Don’t Look Now (1973): seeing is believing | Film analysis

Half of a cracked doll's face with a piercing blue eye.

Shedding light on symbols of sight, second sight and not seeing in horror classic Don’t Look Now.

Ah, 1973 – a vintage year for horror. There was The Exorcist, of course, but also Westworld and The Wicker Man. The latter famously flopped on release, in part because it opened as the B-movie in a double bill with another British horror released that year: Don’t Look Now.

Yet for all that, Don’t Look Now isn’t a horror movie so much a meditation on grief. Its symbols and scares are metaphors for the true-life terrors of bereavement. Protagonists John and Laura Baxter are haunted – not by ghosts, but by losing a child.

Architect John (Donald Sutherland) rushes out of the family’s home in rural England one day to find daughter Christine drowned in their pond, still in her red plastic mac.

To suppress their grief, John and Laura (Julie Christie) go to Venice, Italy, to oversee a church restoration. For parents whose young daughter drowned, a city surrounded by water is a punishing and portentous choice.

First, Laura falls in with a pair of odd, old sisters who claim they can “see” Christine from beyond the grave. Rather than running a mile, Laura joins them in a séance. As you do.

John sits it out, but it can’t save him from the sisters’ grim message: while he’s in Venice, his life is in danger. Sceptic John is sure of only one thing: the sisters are bad news – and they have dangerous designs on his wife.

Seeing and not seeing

After revealing the bombshell about their dead child, Laura strives to convince John she’s not crazy. Luckily, he buys it: “Seeing is believing,” he tells her, subtly spelling out the film’s thematic heart.

As you might expect, then, Don’t Look Now is littered with symbols of seeing – and its counterpart, not-seeing.

First there’s Heather’s blindness. This is an ironic (or perhaps exploitative) juxtaposition because, having lost the use of her eyes, Heather gains the gift of second sight instead.

Consider too how much of the film consists of characters looking or searching:

  • John and Laura are devastated they’ll never see Christine again
  • But in Venice, John keeps seeing his daughter’s reflection in canals
  • Similarly, Laura tries to “catch sight of her” through Heather’s psychic powers
  • John and Laura get lost in the labyrinthine streets
  • John spends the second half of the film searching for Laura
  • By the end, Laura is looking for John
  • Meanwhile, John chases a figure in a red-hooded cloak.

Most of these are near misses … until the final showdown, when John finally finds what he’s been looking for. Or rather, she finds him.

Horror classic The Omen ramps up the tension with its clever use of photographs, cameras and reflections. Don’t Look Now eschews the literal camera, but replicates its metaphors of “deliberate looking”. Hence:

  • John gets his first glimpse of the hooded figure while looking at photographic slides
  • One stained slide appears to foretell Christine’s death … but actually prophesies John’s
  • Like John, we repeatedly see Christine’s reflection in water: upside down, rather like how camera lenses see the world before the image is corrected
  • When Laura meets the two sisters, their first conversation likewise takes place in a mirror.

Speaking of sinister sisters

Heather (Hilary Mason) is an intriguing character, because she runs the film’s horror mechanisms.

She introduces the film’s supernatural element when she tells Laura her daughter’s spirit is still present. Her blindness and psychic abilities work together to create the story’s sense of unease – for instance, her weird mimicry of Laura and John’s love making during the séance. And it’s Heather who predicts John’s fate if he stays in Venice.

As it turns out, she’s right about the danger – and yet the film presents the sisters and their psychic abilities in a curiously ambiguous light.

After agreeing to the séance, we later see them laughing between themselves. Wendy’s smirking face also flashes into view in the moments before John’s accident at the church (note too the hangman’s nooses dangling above the platform).

And when John comes to their room at the end of the film, the sisters repeat the steps they performed before the first séance, complete with surreptitious glass of whisky. Like the messages from beyond the grave, even their switching of hotels hangs between magic trick, meddling and classic con.

Ironically, Heather’s final warning is the clearest endorsement of her abilities. “Please, please, let him not go!” she cries as John wanders into the Venetian night. Of course this time, she’s too late.

What Venice means to Don’t Look Now

You have to wonder what draws John and Laura to Venice, of all places. As story locations go, however, it couldn’t be more perfect.

In Jaws, police chief Martin Brody’s fear of water is both deliciously ironic and dramatically meaningful in a story about a killer shark. Something similar is at play in Don’t Look Now, where the parents of a drowned girl come to what is, essentially, a floating city.

This makes it possible for John Baxter to see dead people, everywhere – or at least, his dead daughter – in a way that would be much harder in London, Paris or New York.

The Venetian labyrinth of streets and dead ends is also crucial to the plot, both when John and Laura get lost and, later, when John walks into an ambush.

Then there’s Venice’s alter ego as a city of ghosts. Heather calls it “a city in aspic, left over from a dinner party, and all the guests are dead and gone.” Famous last words – but also a nod to the city’s gothic facades, seemingly frozen in place until Venice sinks back beneath the waves.

Finally, the Venice that John and Laura visit is no honeymooners’ delight. Instead at every turn there are police investigators and corpses. This Venice is home to a crazed serial killer, and symbols of what’s yet to come.

I’ve written more about Venice as a film location and cinema’s heart of darkness for The Independent (article may be paywalled).

The significance of the colour red

Like water, the colour red is everywhere in Don’t Look Now, where the movie’s multiples of the red mac are a symbol of inescapable grief. The Baxters can go to Venice or they can go to the moon, but they can’t evade the reminders of loss.

