I’d heard a lot about Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, mostly about how it was a seminal work in British horror and is now regarded as one of the best British films of all time. Having seen it now, I’m not really sure what all the fuss is about. This is a good picture, sure; an atmospheric horror rather than an all-out gorefest or series of jump scares, but I’m sure I’ve seen better and more capable films in that genre. People often cite this along with The Wicker Man as being an important and influential work for Great Britain. Frankly, if those are the two films they are putting at the pinnacle of the era, then British horror could’ve done with some shaking up, in my eyes.
Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are two English parents with a son and a daughter, living in their country house. Right at the beginning of the film, the daughter ends up drowning in their pond, and Sutherland ends up taking Christie with him to Venice as a getaway while he works on restoring a church. It’s there that Christie has a run-in with two sisters, one of which is blind and purports to be a psychic, who informs her that her deceased daughter is reaching out to her with tides of warning for her and for Sutherland. This seems to be confirmed when Sutherland himself begins seeing a small figure running around the streets of Venice, dressed in the same red overcoat as their daughter had on when she died. Now, such a plot synopsis might seem to be an incredibly intriguing one, but Don’t Look Now opts instead not to explore or milk its premise, but to use the premise as an exploration of grief and how it can affect the relationship between parents of a dead child. I would say that that would be the main selling point of the film, but then Don’t Look Now did something a little unexpected about halfway through; it removed Christie from the main action, and suddenly the film was all about the premise again rather than having the premise be ancillary to the exploration of grief that I just laid out. This style of jumping around seemed to be the main crux of the film, not only in the narrative but in the film’s presentation as well. Roeg quite often inserts other shots in the middle of what in the film is currently the present moment, as either portents of things to come or reminders of what has been. It very nearly makes the film non-linear, but instead serves to emphasize the frequent sightings and premonitions that Sutherland seems to be having over the course of the film. The visual aesthetic was rather grubby, which was a bit of a letdown, especially considering the city of Venice, which is a city I’ve always wanted to visit. The sound work was also rather haphazard, either poorly overdubbing all the dialogue or just sticking with the roughly recorded original sound; either way, I expected better. The film is also notable for a sex scene about a half hour into the film, which for the time was quite frank and caused quite the stir among censorship boards; it was in his attempts to placate their objections that Roeg implemented the now-famous intercutting of the sex scene and the scene of the two getting dressed that takes place after, which successfully got the film released with an R rating. If you’re worried that the scene might be a little too shocking, modern sex scenes in films have largely nullified the effect that this one would’ve otherwise had, but my problem was that it didn’t seem to serve a real purpose to the plot, and thus it came off as a scene for the sake of the sex and the shock value for 1970s audiences.
I tried to get across bits and pieces of the conclusion I ultimately ended up with after seeing the film in the opener, but I’m not sure I did enough, so I’ll just lay out my conclusion here instead: I don’t really know why this was judged to be the seminal, genre-changing work that history is remembering it as. I’d probably have to delve a little deeper into British horror films of the era to see why this one was held aloft where the other ones weren’t, but my expectations were higher than normal heading into this one, and I don’t think they were fully met. Now, I can’t hold it against the film too much; it is quite adequate at what it does, but when a film like this has garnered the reputation it has, I couldn’t help but be a little let down by the whole thing. I’m fully aware my opinion may turn out to be the minority one, and indeed I may have to revisit this one at some point in the future, but as of right now, I’ll have to be content with what I have and move on to what’s next.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10