The Best Films I’ve Ever Seen: Don’t Look Now

Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

(contains spoilers)

Don’t Look Now has the unique honour of being the first (and so far only) thing that I have studied for a class and ended up enjoying even more afterwards. Usually, when you put something under the microscope and try to pick it apart and analyse it, it can take away a bit of the romance and mystery of it, but when I went back and looked deeper into the construction of Don’t Look Now, especially its editing, it made me appreciate it even more. It leads you long the same way of thinking as its main character John Baxter (Donald Sutherland), but on subsequent viewings when you know the full picture, you can see that everything was there for you to find the truth of it, if you only knew where to look. As John himself says in the beginning of the film, “Nothing is what it seems.”.

Synopsis

Shortly after a tragic accident at their home in which their daughter Christine drowns in a pond, John and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) are in Venice where John is doing work restoring churches. They meet a woman named Wendy and her blind sister Heather. Heather claims to be psychic, and tells Laura that she can see Christine, and that she is happy. John scoffs and doesn’t believe, but Laura is taken in by them, with her mood even improving after these interactions. John himself keeps seeing a child-sized figure  around Venice wearing a red coat similar to Christine’s. Laura returns to England after receiving a phone call from their son’s boarding school that he has been in an accident, and after she leaves John sees her on a boat in Venice with the sisters. Fearing she has been tricked or abducted, John contacts the police who arrest and hold the women until John receives a call from Laura in England. Their son is fine and she is returning to Venice. John goes to the station to have the women released, and after seeing then back to their hotel leaves and walks in the Venetian night. He sees the red-coated figure, and follows them to a deserted building. John approaches them, thinking it is a child, saying he is a friend. The figure turns and we see that it is in fact a monstrous female dwarf, who slices John’s neck with a large knife, killing him. The film ends with Laura and the sisters on a funeral boat on the Venetian canals, just as John had seen them in what is now revealed as his own psychic flash earlier.

An anguished John pulls Christine’s lifeless body from the pond

When I think about what I like about Don’t Look Now, I always think of its editing,and how they are put together to create distinct associations in our minds. I think about an editing experiment devised by Soviet film-maker Lev Kuleshov in the 1920s. In the experiment, he used an image of a man’s face and juxtaposed it with a variety of different images.  Each sequence would elicit a different response, if the man’s face was paired with an image of food, the viewer would think the man looked hungry, if it was paired with an image of a girl in a coffin, audiences would find him to look mournful. This is the known as the Kuleshov effect, and the idea is that the way in which you sequence images can be manipulated to elicit the desired response from an audience. I think of this in relation to Don’t Look Now because there is so much juxtaposition between the images it shows us, and I was totally led by these images down the same path as John in the film, focusing on the red-coated figure.

The opening sequence in which the main characters John and Laura Baxter’s child Christine drowns introduces the audience to three main images and associations that appear throughout the film; the colour red, water, and glass. The sequence features John and Laura inside the family home cross-cut with shots of their two children playing outside out of sight of their parents and a fair distance away. We see Christine’s red raincoat reflected in the water followed by a graphic match cut to the fireplace in the home, then shortly after a close-up of a red hooded figure in one of John’s slides graphic match cuts to a shot of Christine in her red coat reflected in the water. John spills a glass of water on the slide causing the red dye on it to run, expanding in size, and in the climax of the sequence there is another graphic match cut from this slide to John pulling Christine out of the water, with the red shape on the slide appearing foetal in nature and matches Christine’s body position in the next shot. The shot of the slide is intercut with John pulling Christine from the water in anguish and is shown multiple times, cementing the image in the mind of the audience.  The red of Christine’s coat is burned into our minds and the colour becomes intrinsically linked to Christine herself.

John’s slide, with colours running after he spills water on it

Glass and water are also prominent in the opening sequence, with a telling cut that marries the two together. A shot of Christine’s foot splashing into a puddle is followed by an immediate match cut to her brother cycling over and shattering a pane of glass on the ground, creating an association of fragmentation and adding violence to the displacement of water.  The breaking of glass itself becomes a powerful image in the course of the film; whenever we see a shot in which glass is broken, it marks a fatal (Christine’s drowning and John’s murder) or near-fatal (John’s fall at the mosaic) incident. This is further underlined in the scene where Laura faints in the cafe and knocks over the table, sending its contents to the ground. We cut to a shot of two glasses on the floor, still intact, and following this accident Laura recovers and seems in better health and mood than before, strengthening this association and importance of glass in the audience’s mind. Water and glass seem ever-present in Venice (water more-so, of course), so it’s never long before John and Laura (and by extension, the audience) see it again to remind them of Christine’s death.

