Don't Look Now ★★★

Don’t Look Now has all of the building blocks for the perfect psychological thriller. But, paradoxically, it’s a far better film in hindsight than it actually is to watch it. Which might explain why this film is a frequent top contender in so many “best horrors of all-time” lists - simply because it leaves a lasting impression. It certainly has a lot going for it - talented performers (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), a creepy labyrinthine Venetian setting, and both intrigue and foreshadowing in spades. And yet, it’s frustratingly difficult to connect with in the moment because it’s just so sloppy.

The camera work - often zooming incessantly or panning with all the grace of a drunk sailor on shore leave - is only matched in its obvious lack of fluidity by at times painful editing, which misses obvious beats and cuts between different angles in incongruous ways. The same painful pacing in much of the editing is also evident in the direction of dialogue, which is at times clunky and - at worst - overshadows what would otherwise be very compelling interactions. This is most evident in a rather crucial scene involving a long-distance phone call between two characters, with intentional over-talking meant to amplify the confusion of Sutherland’s character. But the choices of when to cut back and forth between settings and the chirpy delivery of these lines fails to strike the tension and impact the scene should be dripping with. Instead it seems like these dialogue pieces were recorded at separate times and ham-fisted together to build a conversation.

The film does do a brilliant job of misdirection throughout the film, with near-death experiences, ominous portends, and communication from beyond the grave. But, in the end, all of these red herrings and foreshadowings also serve to obscure what is really going on to the point that the climactic pivot point of the film seems to come from nowhere. The subplot of what is occurring around Venice is not paid enough attention. It therefor doesn't lend quite enough strength to the final revelation, and the fact that the climax involves both a logical leap to connect this subplot, as well as what is ultimately an absurd reveal, leaves the impression of a heavy-handed crescendo.

All of that said, there are some exceptional techniques being used throughout this film that cannot be overlooked. Roeg is clearly playing with spatial and graphical continuity as he intercuts things like a dynamic spill on a photograph with the ominous red coat. The film’s central theme of vision is also hard to ignore, and is used both poetically and metaphorically throughout the film - a character having something stuck in her eye, the presence of a blind woman, the frequent use of mirrors and reflections, and of course the fleeting glances of shocking red (a colour meticulously restrained everywhere but in key moments). There are quick vignettes, flashbacks that could have been rather than those that were, which amplify the uncertainty of both the present and future. Overall, the film is an incredible mood piece which, despite its technical flaws, is able to build tension, intrigue and mysterious threat with ease.

The controversial sex scene is exceptionally well-conceived, as it cuts back and forth between coital and post-coital moments with a brilliant inter-cutting that allows the audience to shift its perception from present-future to present-past in a dynamic way. This sequence doesn't feel shock-seeking or exploitive in the way that the 70s' boundary-pushing sex scenes often can, but instead feels like a crucial turning point in a relationship connecting our two leads.

This is one of those films that I will distinctly remember for all of the great things it is able to accomplish, but equally for the impression it leaves behind. Unfortunately, much of that impression is composed of my own subconscious filling in what could have been instead of what this film is, shading in the technical flaws and plot omissions to build a perfect psychological thriller story. Don’t Look Back comes close to being that film I wish it were, but is fundamentally too far away from being.

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