Don’t Look Now (1973). Directed by Nicholas Roeg, English, 110 minutes. BBC4, Thursday (28/10),  21:00.

Situation Vacant: Favourite Film. For 40 years I’ve been telling people that my favourite film is Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Well, I watched it again the other night, and it is still an extraordinary piece of cinema, but I’m not so sure I would still put it on the top of my personal hit parade.

Taken from a story by Daphne Du Maurier, like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, it tells of a married couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) who experience the loss of a child. They go to Venice, where the husband has a commission as a church-restorer, to try to get over their grief and rebuild their relationship. In a restaurant, they encounter a pair of creepy middle-aged sisters, one of whom, a blind woman (Heather Mason), claims to have second sight, giving her the ability to see their dead daughter and receive messages from her.

John, the husband, is sceptical and discourages Laura, the wife, from meeting the women, but she does anyway. She tells him he is in danger. He, despite his scepticism, is assailed by fearful premonitions and intuitions. Their surviving son, back home in England, is in an accident. Laura goes back to see him, leaving John in the watery city, which he finds increasingly frightening and hostile: he becomes embroiled with the local police when he thinks he sees Laura still there, possibly abducted by the weird sisters, rather than in England. He survives a couple of encounters with death, but it proves only a temporary reprieve.

As with music, our affection for a piece of cinema is not only a reflection of its inherent qualities but also of our own situation when we first encountered it. I don’t think I saw Don’t Look Now immediately on release. I think I saw it a couple of years later, at the film society of my college. I would have been 18, in my first adult relationship, and somewhat troubled. Like everyone else at the time, I was transfixed by the film’s treatment of sexuality: Sutherland and Christie are shown making love at length and with serious intent. Sexual Healing, as Marvin Gaye would put it, nearly a decade later: the bond of man and woman in marriage. As the Anglican service has it, With my body, I thee worship.

There had never been such a scene in mainstream British cinema at that point. Roeg, though, was not content to place his camera in a hotel room and make a kind of nature documentary. (Three people, apart from the actors, were present: the director, the director of photography, and the humble focus-puller.) Roeg subsequently edited into the footage a sequence from later in the narrative: when the couple are dressing again so they can head out for dinner.

A rumour immediately spread that the actors had ‘done it’ in real life. How silly. It all depends on what ‘it’ is, I suppose. In the same way that Bill Clinton ‘never had sex with that woman’, Donald and Julie did not have penetrative intercourse with each other. But did they touch one another’s bodies, experience physical closeness, sweat, gasp, pant? Of course. Did they get pleasure from it? Only they can tell us that. One upshot of the film was that onscreen depictions of sexual activity became more realistic. We are now in a world where actual sexual intercourse is regularly filmed and broadcast, in pornography (which dwarfs cinema as an industry), in supposedly personal communications between individuals (newsflash: nothing is private where electronic media are concerned) and even in mainstream film, providing it has the ‘art’ label. The bedroom, in the Western world, is a marketplace and everything is for sale.

I remind writers that story – and art generally, I suppose – has two aspects: the burden and the vehicle that carries it. The burden is the meaning of the work. The vehicle is the means used to express it. In the case of Don’t Look Now, the burden is really an exploration of death, grief and marital solidarity, and that is what appealed about the film and continues to appeal: real human questions and deep emotion.

But Roeg told his editor that he was also making ‘an exercise film grammar’. He artfully manipulates colour – the shiny red mac his daughter wears as she drowns is echoed throughout – light – the effect of light on water is a constant visual preoccupation – and language – none of the Italian dialogue is translated. Most notably, he savages chronological narrative in the editing suite: repeated montage sequences leap backwards and forwards in time, evoking John’s second sight and his paranoia. Roeg’s vehicle, then, is experimental, self-conscious, disruptive. It seems to me now a little self-regarding: self-defeating almost. He is rather in the position of John, the restorer of church architecture: totally in command of the externals, the techniques, the aesthetics of his art, but resistant to its substance.

That’s why, although I admire the film, I no longer love it quite as much. I would also have preferred it if Roeg had been able to make a film about grief without the flashiness and without the relatively crude storyline. He needed that in order to make a commercial product in an era when fear of the supernatural was a reliable strategy (as it still is). The child’s death – filmed and shown to Roeg’s friends and collaborators before he’d really embarked on the rest of the tale – is brilliantly and horribly done. The marital scenes are intense. Sutherland and Christie are both powerful. But the story, adapted and tightened up from du Maurier’s original, is hokum. It plays into an atavistic, Germanic idea that physical deformity and ugliness equate to evil, and I don’t think that is either true or helpful.

Technically, the film’s structure depends upon a twist that, once seen, is never forgotten. Elements of the telling have now become the furniture of the horror genre. That’s not Roeg’s fault, but it does mean that this is not a film that carries much emotional weight on repeated viewing. For me, anyway. It is a brilliant movie, but it is artifice, rather than art.

A promotion, then for Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Or maybe Ozu’s Tokyo Story. I can’t decide: maybe my favourite film is outside the ‘canon’ altogether: the films that rise to the top of the critics’ lists are usually films they find interesting to discuss and expound upon, rather than what they actually love.

What’s your favourite film, and why? Write about it.

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