intercourse, which is beautifully filmed and interspersed with scenes of them getting ready for dinner that evening. 

Julie Christie is one sexy woman, and looks fabulous throughout the entire film.  Every stitch of clothing she puts on looks tailor-made for her and despite the early 70's trends, she looks very in-vogue even today. Her engaging smile is both sexy and friendly, and is well-used here despite the morose themes.  Donald Sutherland, well.... he's DONALD SUTHERLAND. What's not to like?

I digress...

On the way to dinner, John and Laura become disoriented traveling the dark streets of Venice. They end up separated, and it's here where we realize this is really John's story, not the couple's.  He wanders the streets, looking for Laura, when he sees a young girl in a red slicker - just like the one Christine was wearing upon her death. He's unable to catch up with the girl, and finally makes his way back to Laura. It won't be the first time he sees the slicker, nor the first time he gets lost roaming through Venice. It's part of what gives this film an unsettling appeal.  For we are nothing if not terrified when we are lost in a strange place.

Venice itself is an important character in Don't Look Now.  Its watery streets and ancient architecture lend a solemn and even forboding feel to the film.  Being lost in the presence of such archaic buildings and gondola-ridden waterways would give anyone pause, but the way the city is used to such confusing effect gives it an all-too sinister feel.

There are a few key themes that will resonate with audiences here. Surely directors such as M. Night Shyamalan and even Steven Spielberg were influenced by the trigger use of red within their respective films The Sixth Sense and Schindler's List.  In Don't Look Now, we're shown the color in crucial moments - among them the color of Christine's slicker, the ball she was playing with when she died, the red-cloaked individual John sees several times, and the "blood" on the slides of the church John is working on.  Water weighs heavily in influence here as well, with the daughter drowning and then John and Laura ending up in Venice of all places - a city surrounded by and within water. 

Don't Look Now is an amazing piece of film-making that has achieved a high standard and classic status for a reason.  It's just that excellent.  It's not a feel-good film, as the recurring theme of death is ever-present, but it is such a well-acted example of grief, mourning, and the inability to move on that it pulls you into its lair of deception and forces you to enjoy it despite any misgivings.  There are parts of the film where people are speaking in Italian, but you are given no subtitles to help you decipher the words. You are left to your own devices to make your own conclusions, which brings about a confusion and disorientation that mirrors that of John and Laura throughout the two hour running time.
I can't stress enough what a great movie this is - and it's on Netflix Instant Watch AND Amazon Prime Instant Video right now - so what are you waiting for? 

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