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DON'T LOOK NOW (Roeg, 1973), Criterion DVD/Blu Ray


DON'T LOOK NOW (Roeg, 1973), Criterion DVD/Blu Ray

Don't look at your own peril. (Cover c Criterion/Janus)

I have to admit that I have always been a sucker for films that do something very specific: the conceit of placing into the image a passing element that is premonitory of something to come, yet is neither underlined visually, nor called attention to by the characters on the audio plane, thus allowing it to pass completely by the viewer's senses if they're not looking.

It's only through repeated viewings of the film that these images are firmly apprehended, and values potentially assigned to them in terms of narrative and/or symbolism.

I love the idea of slipping something in that doesn't necessarily even portend something in the future of the plot--the use of something that borders on the subliminal is extremely exciting to me. It's for this reason that I positively adore a film that was made right around the era of Don't Look Now .  .  .  William Friedkin's The Excorcist, which itself is rich with quick flashes of imagery that can pass quickly by you if you are not looking. A perfect example of this is the face of the demon revealed in a moment of darkness within the flashing of the room lights while Damien and Father Merrin are attempting to exorcise Reagan of that which seems to have taken her over completely. At the moment of this flash, there is no element of portent in the brief reveal; it is simply there as an eerie flicker of identity, reaffirming the process of exorcism.

Here is the moment that I mean:DON'T LOOK NOW (Roeg, 1973), Criterion DVD/Blu Ray

This face reveals itself in other flashes--one is an extremely powerful moment of Damien dreaming about his dead mother, and the face is spliced in quite quickly-- and in one flickering moment of grinning superimposition later on where Reagan is sitting up and grimacing into the camera in closeup.

Another film which played with the concept of seemingly unrelated images walking by and flickering unannounced through the frame, off to the side, barely in focus, there for you to miss if you are not paying attention, is The Eye by the Pang Brothers. The very nature of the plot of this film made it rich for the planting of such obscure visual material:

At first, the once-blind, new recipient of a pair of eyes doesn't understand the strange phenomena passing through her field of vision; it is only later that we come to understand that she has received the eyes of a dead donor who was capable of seeing the dead.

Don't look now--but if you don't, you might miss something! Nothing is what it seems!

*       *       *

This essay is not going to dwell on the larger enigma of Nicholas Roeg; it will not speculate on the trajectory of his career. It won't assign a value to his films after Eureka and Insignificance or wonder "what happened" to his filmmaking chops as many are wont to do. This is a critical-personal essay on Don't Look Now exclusively, and I will make no effort to tie (nor do I have an interest in tying) the themes in the film into the larger "auterist" framework of Roeg's trajectory of canon. 

*       *       *

Don't Look Now is based on a short story written by Daphne DuMaurier; both concern the subjects of loss, doubt, grief, love, the monotony of life, as well as life's exhilarating and anguishing peaks and valleys. They also dwell and flirt in different ways with the subject of Second Sight (or ESP, or premonition, or whatever you would call it). In the book and in the film however, our male protagonist--in the film played by the massively excellent Donald Sutherland here at his dry laconic best--does not realize that he possesses this gift. A pragmatic man, he is just as much in danger of missing or dismissing these flickering images of portent as they pass through the screen/his field of vision as we, the viewers, are.

The film opens as John and Laura Baxter, a married couple, are sitting in their idyllic country cottage on the suburban green hills of the UK. Immediately we experience the subjective visual life of John, examining as he is a series of slides--one of which in particular is of a church, likely in Venice, though it is not confirmed. The interior world of unconfirmed premonition overlays Johns exterior life like a colored lens laid over another; the end result is that both are rendered somewhat less distinct, so that the man is neither certain that what he is experiencing is premonition--and yet the act of what may be premonition clouds his exterior world. 

The collision between the demands of the physical world and the ethereal flashes of insight requiring an attention to decoding the vague and the symbolic intrusions onto his concrete life--the incompatibility between these two diametrically opposed worlds renders him less than optimally effective in both. No benefit in either direction.

His hard pragmatism keeps him from paying enough attention to these flashes of insight to decode them, thus he is unable to render any profit from them until it is too late. His slowness to pick up on the hints he's receiving in the opening scene, because of his refusal to accept "messages from beyond the fucking grave," (as he cruelly says later in the film) may lead to his arriving too late to save his daughter, and certainly too late to tune in to the meaning and the message imparted by the sisters in Venice--and to his vision of his wife on a vaporatti with the two sisters-- who are trying to save him from his own impulses.

