The Thomas Mann novella Death in Venice, in which impossible and unattainable beauty drives a writer to his demise, inspired one of Luchino Visconti’s most well-known films. Visconti’s 1971 version of the same name is also highly regarded for its depiction of Venice, one of the greatest cities in the world and the kind of place where you can place a camera in any one of the numerous narrow alleyways and still get a beautiful shot.
It is one of these alleyways that British heritage conservationist John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) from Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) gets a jolt. As John and his wife, Laura, hunt for a restaurant, he spots a diminutive figure in a red raincoat hopping across one of the canals. The figure reminds him of their daughter Christine, who died in a drowning accident while wearing her crimson parka some months ago, and John is rattled.
Laura (Julie Christie) is already flirting with the supernatural. She has met a pair of sisters, one of whom is blind and psychic. Heather (Hilary Mason) has frightening glassy eyes and claims to sense Christine’s presence in Venice. Laura, who has been on medication since Christine’s death, pathetically grasps at the possibility that her daughter is trying to communicate with her. She perks up enough to engage in passionate sex with John. One of the best-known scenes featuring intercourse in cinema is special because of how ordinary – and therefore believable – it appears. Julie takes a bath, John brushes his teeth, and they loll about in bed before climbing all over each other. The passion that guides the moment is broken up into jagged images and spliced with scenes of the couple readying for dinner afterwards.Don’t Look Now is filled with varied camera movements, from classic tracking shots and pans to sudden and jarring zooms and intense close-ups. The editing pattern by Graeme Clifford is similarly asynchronous and fractured, intercutting between events from the past with events that are to follow, scattering visual clues all around, and creating a sense of unpredictability and the uncanny that haunts the entire narrative. The shocking denouement begins to make sense once this jigsaw of shards has been assembled as a whole. For all the distance that the Baxters try to put between their home and Venice, where John is working on restoring a church, their fate is sealed on that day in England when their daughter died.
Roeg based the movie on Daphne Du Maurier’s short story of the same name, and while he stayed faithful to the plot, he made one crucial change: Christine dies of meningitis in the story, rather than being drowned in the movie. The use of a water body links the past with the present, and images and colours seen early in the movie follow the couple to Venice and act as portents. Cinematographer Anthony B Richmond makes beautiful use of reflective surfaces, especially in the scene in which Laura begins to believe that Heather has the power to communicate with the dead.
It’s usually classified as a horror film, but Don’t Look Now also ranks as one of the most moving depictions of grief. Despite their apparent sangfroid, the Baxters have been deeply wounded, and the sisters merely bring to the surface the pain that the couple has tried to suppress. Michael Winterbottom paid tribute to Don’t Look Now in Genoa (2008), set in the other well-known Italian city. Colin Firth’s professor moves to Genoa after his wife’s death, but the ghosts of the past prove hard to shake off. Genoa can barely muster the raw power of Roeg’s disturbing account, and the movie doesn’t have anything to match the charisma of Sutherland and Christie. Don’t Look Now remains one of a kind.