For Laura, these come via Heather’s psychic flashes. For John, it’s through tormenting reflections of his dead child in Venetian canals, abandoned baby dolls, and the red-hooded figure.

Beyond the red mac(s), however, “incidental” rouge appears in almost every scene. There are red blankets, curtains, candles, scarves … an angry resident in a bath robe. This repetitive use of red is a warning light; it amplifies the danger of Heather’s prophesy.

But it’s also a red herring, misdirecting us about the significance of the red-hooded figure. In the end, this “double” couldn’t be further from the daughter John loved and lost.

And as the colour of blood, the film’s red tones presage something awful. The scarlet stain that seeps across a photograph of a church in the opening scenes seems to foretell Christine’s drowning. In fact, it foreshadows John’s death. The image of the damaged slide connects the beginning and end of the film in a grim loop, as if to say: look, everything’s ruined now.

Sex on the big screen and in Don’t Look Now

Sex has long been horror’s “other face”, a pairing particularly prevalent in Vampire fictions, including the subversive sexuality of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula.

In 1980s and 90s cinema, sexy teens and female nudity became a stock build-up to violence. 2010’s Piranha remake takes the trend to grotesquely extreme ends: it’s more Piranha 30DD than Piranha 3D.

The sex in Don’t Look Now follows the genre’s trend, then. Not for its salaciousness, but because sex is the other side of death, terror and grief; it’s an affirmation of being alive. No wonder it’s one of the images that come to mind as John lays dying.

The scene has gained a notoriety all of its own, however, principally driven by whether it might show Sutherland and Christie having real, live sex. This has been now been proven untrue and, to be fair, it does sound like rather baity marketing.

Either way, the movie’s use of sex is timely once again given it’s much rarer on screen than it used to be. Why is a conversation for another day, though it’s worth pointing out that, as per Oppenheimer, when we talk about mainstream sex scenes, we’re largely talking about female nudity – arguably a dangerous synonym by its exclusivity.

Regardless, sex on screen now is a very aesthetic affair. The bodies are beautiful, and beautifully framed. It’s supposedly sexy, but also so plastically perfect that it’s rarely erotic.

The sex scene in Don’t Look Now was famously highly coordinated, but its realism lies in its imperfections. John and Laura are skinny and good looking, of course, but they throw awkward shapes and weird angles. That’s the true realism of the film’s sex scene; it’s just not the norm on screen any more.

Horror transfigured

Don’t Look Now may be classic horror, but its use of horror elements is transfigured in ways that speak more of grief.

Rather than a titillating forerunner to on-screen slaughter, its sex is wrapped in grief, affirmation and old-fashioned intimacy. It’s just sex, and then the movie – like life – carries on.

As in The Omen, there are supernatural and prophetic elements, but rather than some demonic power play, here it’s about clinging to love.

This isn’t to say the film doesn’t trade on the genre’s usual exploitations, however. Horror too often trades on old age as a source of unease. Its creepy characters are often old women, for no other reason than we’re supposed to find them freakish outliers.

The Italian policeman’s view that old woman merge into each other goes further. It voices a social reality that women become invisible when they’re no longer of sexual or reproductive service.

Similarly, there’s the implicit ick of Heather mimicking the sex scene. It’s disquieting because it demonstrates the psychic power she wields. But perhaps also because it implies something “unnatural”, the very opposite to John and Laura’s youthful love-making. Like the juxtaposition of blindness and second sight, it’s a little too clever, a little too cruel.

Finally, there’s the story’s exploitation of dwarfism for its final twist. It’s memorable and shocking, but once more grounds terror in the Other, as though difference is necessarily deadly.

Given all this, perhaps it’s not actually so surprising when the red-hooded figure is unmasked as an old woman.

Don’t Look Now trades on the “circus” of disability not once, but twice. This freak show endows difference with dubious superpowers, mostly as a means of delivering punchlines about blindness, and not seeing what’s right in front of you.

The second twist in Don’t Look Now

Don’t Look Now’s ending is shocking precisely because the twist is so unpredictable.

The plot wrong-foots us throughout with ghostly echoes of Christine and whispers of a Venetian serial killer. In the end, the two extremes converge in the figure of tiny mad woman who – somehow – stabs six-foot-something John Baxter in the neck. This surely is the bigger miracle, but so it goes.

Notably, the film has no other gore or jump scares, so when this one lands in the final frames, it’s truly unsettling (The Blair Witch Project repeats the trick, more or less).

And yet, the unpredictable ending isn’t the film’s only twist.

Heather’s predictions and convulsions are compelling, but they mask the fact that John also has second sight.

When Christine drowns, John knows before he knows. That’s why he finds himself compelled to suddenly run outside, only to find his daughter already dead in the pond.

Similarly, when he sees Laura inexplicably back in Venice with the sisters, he’s glimpsing a future he can’t possible recognise or comprehend. What he actually sees is his own funeral procession.

It’s easy to assume the figure in red is Christine, either her ghost or a symptom of crushing grief. In fact it’s another glimpse of the future, playing out John’s final moments as he follows the red-hooded figure to his death. He half acknowledges this – again, without knowing it – when he and Laura get lost and he murmurs: “I know this place”.

This, then, is two twists for the price of one. The film ends with John’s unexpected death … and the greater tragedy is that he saw it coming all along.

Don’t Look Now (1973), directed by Nicolas Roeg

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Picture credit: Esteban López