Film

Roeg State

Nicolas Roeg, Don’t Look Now, 1973, 35 mm, color, sound, 110 minutes. John Baxter and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie).

NICOLAS ROEG WAS ALMOST FORTY in 1968 when he got his big break. After kicking around the British film industry for ages—shooting dazzling second-unit footage for Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but fired by David Lean from Doctor Zhivago (1965); at last getting a foothold by photographing Julie Christie’s next three films, Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), and Richard Lester’s kook-descending-a-staircase Petulia (1968)—he suddenly was the hottest, hippest London cinematographer around. Elevated to codirector alongside writer–novice filmmaker Donald Cammell to shepherd Performance, the pair delivered an exhilaratingly disorienting, viscerally suggestive fin-de-’60s classic. (It wouldn’t be released until 1970, because it freaked out and/or disgusted the brass at Warner Bros.)

Roeg had plugged-in instincts, atavistic reflexes, and a flair for the visually outré. He translated the whole imploding, exhausted sex-and-drugs-rock-and-role-playing aspect of Swinging London into a pictorial language of splintered cuts, cavernous mossy spaces, and a wraparound immersion that made it feel like you were inside of a bloodshot fish-eye lens looking out. With a genius for pastiche and designer alienation, he impudently raided the closets of Alain Resnais, Godard, Antonioni, and Marco Bellocchio to assemble his anxious, indolent, sexy-paranoid style. This was what the hero of Blow-Up would have gotten up to if he had dropped acid with the Rolling Stones and become a movie director.

Performance put Roeg on the celluloid map; Walkabout (1971) established his singular command of preapocalyptic psychogeography, at once sensual, spaced-out, and abstractly urgent. Melding the faithful archetype of the noble savage with countercultural pieties about how petty suburban materialism had made white people lose touch with nature and spirituality, it mystically conflated the solitary lost-in-the-desert portion of Lawrence with the back-to-the-stoned-age ecopolitics of Weekend (1967). It had a head-butting poetic authority that made something like Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) look as dated as a matron in a miniskirt.

And then came Don’t Look Now (1973). Superimposing intricate, baroquely subliminal symbol-patterns and glazed death-masque motifs on hoary gothic thriller conventions, it feels like a Hitchcock film that went missing in Venice and whose remains were dredged up by divers from the canals. Newly available in a gorgeous Blu-ray edition (including some bare-bones but agreeable making-of interviews), if there were an award for the eeriest, clammiest atmosphere ever committed to film, Don’t Look Now would belong on the shortlist. Boasting a peculiarly triumphal sense of spectral desolation and displaced grief, the film explores a wintery, skeletal Venice: a dying city or living ghost town composed of ruined candlelit churches, serpentine alleys, elegantly moldy rooms, funereal waterways, cracked gargoyles, and human apparitions.

Don’t Look Now begins with a shattering, almost perfectly calibrated sequence that serves as précis for Roeg’s technique: a small child at play by a placid pond, the parents working and idly conversing inside their country cottage, miniscule omens flashing up in fleeting glimpses (an image of breaking glass, a glass of water spilled over a slide, a spreading red stain matching the girl’s red raincoat). John, the father (Donald Sutherland), sixth-senses something’s wrong, but he’s too late to save her; mother Laura (Julie Christie) casually steps outside and sees her husband emerging from the pond, cradling their dead daughter. She screams in animal panic.

Roeg balefully cuts to a disintegrating Venice: Months have passed, the husband is working as an architectural restorer on a sixteenth-century church, with his wife assisting/accompanying him in a preoccupied manner. Sutherland and Christie here had something more pertinent and unusual than chemistry: They have the symbiotic familiarity of a genuine married couple, one of those unions where the two start to resemble each other even as they could be growing apart. Their famous lovemaking scene, the physical intimacy intercut with them bemusedly dressing afterwards, is notable not for body heat but uninflected normalcy: great tenderness mixed with routine.

Transplanted to this torpid landscape, the nightmare of a child’s death gets entangled with loads of Venetian bad karma. A pair of elderly English sisters, one a proper fusspot and the other a blind psychic with cloudy marbles for eyes, informs Laura that the psychic one has “seen” their daughter. Laura is elated, then collapses; John is predictably skeptical. Soon the sisters are popping up everywhere John and Laura go. Warnings and suspicious accidents, premonitions and occult stirrings, reports of a serial killer on the prowl, a bishop who skulks as if he were part mafiosi, part Illuminati—Roeg and editor Graeme Clifford tricked the movie out with so many red herrings and mirrors and subconscious intimations, it’s as if the universe itself were conspiring against our attractively besieged couple.

Nicolas Roeg, Don’t Look Now, 1973, 35 mm, color, sound, 110 minutes.

But to purloin a phrase: Don’t look now, but this universe’s right hand doesn’t know what its bloody left hand is doing. God and the Devil both abandoned Roeg’s Venice—they must have been otherwise engaged with The Exorcist—and so we’re left with a junk drawer full of Victorian superstitions and heretical knick-knacks. (My favorite item is the open copy, on John Baxter’s nightstand, of Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy, a dramatization of the collusion between the Pope and the Nazis: The nebulous collectivization of guilt is one subtext of the film.)

Rejecting “mumbo jumbo” but progressively becoming more besotted with the supernatural, Roeg’s film isn’t really about its declared theme: “Things are not what they seem.” Any work that hinges on a case of mistaken identity with a homicidal dwarf is not fated to conjure any Henry (or William) Jamesian mysteries. It is really about the power of film grammar to override rational objections, and how film presences can mesmerize away our misgivings.

Christie was Roeg’s perfect subject, open-faced yet movingly enigmatic—the fusion of pristine surface and fiercely camouflaged distress. And there haven’t been enough chances to see her in surroundings this evocative. Since the mid-1970s, there’s been a touch of Whatever-Happened-To… aura around her, working erratically and without focus, but every five or seven years doing something that stops you in your tracks. You might expect to view her career in the past tense, but in 2012 she tore into her first honest-to-God femme fatale role in Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep: At seventy, she drew on reserves of determination and beauty and black magic that are in themselves more supernatural than Don’t Look Now’s earnest manipulations.

Roeg had a fine run in the ’70s—in a savvier, way sexier world, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) would eclipse that rattletrap contraption Star Wars as the decisive science fiction film of the twentieth century—but fell out of favor as movies turned into toy stores, butcher shops, and candy machines. Like its peeling Venice, Don’t Look Now remains unforgettable, possessed of solemn immortality even tacky-touristy paraphernalia can’t kill. However, the ending can still make a punchy spectator realize that had Eisenstein or Dziga Vertov defected, we could have had a Wolfman film for the ages or Shirley Temple in a highly unorthodox fusion of two horror classics: Frankenstein Meets M.

Don’t Look Now is available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.

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