The opening sequence of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is a masterclass in film editing. Effortlessly maneuvering between siblings playing outside a rural English estate and a couple (John and Laura Baxter, portrayed by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie at the height of their careers) leisurely whittling away the afternoon before events take a sudden, deadly turn, this first sequence of shots deftly begins the construction of a dense labyrinth between harsh truths and red (very red) herrings from the English countryside to the haunting old world beauty of Venice.
What begins as a pastoral landscape of effortless, innocent play fluidly transforms into something sinister, with the Baxter daughter’s death staged so suddenly as to put the audience in the same position of dismay as the parents. But in a few brief moments before this tragic, inciting turn of events, the film produces a sense of disorientation that subtly lays the groundwork for the potential occurrence of something as awful as a child’s death, or at least an atmosphere that tells us something is terribly amiss.
When the Baxters are introduced in their comfortable living room, a coherent sense of space is already subtly disrupted by the claustrophobic presence of a large screen against which John projects images of an Italian cathedral he will later be tasked to repair. The image gives the impossible impression of another wall within their shared living space: an old religious window within the home of an enlightened, scientifically-minded couple.
The film’s ease of cutting between Laura, John, and close-ups of these slides compounds the photographic representations within the film (the slides) and the photographic representation of the film itself (the “reality” of the world of the movie), thereby deliberately confusing our ability to distinguish between “actual” and “represented” space. As John observes these slides, Laura searches for answers about why lakes don’t appear curved when frozen only to find that large bodies of water do, imperceptibly, form a slight curve, to which John replies with the old adage, “Nothing is at it seems.” The reference to water not only foregrounds the tragic death to soon befall the family, but, set against John’s peering into a fabricated representation of space, also establishes the film’s investigation of the interminable gap between perception and reality: what we see may not represent what’s actually there (the photographs), and what’s actually there is only partly represented by what we see (the curvature of a frozen lake).
Then John takes the slide out and examines it from another angle, which changes the image altogether, followed by a sly and masterful cut to the couple’s daughter donning a similar red coat to the photograph’s enigmatic figure, visible to us indirectly via the water’s reflection. The Baxters’ daughter is then seen by the camera through the water’s reflection as she plays before she actually submerges under water, and the photograph in John’s slide gains a different appearance altogether when just a small amount of water is spilled on it. One quotidian element, water, makes a world of difference in this brief set of events. Seeing is not necessarily believing, despite John’s assertion to the contrary in another old adage he recites later in the film. But more importantly, seeing can come into direct contradiction with knowing.
This intricate and compounding play between reality and perception is what makes Don’t Look Now such a lasting and singular work of cerebral suspense, for it addresses the horrors latent within a shared human vulnerability: namely, the inherent limits of what we know via our build-up of knowledge through select sensory information. Combined with the relentless psychological tunnel vision produced by grief, the Baxters’ desperate and instinctual following of perceived people and events following their daughter’s death proves to have tragic consequences. Roeg makes these connections by using the means by which knowledge is produced through cinema – namely, the associations we draw when one image follows another – against itself, showing how knowledge can be falsely produced, how moments and events can be misleading, and how the closure of meaning is not necessarily waiting around the corner.
Don’t Look Now establishes from these astonishing opening moments that there are uncanny connections to be witnessed everywhere we turn. After Laura’s encounter with a medium who professes that her deceased daughter remains “with” them, the film does not endorse the smug, cold rationality by which John addresses Laura’s faith as a given – it leaves open the possibility that there is profundity in what can’t be explained, but does not share the sense of hope, righteousness, and closure that often accompanies such celestial investments. The compounding tragedy of the film is not in believing that such connections can exist, but in pursuing their meaning towards something seemingly definitive, something as deep and reparatory as bringing the memory of a dead child back to life.
As the film’s title indicates (which comes from the opening lines of the titular short story by Daphne DuMaurier), the danger of such connection lies in the way they can inspire a misguided pursuit of meaning. By its stunning, tragic, horrifying finale, the phrase Don’t Look Now can be taken as a note of caution. To look can mean to observe – this is the type of looking that the film performs, that Roeg stages so beautifully as we are placed in the position of making sense of these characters’ tragic pursuits and the many signposts toward seemingly contradictory directions that the filmmaker deliberately places in the way. But to look can also be to search or investigate – this is the type of looking that the Baxters engage in, an act that leads inevitably to compounding tragedy.
Are the English women staging a conspiracy against the couple? Is the blind woman really a medium, or an impostor? Was Laura really on that ferry at the Grand Canal while she was allegedly back at home by some supernatural feat – or was this illusion produced for John, either by his own rattled psyche or some malevolent supernatural force? Don’t Look Now isn’t interested in posing direct answers to these questions, but rather exploring and depicting seemingly impossible, contradictory, and otherwise unexplained phenomena, and the dark corners that greet those who pursue such events looking for meaning in the wake of life’s greatest, most shocking, and most lasting injustices.
Don’t Look Now is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.