But I'm getting ahead of myself--the film opens with John and Laura reclining, passing time together, living, breathing, existing, doing the things that they do as they make their passage together through life. As John is examining a series of slides, and converses with Laura who is researching the answer to a question posed to her by their younger daughter (at play outside) about "if the world is round, why is the surface of a frozen pond flat in the winter," he picks up on a series of soundless impulses that pass through his substance, invisibly wake him out of his passivity in the moment--like a dog lifting his head to a distant, soundless dog whistle, John senses something is up.

His beautiful little daughter, noodling about in the backyard--it is later pointed out in Venice, by Laura in a supreme moment of "guilting" her husband, that he was the one who allowed the kids to play out there by the water by themselves--has lost her ball in the center of the surface of the watery pond (which is not frozen, incidentally, despite the daughters offscreen question) and is making her way out into the deep water.

The girl is dressed in the brightest, bloodiest red slash of a crimson raincoat--otherwise drained of red, the visual surface of the film brandishes red in precisely the subliminal fashion mentioned above: as a portent, as a hint, an obscure indication of something vaguely worthy of notice: notice me now, for later on you will remember .  .  .  and if smart, will understand.

As John returns to his slide, he observes under a glass the figure of what appears to be a small girl in the church image, wearing a hooded red raincoat. His daughter? Another signal throbs through him--a distortion in the photo? A spill? A crimson streak, flowing directly from the red figure in the image, as though the image bleeds .  .  .  .

Overwhelmed by the nape hairs on his neck standing on end, John rockets up and out into the backyard, not clearly knowing why. As he runs through the little meadow and staggers into the pool to fish his drowned daughter out from beneath the surface, we are enveloped by a cinematic moment of what could be conceivably be the first among very few moments where the film indulges in conceits that do not neccessarily stand the test of time. John's slow mo scream, slowed down on the soundtrack, with bitterly melodramatic strings raking bowed cellos, is a stretch of stereotypical melodrama (cue Phil Hartman's Chuck Heston Solylet Green "It's made outa people!" parody) that has been mimicked and stretched out and milked for laughs.


There really is no way to render in words what it is that Roeg is doing here cinematically, via his disordered, fractured narrative. As portents and visual cryptograms come and go, for our and sometimes John's benefit, events and symbol orders are presented out of order. This is a narrative conceit that, along with the subliminal use of imagery I opened this piece describing, I have a great passion for: cinema as a puzzle. 

This is a conceit that stretches back at least to Jean Epstein, and titles like La Glace a trois Faces from 1927. The simple tale of a man considering and then breaking off the idea of engagements with three different women--one a trophy gold-digger, one a mistress of high art, the other a common working girl--the relatively short feature is rendered into one of the most complex film ever made .  .  .  at least as far as the narrative order of its surface is concerned. Hyper complex to the point of being confusing upon first viewing, La Glace has been called a "chinese box" of treasures, compartments open up and give up their secrets, reveal themselves all out of order, etc.

Like all of the titles mentioned above which present key narrative symbols and elements out of order, Don't Look Now is a haunting film that must be seen multiple times to be fully appreciated. It is impossible to apprehend the thick, multileveled web that Roeg and cinematographer Anthony Richmond serve up to the viewer in one viewing and grasp not only the narrative significance but poetic richness of all that is on offer to you.

It's for this reason that the film stands very high on the list of recent cinematic discoveries in my life. I was turned on to this film about eight years ago by a friend of mine who works in the publishing field. We were engaged in a tremendous exchange of collections of DVD's, and he turned me on to this film without a word by just slipping it into the mix of a particular exchange. I watched the film, was completely floored, and thanked him profusely. I still thank him.

I'll refrain from giving any further spoilers away (I have withheld the jolting surprise ending, although I have indeed given some pot points away here), but suffice to say this isn't a film entirely about what is shown. It is equally about how it goes about showing itself.

The Criterion DVD and Blu Ray releases are absolutely beautiful and do a very good job of maintaining the film's color palette, although I did notice a little bit of a cooling towards a bluish white versus the warmer, more aquamarine palette of what we are used to seeing. The extras are sufficiently indulgent to please the newcomer as well as the well-versed veteran--but as I've already yammered on quite a bit, I'll leave the extras to those who are strict disc package reviewers.

All in all, my mission here was to bring out what it is about this film that I love so much, and this lies with the ways and means, the puzzle-like distribution of portents, hints, flashes of the obscure which may or may not be deliberate .  .  . and this I have done.

So----> Bye for now.

Preston C/Herr Schreck



Published by , 09.03.2015 at 23:23
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Owen Stone
Owen Stone 10 March 15 17:30 Awesome movie, glad to see this classic get an updated to modern medium. Text hided expand
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