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The Perilous Beauty of Don’t Look Now

I have always had an edgy relationship with Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. When it was new, I didn’t particularly like it. I have nonetheless gone back to it repeatedly for ideas, and it has influenced me considerably. Over time, I have grown to like it, in a kind of cool, distant way, mainly because I recognize qualities in the film which initially did not interest me.

The trashy story still leaves me as cold as ever, but isolated moments have always stunned me with their brilliance. The most famous of these is the tussle in bed with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. To my eye, however, a more impressive moment occurs when Sutherland is nearly killed when the scaffolding in the church he is restoring gives way (above). As he hovers in mid-air within an inch of his life, Roeg’s fragmented cutting not only powerfully evokes the visceral moment. It is also incredibly beautiful in itself, a perfect cinematic analogy of the tiny colored glass tiles he has been examining and which almost cost him his life.

The Overlooked

While Roeg may arguably make things more difficult than they need to be, he has an unsurpassed ability to reveal aspects of people, places and experience that others would overlook. He is a Mannerist, yes, but one working at a very high level of observation, execution and invention. His style may be more complex than profound, but its kaleidoscopic shimmer offers its own pleasures.

Virtuosic as Roeg’s editing and camerawork may be, however, what has had the most lasting influence on me is the very detachment those glittering surfaces produce and to which I alluded earlier. We don’t exactly not care about the characters in his films, but we don’t exactly care either. That moment on the scaffolding, for example, is bravura film making, and makes us hold our breath in vertiginous physical identification with Sutherland, but whether he survives to tell Christie about the experience is almost incidental. Watching the film is a little like watching prize gold fish in a bowl, shining and wriggling about, but hardly likely to inspire much emotional interest.

That lack of interest is because in Roeg’s world, things just happen unpredictably between moments of polished brilliance and emotional passivity. We always feel slightly behind events, struggling to catch up with actions that don’t quite make sense. People and places are potentially dangerous or sexy or interesting, but rarely exciting and things seem already to have passed us by. The result is a little like the way you feel after being hit on the head. After seeing stars, you’re too dazed to do much of anything and pretty much at the mercy of events. Perhaps Roeg’s films are thus best thought of as the cinema of the photogenically concussed.