Drawing the Gaze: Revisiting Don't Look Now
Don’t Look Now, British Lion Films, 1973
by Jesse Miksic
This is the time of year when the veil between worlds gets thinner.
… I guess …
Or maybe not. I never feel like I’m about to cross over into anywhere, even late on a Fall evening, walking alone under twitching trees and streetlights. Rather, I feel like the Weirdness of the season, that sense of a shadow cast across our lives, is just manifesting something that’s already here.
Like the universe, whose bitter eye is usually dim or turned elsewhere, suddenly wakes up a little and scrutinizes us. We are so many bacteria, spending all our energy thinking about the universe, and in October, for the space of a sliver of a season, it pauses and thinks about us.
In this season, the nocturnal dread of a deserted attic has become… intentional, somehow.
To do my due diligence this year, hoping to connect with the cosmic conspiracy that suddenly seems so proximal, I unearth Don’t Look Now, which I have secreted away on my hard drive, a perfectly decent standard-def video file that I’ve referenced for other essays in the past. Finding this to be… underwhelming, I shuffle to my living room and rent it from a streaming service. With the source novella on the shelf beside me, I return to that Venice, to the tragedy and downfall of John and Laura Baxter, and something settles in beside me.
Don’t Look Now (dir. Nicolas Roeg, 1974) is based on a novella by mystery novelist Daphne du Maurier, first published in 1971. The movie has probably become the more famous of the two, because it bent and disrupted so many cinematic conventions, and earned such a badge of distinction within its evolving genre. But there’s something pure and precise about the source material, a thing which is almost always lost in the transition to cellulose.
One thing that’s aped in the film, but not fully realized, is the rich, sinister reflection/splitting motif in de Maurier’s novella. Protagonist John (John Baxter in the film) can see into a psychic split-universe, but he is ignorant of the nature of his own gift, and keeps it mercilessly suppressed. At the outset of the story, he is in a precarious psychic position: he and his wife are still grieving from the death of their daughter the previous year, and they’ve traveled to Venice for a break (or, in the film, on one of his professional assignments). In Venice, he begins to have premonitions, visions of a mysterious child running through the city, when his surviving son’s boarding school contacts him about a medical matter, it seems like a good excuse for John and Laura to move on from this haunted Venice. They separate briefly, planning to meet back up in old England.
The turning point in John’s story is subtle, and pivotal… as he departs Venice on a ferry, he passes a boat and sees his wife on the deck, inexplicably returning to the city they were trying to leave. At this juncture, he makes the decision to turn back and follow her, rather than proceeding with their plan (going home to care for his son). I see this decision as his fatal mistake, an unwitting crossing of a threshold into a reflected universe.
The film is conscious of the reflection motif (see both the harrowing opening, and the famously elegant sex scene at the midpoint, which Roger Ebert said was so good “we almost want to applaud” [Ebert, 1973]). However, this becomes a visual flourish, superseded by the film’s more pressing concern: subterranean spaces, the dark reaches of Venice where the protagonists are left to encounter their Shadows.
The film Don’t Look Now is sort of a depth-wise expansion of the novel’s splitting and reflecting motif. In a sense, it’s an infinity mirror for the novel, extending the conceit of loss, doubling, and alterity. Taken as a technical achievement, this is one of the film’s great strengths: its thematic density is remarkable. Practically every scene relates, in some way, to mirroring, doubling, and getting caught between realities.
… a thinning of the veil, as it were …
But when everything comes together, the film brings something much wilder and more interesting to de Maurier’s bare-bones story: it brings the drama of the cosmic, the sense of a conspiracy, massaged into all the small details and crossed motifs that make up the texture of our characters’ lives in Venice. In the novella, there’s a cut, a crossing, a leap through the glass… in Roeg’s movie, there is a larger intention at work, a baleful eye hovering over the whole sinister web that’s snagged John and Laura.
At a shallow glance, there may even be signs of an actual conspiracy behind the events in the film. Laura does get mixed up with a pair of strange psychics, after all, and John works for a bishop who never seems entirely trustworthy. The film draws an unstable world, and aside from John, Laura, and Johnny themselves, practically everyone seems to be implicated.
