Return of the Depressed

Don't Look Now
Oak Street Cinema, starts Friday

The graybeards tell us to honor history, to admit that things have been done before. Sometimes this is just nostalgia talking, but other times it comes from genuine, been-there experience. Such is the case with Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now--a 1973 movie famed for many things and, in fact, still worthy of fame for most of them. Roeg wasn't widely known when he made this movie, and he has enjoyed only a brief history as a cinematic innovator. But this movie and the two that bookended it--Walkabout in 1971 and The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1976--still stand as stunning and unique pieces of work even apart from their '70s virtuosity.

Giving up the ghost: Donald Sutherland in Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now
Giving up the ghost: Donald Sutherland in Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now

Don't Look Now comes back to us at an interesting moment--bringing with it both echoes and premonitions of still-timely issues. First, it coincides with a little fuss right now over the single coming-attractions clip from the late, great Stanley Kubrick's upcoming Eyes Wide Shut: Nicole Kidman stands proudly naked at a mirror, and Tom Cruise (equally proud and naked) comes over to nuzzle her. Whatever marvels surround that peepshow in Kubrick's movie, it will still have to be compared to Roeg's famous sex scene between the married couple in Don't Look Now: John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) shower, brush their teeth, get a little work done, and then get horizontal in a frankly powerful scene that's intercut with their activities about 20 minutes later as they get ready to go out for dinner. The scene has only a little to do with the main story of Roeg's movie, but it stands as a prime example of how to show the resonance and depth of both sex and love--how they arrive and how they linger.

Don't Look Now (screening for a week at Oak Street in a brand-new print) is based on a Daphne du Maurier story about an English couple in Venice. They've lost a young daughter to drowning, and their surviving son has returned to boarding school. As John works hard restoring an ancient church, he and Laura are free to overcome their grief and regain their intimacy, their trust of life and one another. Sounds sappy, I know (What Griefs May Come, anyone?)--but the extra twist is that the daughter's death affects each of them differently, and it's out of this that Roeg is able to build his tension through style. Laura is basically innocent and "normal"--she grieves but is ready to leave the suffering behind. John, however, acts as if he's beyond the pain--except that he is also psychic while refusing to admit it. When the couple meets a pair of elderly English sisters, one of whom is blind but deeply clairvoyant, Laura goes along with their message from beyond the grave, while John resists with all his might.

The outcome of all this is a murky drama (with hints of a chase) in which darker things start to happen, and premonitions--the old-fashioned kind, in addition to Roeg's flash-forward edits--take over. The plot is more than a little creaky, but it's how the story is told that matters. The opening scene of the drowning is beautifully storyboarded, shot, and edited; dialogue is utterly unnecessary. Having started this way, Roeg--a former cinematographer but also a talented editor--is able to proceed largely in nonverbal form. Edits based on matching gestures or colors (especially red) abound. The sweeping camerawork is at once intimate and identified with passion and mystery. Venice in this story is no tourist spot--and in fact the events occur in late fall, when hotels give up the ghost and put shrouds on their furniture.

There's a fair amount of haunted-house stuff in here, such as the shock of pigeons' wings flapping and half-seen shadows down a dim corridor. But Roeg packs in some reliable symbolic pairings--sex and death, faith and doubt, the sacred and profane, seeing and not seeing--that deepen the themes of longing and ignored danger. As these things sort themselves out, and as we follow the outlines of the puzzle Roeg has put together (from pieces that don't often match), there's another powerful sense of discovery--of realizing that this movie was made for an audience with the brains to understand it, to really see it. Who could resist such flattery?

 
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