Director: Nicolas Roeg
Screenplay: Allan Scott, Chris Bryant
Based on a Story by: Daphne Du Maurier
Starring: Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania, Massimo Serato, Renato Scarpa
Country: UK, Italy
Running Time:110 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is often considered one of the greatest horror films of all time. Some may argue whether it’s actually a horror film at all, but its quality is rarely in question. I must admit, the first time I watched it though, many years ago, I was a little perplexed by it. Key scenes were impressive, but as a whole I wasn’t completely sold on the film. However, a rewatch helped me appreciated it more. I’ve only ever seen the film on VHS and a poor quality DVD though, so when I was offered a chance to review this new 4K restoration from Studiocanal I was hoping I would hold the film in the high regard shared by most critics.
Based on a Daphne Du Maurier short story, Don’t Look Now begins in shocking fashion with the drowning of the young daughter (Sharon Williams) of John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) in a pond outside their home in England. John seems to get a premonition of the event just before it happens so rushes to save the girl but is too late. We then move forward an unspecified number of months to find the couple staying in Venice, where John is working on the restoration of an old church. In the city, Laura is approached by two strange elderly sisters (Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania), one of whom is blind and claims to have ‘second sight’. She tells Laura she has seen her daughter Christine sitting between her and John and she looked happy. Although initially disturbed by this, Laura soon finds comfort in the claim that Christine is at peace and still with them in a way, so wishes to learn more through this psychic. John is dubious and believes Laura should face facts and listen to her doctors instead. However, he seems to share this second sight, he just can’t accept or understand it. This ‘gift’ may be the reason he also sees visions of a small figure in red running through Venice at night that looks suspiciously like Christine. Meanwhile, the psychic receives a warning for John that he must leave Venice, as he’s in danger.
As hoped, this second rewatch made me totally fall in love with Don’t Look Now. Seeing the film beautifully restored and blown up on my projector screen with the sound booming was a revelatory experience. It’s such an atmospheric film it demands to be seen properly on a big screen without distractions. Venice is generally thought of as a beautiful, romantic city, but Roeg, his production design team and DOP Anthony B. Richmond manage to make it look incredibly creepy. They also make clear the fact that the water, which famously engulfs the city and is part of its charm, is actually killing it, causing rot and decay. This idea of water as death links in with the drowning of Christine in the film, creating a unique symbolism.
Theories like these come to the fore after further viewings, but I also found myself less puzzled by the surface actions of the film. I began to see numerous signals of things to come that are lost on viewers the first time around. They all work to build a sense of dread towards the film’s shocking finale. No matter how many times I see the film, that ending is still genuinely shocking too. I know what’s going to happen of course, but I’ll never stop longing for it not to happen. Apologies if this feels to be giving too much away, but so much has been said about the film’s climax I find it hard to believe anyone doesn’t know what happens.
Another sequence Don’t Look Now is famous for is its sex scene, which comes fairly early in the film. There are rumours going around about whether or not Christie and Sutherland actually had sex during the shooting of the scene, due to its realism. However, watching the film again I realised the sequence isn’t ‘realistic’ because it’s graphic but because it’s natural in its depiction of a married couple making love. So many sex scenes in Hollywood movies are there merely to titillate and see one of the pair seduced before they rush into bed for a steamy, over the top clinch. Here, however, we get a slow, believable build-up to the act as the couple go about their evening routines and affection subtly builds through glances and touches. During the act, we also intercut with shots from just afterwards as they get dressed, adding to the natural feel of married life. On top of this natural warmth to the scene there’s an extra layer involved; the fact that it seems to be the first time they’ve made love since the death of their daughter, signalling a key moment in their recuperation. This prevents it from feeling like a raunchy scene thrown in to sell tickets.
Elements like this are all part of one of the key themes of the film, grief. The death of Christine comes straight at the start of the film but it’s so disturbing the incident permeates the rest of the duration, even if the subject isn’t as regularly brought up as you might expect. We don’t get any long conversations between John and Laura about what happened, just a couple of arguments that flare up here and there about Laura’s interest in the psychic messages, but you can feel their pain throughout. The performances are key to this and Sutherland and Christie are both superb, adding subtle layers to their characters under the surface.
An often neglected reason as to why the film is so powerful is its editing. The opening sequence, for example, is a masterclass in suspense and unease. Maybe it’s bolstered by the fact I knew what was coming, but the intercutting between John looking through a slide that features a red-cloaked figure whilst chatting to Laura and the seemingly innocuous playing of Christine in her red mac does much with very little. There’s no cheesy underscore to build tension, instead, there’s simply something unsettling about the sequence through the rhythm and choice of shots. The hints of danger with Christine’s ball falling in the pond and the spilling of a drink onto the slide, creating a blood-like red stain that gradually envelops the image, slowly lead towards an Earth-shattering climax to the scene.
The baggage of the film being dubbed ‘one of the greatest horror films of all time’ can do Don’t Look Now a disservice, as it’s not a typical genre movie. Although genuinely unsettling and featuring a couple of disturbing sequences, there aren’t a host of murders and jump scares to keep multiplex audiences munching their popcorn. So I would warn first-time viewers against approaching it as a slasher film or even a ghost story (though there are supernatural elements in play), as they may come out disappointed. However, if you watch in the right frame of mind and preferably on as big a screen as you have access to with the volume cranked up high (the sound design and music are excellent too), you’re in for a treat. It’s a chilling tale of grief and faith that truly gets under your skin and gets better every time you see it.
This new 4K restoration of Don’t Look Now is playing in selected cinemas now and will be released on UHD, Blu-Ray, DVD, Collector’s Edition and EST on 29th July courtesy of Studiocanal. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the film looks and sounds great. The picture is clean and richly detailed, retaining its natural grain. The contrast seems a tad high at times, but it helps envelop the alleyways in sheer darkness at times and makes the reds really pop. The audio is fantastic though.
There are plenty of extra features included too:
– Pass the Warning: Taking A Look Back at Nic Roeg’s Masterpiece
– A Kaleidoscope of Meaning: Colour in Don’t Look Now
– 4k Restoration featurette
– Audio Commentary with Nic Roeg
– Death in Venice: Interview with Pino Donaggio
– Interview with Donald Sutherland
– Interview with Allan Scott
– Interview with Tony Richmond
– Interview with Danny Boyle
– Don’t Look Now: Looking Back
– Behind the scenes stills gallery
– Plus: 5 artcards, theatrical poster, CD of Pino Donnagio Soundtrack and Booklet with essays and original articles
The ‘Pass the Warning’ piece features mainly filmmaker ‘fans’ rather than solely the original cast and crew themselves, but the contributors seem genuinely passionate about the film and they have some interesting things to say. Roeg’s commentary is stronger and offers up plenty of anecdotes and interesting facts about the production. I appreciated the ‘Kaleidoscope of Meaning’ piece too, as it takes a deeply analytic approach to the film. The 4k Restoration featurette allows you to compare the original negative to the wonderful new print, as well as giving a brief look at the process. The interviews are very good too, though chunks of these show up in the ‘Looking Back’ featurette so there’s a lot of crossover and those with little time on their hands would be better off just watching that instead of all the individual interviews.
I didn’t get any of the extra goodies, but the soundtrack is a very welcome addition and I assume the booklet is illuminating too. So, all in all, it’s a must-buy.
Please note – the images used in this review are not indicative of the picture quality of the Blu-Ray.