The following article was published in N-SPHERE April 2012 issue.

Nicholas Roeg started his career as a cinematographer for films such as The Masque of Red Death and Fahrenheit 451 which maybe of little to no surprise at all if we are to look especially at his earlier efforts (Performance, Walkabout and Don’t look now). They all have a very well-defined, dreamlike and menacing style from the outlandish if slightly uneven Performance (in which he splits directing credits with Donald Cammell) to the quiet and meditative The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Don’t look know sticks close to this standard. An adaptation from the Daphne du Maurier short story, the film defies conventional approaches at every turn, creating, through its style a sense of the supernatural. Some called it a »psychic thriller« which is a fair statement on its own and gives a short glimpse of what the movie is made of.

There are several other films that come to mind when bringing up Don’t look now to the discussion, the earlier Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski) and the later Profondo Rosso (Dario Argento), to name a few. But whereas Rosemary’s baby is farily straightforward and clear, Don’t look now uses flashbacks and flash-forwards and while Profondo Rosso has a puzzle which is in the end solved in a rational manner, this film’s »apple of discord« belongs entirely to the supernatural.

These days supernatural-themed films are more artificial. We know we are dealing with the supernatural because we are being spoon-fed. Rarely can we see a film that relies on a certain mood to tell us that. We are presented backgrounds, we are acquainted with a certain logic, a series of events, we basically are presented unusual events in a pastiche manner. In few cases does the viewer get to experience anything: it is just a story as common as the next one. Even the faces are artificial. Here they are common, we expect some characters to look the way they look, but they are authentic (the blind lady, for example or the dwarf).

Like other »critically-praised« horror films in that period, Don’t look now relies a lot on suggestion. It is not necessarily what we see, but what we imagine, that is frightening. Again, the film’s ending server as a very good example. However, overall, the film is not necessarily frightening, but puzzling. It is puzzling to the point where we question the existence of some characters of the realism of some events. And now, with the several dozens of films that walked the same path we are tend to do it even more often, because we might have not seen Don’t look now, but we have seen a couple of some other films.
Another element that contributes to the film’s effectiveness is the loose construction. Here, we do not have an over-baked film. We do not have a neat and organized story, because the very subject of matter demands it to be otherwise. These events do not come invited, they are not something one can quantify, they are not related to a recipe, this being the very reason they are challenging.

We are expecting our logic to answer at every turn, everything to be explained according to what we know at the time being. Life does not make any sense, not because it really doesn’t but because this statement in itself is a mechanism supposed to tell us that we have not yet uncovered all the map. Surrealists knew this better. Buñuel was an expert in merging the sense of what is familiar and what we lose control over. The transition was seamless and effective. Absurd things seem absurd because there is no way we can dissect them using a rigid device. But they do exist, even more often than we think. Surrealism in its own is not just a fancy term, but a fact of life and it implies delving deeper than the rudimentary cause-effect device. Art in itself is surreal. All of it. The mere fact that we are transported places, that we feel for characters or wander through their obsessions defies the rigid logic.

Supernatural films/stories have a lot in common with surrealism; in fact they are surreal with one addition: we have a glimpse of something familiar.

Returning to the film, as I said before, it is done using a deliberately loose construction. Don’t look now does not follow the rules of developing a story, but follows the story’s mood. Somehow there is a strange effect of an open-ended work and nearly every »point« can be used as a start and it would retain the same feeling. The much talked-about sex scene is an example. We don’t have something straightforward, something raw and unraveled, but we see how it begins and how it ends simultaneously and even much more. The raw, the immediate, is muted and the scene itself may very well work like a frame for the whole film.

This is not to say that the movie is a puzzle, because we have the answers, it just gives the movie the seeming of a living and transforming organism on one hand and on the other it offers a sense of timelessness as if everything happens throughout a single segment: a rhizomatic structure (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari use the term »rhizome« and »rhizomatic« to describe theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation).

However, the movie is puzzling from the very opening scene. It makes us doubt what we are seeing, makes us question which is real and which is not. There are also loose »clues«: the book “Beyond the fragile geometry of space” which we are shown in connection with the way the early scenes communicate with one another, for example. For a moment you may be tempted to think that they belong to different planes, which leads to a different causal geometry.

There are also the subtractions. We are dealing with the supernatural, but there are no other real insights except the common-expected. Whatever assumption could have been made is transposed to another ground: the Giallo (the Italian noir). We are told something about a killer, but also in a very vague manner, we see no focus on a proper investigations, this is not brought up very often, it is something that can easily slip your mind.

There are films that defy classifications. In 1984, British director Alan Parker made a film called Birdy. The film’s protagonists were two old friends and a part of the film’s action took place in Vietnam during the war. However, the film itself is not a war/anti-war film, nor does it say anything new about friendship, however it does say a lot about the relationship between one man and a canary and his obsession with birds.

Nicolas Roeg’s film revolves around grief (over the loss of the protagonist’s daughter), the supernatural (no surprises here), but does not break new grounds in either of them (I know, many reviews will juggle with the two, but what transpires is just recycled material) and to make things even more fun, the film defies its own plot: looking at it though the plot is like looking at a rigid picture on some wall. Yet there are many who see this film as powerful and hypnotic and I am aware that this has nothing to do with the accidental topics or the plot. It is related to how this plot is played in one’s mind, it is a film which is playing another film or playing itself in a strange piece of glass (again, the opening scene comes to mind).

There are not many films like this one, many share some common ground with it but take a different route. You can see this in its style from another aspect as well: that of contrasts. The approach hints to something poetic, »arthouse«-like, but Roeg is no Tarkovsky or Herzog. The visuals are pleasing, but they are not as visceral. Actually, I think the film looks just the way many other films from that period look. The structure points to surrealism, however this is no Buñuel, Chytilová (and so forth) either. What we see is fairly believable, but it is not a common film either.

In conclusion, Don’t look now is unique and may appeal to a fairly wide category of moviegoers, from those who like the old horror films, to the Giallo fans, from those who are more into arthouse and surrealism to those who have enough patience and recalled liking some of the older films, but I guess if you have read this review, you can make up your own mind on whether this trip is best taken or avoided.

by Shade

photo | Don’t Look Now. 1973. Movie still

Full article here.