The editing of Don’t Look Now also contributes greatly to the audience’s impression of the strength and love of John and Laura’s relationship, and closeness of the family. For example, in the beginning of the film, Laura puts her hand to her mouth and there is a graphic match cut to Christine making a similar gesture outside as she plays, and in the same sequence as Christine throws her ball in the air there is a cut matching this motion to John throwing a packet of cigarettes to Laura. Shots of this type help to emphasise the closeness of the family and show them as intrinsically linked members of a unit.  In John and Laura’s sex scene this feeling of love and tenderness is deepened as shots of their lovemaking are cross-cut with them getting dressed and preparing to go out together afterwards. The passion and intensity of their lovemaking is juxtaposed with the normality and peacefulness of their preparations for the evening, and the association created by the use of these images is that there is love and tenderness in even the more banal aspects of the Baxter’s relationship, and again we see the film’s associative editing in action.

Thrashing rain dissolving to a shot of the glassy, unseeing eyes of Heather

There are many other examples of editing of this type throughout Don’t Look Now, and generally work towards creating a feeling of uncertainty and ambiguity in what we are seeing, leading us (like John) to the wrong conclusions.  One such example is when John is in a police inspector’s office and talking to him about Heather and Wendy. The inspector looks off-frame, and there is a cut to the two sisters outside in a courtyard seen through the window as if matched to the inspector’s eyeline, but we cannot be sure if this is what the inspector sees as he passes no comment on it. This type of editing, where we are shown carefully selected images which create specific associations, cause the audience to react in a certain way, though we do not realise the true nature of these images and their importance until the film’s conclusion.

A further two examples of this type of ambiguity are delivered through shots of the sisters placed at opportune and sinister moments. The first example comes as Laura implores John to come visit Heather and Wendy with her as they attempt to contact Christine, and John refuses. Laura says, “She’s going to try and reach her.” and there is a cut to the sisters laughing uproariously in their room, then back to John and Laura’s conversation. This of course appears unsettling, as if the laughter is in the face of Laura’s comment, but no ulterior motives are revealed during Laura’s visit to the sisters. A second example occurs when John is working and inspecting mosaics which had recently arrived. As he climbs the ladder to the platform high above a shot of Wendy laughing is superimposed over him, These shots associate the sisters as something sinister and underhand, to be suspicious of, but as we will come to see by the film’s end, this is not necessarily the case.

Wendy laughing, ominously superimposed on a shot of John ascending a tall ladder

Though we have been shown many images throughout the film that have created specific associations in our minds, we will come to realise what was important and what was misleading through the sequence at the end of the film in which John is murdered. A small woman in a red coat slashes at John’s throat and as his death throes are intercut with images we have seen throughout the film, as if to remind us what we have seen throughout the film and where we went wrong in coming to the same conclusions as John in the film. We see Laura, Christine, their son Johnny, Heather, images of the water of Venice and the pond in which Laura drowned, the slide with the red hooded figure, glass breaking and rainfall, as well as the film’s previous associations for images of glass reiterated with a graphic match cut from John breaking a pane of glass with his foot to the shot of his son Johnny running over a pane of glass in the garden we saw early in the film. Through the associative editing throughout the film we are misled, just as John was, that the figure in the red coat was Christine and this slide show of images as he dies shows us the associations we had made may not have been as clear or telling as we thought. The choice of shots throughout the film, their placement and length and the juxtaposition created by these choices all contribute to the power of the associations they create in our minds such as in the examples throughout this post, and show Don’t Look Now’s power to be in its editing. It’s a fairly simple story, but told and shown to us in such an incredible way. I struggle to think of a film which has editing quite like Don’t Look Now. If there are any others done quite so well, I’d love to see them.

Note: This post was adapted a bit from an essay I wrote about this film for class, so I had read some books/articles about the film to prepare for that. These included, but were not limited to, J. Izod (1992), R. Barsam (2013), Reisz et al (2009), J. Gomez (1981), A. Patch (2010), M. Demspey (1974) and M. Hubris-Cherrier (2011).

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