Sunday, May 31, 2015

May Cultural Roundup

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Don't Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Muneeza in the Middle (Canada, 2015)
Going Clear (U.S., 2015)
Don't Look Now (U.K./Italy, 1973)
Tab Hunter Confidential (U.S., 2015)
Welcome to Me (U.S., 2015)

Friday, May 8, 2015

Books on Film: Don't Look Now

Sutherland and Christie
Don’t Look Now by Nicholas Roeg (U.K./Italy, 1973) 110 minutes
Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier (Gollancz, 1971; republished Don't Look Now: Selected Stories of Daphne Du Maurier, NYRB, 2008)

The May selection for TIFF's Books on Film is Don't Look Now, a Nicholas Roeg classic I have long overlooked and wanted very much to see. 

In the film, two traumatized parents try to overcome grief over the death of their only daughter Christine who drowned in a pond on their property in England. The original premise is based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, a master of the Gothic and unspecified, unnameable horrors especially those found within a marriage. One may read an excellent review of the film posted by the Criterion Collection here

John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) is an exacting professional refurbishing a church in Venice, Italy. Laura Baxter (the always exquisite Julie Christie) is his young wife who is trying to establish some emotional equilibrium after the child’s death. In the story, the couple have left England and travelled to Venice to console themselves after the child's death. John hopes that "life will become as it was before, the wound will heal, she will forget."

Laura becomes involved with two elderly British sisters visiting Venice that they meet in a restaurant – Wendy and Heather. Heather, who is blind, is said to have psychic powers and can communicate with the dead. Laura is desperate to hear any information about her child. John feels that Laura, though not religious, is in a "state of susceptibility" to the suggestion of the supernatural. The motives of the siblings are unclear and are suspect to John – are they helpful, maternal souls administering to Laura's sorrow or are they more sinister in their intentions? John, the blind sister tells Laura, is also psychic. We surmise as much when at the beginning of the film, John rushes to the pond seconds after the little girl’s death with a premonition that something has gone very wrong.

The sisters have an ominous message for the couple – Heather prophesies that John is in danger – and Laura insists that they leave Venice. The parents receive a message that their son Johnny has had a medical emergency while at boarding school in England and Laura leaves to join their son. In the story, this red herring suggests that this is the danger that the family is facing.

The extraordinarily beautiful Venice looks washed out and dirty here – not the Venice of romantic cinema, dreams and travel brochures. This is epitomized by, among other things, a broken, undressed doll lining a canal steps, the rats in the canal, the smudged, grimy looking buildings that are always shuttered from natural light. The canals are largely deserted and melancholy, reflecting the couple's ennui and sense of displacement. Roeg captures Du Maurier's Venice perfectly as exemplified by John's growing unease:
This is the true life. Empty streets by night, the dank stillness of a stagnant canal beneath shuttered houses. The rest is a bright facade put on for show, glittering by sunlight. 
Later John thinks disconsolately, "The experts are right ... Venice is sinking. The whole city is slowly dying." 

The couple also face a panoply of somewhat unwelcoming Venetians who offer their assistance grudgingly: the police officers skeptical of John's claims; the sour faced, black clad crone in the washroom who is present when Heather tells Laura she has seen Christine in her visions; the Bishop whose visage seems to say that he knows more than he lets on – the aspect of the Venetians is even  more dangerous seeming in the film. 

The Bishop has commissioned work on the Church of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children we are told. The Bishop presents a slightly disturbing, odd presence in the couple’s lives. In a harrowing, if somewhat prolonged scene, John has an accident on a scaffold within the church while examining a mosaic that needs to be repaired and nearly falls to his death (a dangerous stunt that Sutherland performed himself). We begin to sense that someone, or something, is in malignant pursuit of John.

After John survives the near fall he encounters the police fishing the corpse of a young woman out from the canal, by her heels, face unseen, resurrecting terrifying memories of his own daughter’s drowning. That scene, not included in the original story, lends a gruesome aspect to John's foreboding. There is a murderer on the loose we are told. John reflectively pauses before an Italian film poster of a Charlie Chaplin film entitled “Uno Contro Tutti” ("One Against All"). Signs affixed to construction sites proclaim "Venice in Peril". One feels the weight of the sinister forces that seem to oppose the couple. 

Roeg's shots of a cat behind a barred window in an apartment or a flock of dispersing birds seem disturbing, off putting. That which is commonly seen as exquisitely ancient or charming in Venice seems ruined, harbouring some archaic, unseen evil in Roeg's hands. The sisters in particular give John "an impending sense of doom, of tragedy". 

After Laura leaves for England, John sees (or imagines that he sees) Laura, dressed in black, riding on a vaporetto on the canal with the two sisters. She does not respond to his frantic calls. We feel that his mind is disintegrating. He searches for the pensione of the sisters and then reports that Laura is "missing" to the authorities even though he saw her leave for England. He tells the police that he knows that there is a murderer on the loose in Venice and possibly Laura is being held captive by the sisters. 

John is excitable and fearful as he searches for Laura and, seemingly, with good reason. He is being followed by a stranger in the calle; the police official he reports Laura's disappearance to is oddly nonchalant treating John's report in an offhand manner, carelessly doodling on a drawing of the two sisters as if they are of no import. Most importantly, John has many fleeting images of Christine's red coat in the alleyways of Venice which elude him.

The sisters are arrested, suspected of having done away with Laura but John soon learns that he is mistaken in his fears and secures their release. He continues to be pursued by visions (or apparitions) of Christine on the streets of Venice. There is a disquieting sense of doom as one wonders what is real and what is not. Laura returns from England and searches for John at the sisters' urgent behest (a scene also not depicted in the story).

Laura pursues John and John pursues "Christine", running through the streets of Venice at night, which makes no sense in the same way that a nightmare lacks reason or coherence. If you have walked the labyrinth of the Venetian streets you realize how confusing and horrifying that might be to a fevered mind especially at night.

John chases the the red hooded figure realizing that an unknown man is doing so as well. He surges forward to protect the small figure whom he feels is in jeopardy. In the end, John does possess the powers of prophesy as Heather predicted but he learns that too late to change the course of his destiny. 

Roeg's directing style has been described as "disjunctive". Perhaps. This editing style is now de rigueur in modern cinema but would have been somewhat revolutionary at the time of its release in 1973. Roeg is relying on the intelligence of the film goer to piece the narrative together coherently. It seems a particularly apt style of movie making when two of the main characters see both flashes of the future and are tortured by memories of the past. 

The film is only slightly marred by lingering shots of certain scenes which may have appeared intriguing in 1973 – an extended, superfluous lovemaking scene between the couple early in the film reflecting no doubt the new liberties of the cinematic era (in the story their lovemaking is summed up by one sentence) and the scene of John hanging precariously, and endlessly, from the scaffolding in the church he is refurbishing. Based on Sutherland's courage in attempting the stunt, one understands Roeg's desire to maintain the drama of the scene. Neither of these scenes appear in the short story which is tighter and more suspenseful.

These scenes, as well as Sutherland's exaggerated acting style, test the patience of the modern cinema goer somewhat. However, I cannot say I was not spooked by the film. I was indeed. 

Daphne Du Maurier