And yet… this is too far of a leap to be credible. The web of interactions and effects doesn’t have that Kaiser Soze stamp of manipulation and misdirection… indeed, the skewed sense of a broken reality comes largely from the resonance of the meaningless details. The reappearance of the red Mac, the red and white ball, and the shattered glass… blood from a cut finger, bathroom mirrors, framed photography… these are the fetishes of some kind of ritual, playing out with miraculous precision, to bring John into the path of the mysterious figure in the streets of Venice, his daughter’s doppelgänger. Even the red herrings, a fall from a scaffold in the old cathedral, his son’s medical emergency as apparent fulfillment of the prophecy… even these serve to nudge John back into the dark alleys, chasing an image of death.
John’s fate, threaded through with these small synchronicities, seems to arrive as an intention of the universe, a self-closing conspiracy with no objective except its own fulfillment.
When I first saw Don’t Look Now in 2007 during a class at The New School, I glossed the opening scene as a sad but straightforward frontispiece. I mostly retained the memory of Donald Sutherland holding a limp body and crying. The rest of the film held me, rapt, in its labyrinth… and I was as shaken and bewildered by the end as anyone… but that first sequence, the dreary apocalypse in the mire, was just a stepping-stone.
Now it’s 2019, and everything comes back to me at a different angle. When I rewatched Don’t Look Now this past year, looking for something beautiful and occult and unorthodox to bless my Halloween, I rediscovered that opening as a harrowing abyss, a tragedy whose shadow is cast over every other word and rhythm of the film. Parenthood makes certain things far more real… even the imaginary things, and even the ones that you want to keep on the other side of the glass.
It’s profitable to consider another film, apparently unrelated, that resonates with (and against) Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. This is A Dark Song (dir. Liam Gavin, 2016), an independent film about an occultist and a layperson performing an intense ritual to beg a favor from a divine spirit. It was in watching A Dark Song that I learned about synchronicity, blood magic, and the Book of Abremalin. Several threads connect the two films: both are about the collision of grieving parenthood with the mysteries of the occult, and both feature gurus who help to guide the protagonists along their paths. Both deal unflinchingly with the tension between belief and skepticism, and both feature evil trickster spirits that impersonate lost children.
And yet, there’s an inverted quality to the settings of these two films. In A Dark Song, the occult themes are more explicit, but somehow, they seem to be more isolated, pinned to the surface of the narrative without so deeply penetrating its universe. There are spirits that have intentions, benevolent or malign, but the quiet spaces of the moors and the old house feel neutral (or perhaps “receptive”). The concerns of A Dark Song are not cosmic, but earthly, responsive to the interests and emotional states of the human subjects… reactionary, therapeutic, and ultimately accountable.
In Don’t Look Now, it is the universe itself that brings its dangerous designs to bear upon its victims. When Laura and John argue about the reality of the supernatural, they are drawing a circle, and when John follows Laura’s apparition back to the sinking city, he completes it, trapping himself inside a chthonic Venice in the company of a dangerous spirit.
Or perhaps this spirit, a small avatar of death, is trapped in Venice by the Baxters’ spell: John’s denial, Laura’s desperation, and the indiscreet gaze of unreconciled loss. Maybe it’s trying to free itself by killing Venetians. This might explain its attachment to the red Mac, a latent artifact of Christine’s death. Maybe it finally finds John and leads him to the altar, and maybe his sacrifice is what frees it.
A town upstate, an hour outside the city. A town park with a large pond, bordering a larger reserve. On this side, track fields and gazebos. On that side, brush and abandoned utility sheds and boulders split by old roots. Between them, a constant rotation of honking geese.
A father walks his toddler daughter down to the water, because she loves the geese, and wants to go say hi.
But this is October, and they arrive to find the pond empty. A flock flies above in a massive V formation. The little girl scowls and starts tugging at her jumper.
The father laughs — she’s trying to get it off! She thinks she can go in after them. He glances up as he reaches for her, gentle, still smiling.
But when he speaks, his voice has turned serious. No swimming, he says, it’s cold out here. Come on, let’s go watch the runners on the track.
Because when he glances up across the water, he sees her again – his girl, the same big eyes, her fall jacket looking just a little thinner, more threadbare – looking back at him from the thicket across the pond. On this side, she is wiggling in protest.
On that side, she looks lonely, like she’s been lost a long time on the far side of a reflection.
And the father reminds himself: Mind the threshold. Respect the circle.
Don’t draw the eye.
And if it sees you, don’t linger too long in its gaze.
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