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Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Don't Look Now, Donald Sutherland Isn't Dressed!

Great, you looked. That's just fandabbydozy...
You know what must suck? Your child dying. Like, seriously, that must be the worst. Unless infanticide happened to be your goal when you stuffed your child into that python-laden crate and drenched it in hydrofluoric acid in which case you're the newest member of a very exclusive club.

They meet on Sundays; Mr. and Mrs. West are bringing finger food.
Our film for today deals with the very tender subject of the loss of a loved one, something that's very difficult to portray well in cinema. It's likely the only thing you've ever really heard about Don't Look Now is the controversial sex scene (yes, that link is NSFW) between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie and something about people in red macs. If that is the case then I implore you not to Google this movie until you've watched it; spoilers are aplenty in these waters, they are.

"Arr, he dedicated his life to preserving the ending to The Sixth Sense, he did."
So, a quick wee plot summary is probably in order: Julie Christie and a moustache wearing a Donald Sutherland are John and Laura Baxter, they've moved to Venice some years after the tragic drowning of their young daughter at their home in England. The two of them are still coming to terms with the death while trying to get on with their lives when a pair of sisters (one of whom is blind and claims to have "second sight") inform Laura that their dead daughter is attempting to contact them from beyond the grave to warn them that John is in danger. So far so occult/gothic horror: you've got yourself a dead relative, a troubled romantic relationship, a seance, a dash of clairvoyance and all of it taking place in a hauntingly beautiful city filled with crumbling statues and dark corners.

Perfect for doing dark dee-gah, no! She's too creepy.
This all might sound a little too formulaic, but from the opening scene it's very obvious that this is a film in the hands of someone who knows what they're doing, in this case that person is Nicolas Roeg of the oddity that is The Man Who Fell to Earth. We're treated to the harrowing death of the couple's daughter, Christine, immediately introducing the driving force behind the rest of the events of the movie and dropping us right into the emotion. Really lathering us up in it proper good. The pacing is impeccable, with an extended sequence of John fighting his way only too slowly through the mud to his daughter and carrying her lifeless body away from the water's edge. It's really testament to the willpower of Roeg that he didn't choose to ham up Sutherland's acting or add dramatic music, instead letting the scene speak for itself.

"Hi, my name's Scene. I like long walks and swimmi-oh, shit, sorry."
Water continues to act as a recurring motif throughout the film which, incidentally, manages to hit that perfect sweet spot when it comes to artistic metaphors and imagery in cinema. They're neither blatant nor obscure, but just obvious enough and used within the film in such a way that their presence actually impacts on the overall tone, rather than just as a talking point for smug movie obsessives at film-talking parties or whatever it is they socialise at. Maybe some day they'll invite me... But yes, water. It's heavy role in (read: literal cause of) Christine's death means that it acts a representation of John and Laura's grief and the way in which it shapes their lives. Obviously, the use of Venice as a backdrop for the story lends itself quite well to this idea, with the characters literally surrounded by their own grief. At one point in the film, John finds himself separated from Laura by the winding labyrinth of alleys and bridges that make up the city, obviously representative of the way in which the pair's inability to move on has begun to create a divide in their relationship.

It's undeniably the splendidly believable relationship between John and Laura that makes this more than just a very typical slow-burning gothic horror. The two of them bicker, argue and miscommunicate with a sincerity not often found quite as intact in cinema, particularly in 70's horror, while simultaneously interacting with each other with the respect and vibrancy of two people who are genuinely close. This is probably due, in part, to the unscripted nature of some of their scenes together along with, yes, the sex scene. Ok, fine, we'll talk about the fucking sex scene already! At the time it was considered pretty controversial, running for about five minutes and featuring plenty of highly tabboo thrusting, licking and bumping of genitals, but I would probably consider it the best sex scene I've ever seen.

Don't look at me like that, Spock. You enjoyed it too.
Let's stop giving a damn about the "explicitness" of the scene for a minute (mumble, mumble, something about violence being considered more acceptable in films and I'm already bored of flogging these rotten, mutilated equine remains) and look at how the sex is portrayed. There's no Bond-esque moment of steamy fornication or the man leaping on the woman to satiate his base desire; the two of them are chilling on the bed reading a magazine, then sex just sort of happens, the scene interspersed with little clips of the pair getting dressed for dinner afterwards using a then unorthodox fragmented editing style. It's one of the most genuine moments of passion and affection I've witnessed since that bit in Team America, and probably the first time in a film that I've seen people do the old rumpy pumpy like normal folk.

Aaaand, yup, she just knee'd him in the balls.
I've hit a bit of a tangent there so to get back to the rest of the movie and, you know, criticism and stuff. The supporting cast aren't quite as convincing in their performances as the leading pair (the Italian guy playing the police inspector was alright, although we'll let him off with it seeing as he couldn't speak English). The bishop overseeing John's renovations is rather dull and, well, altogether too goddy, which is either perfect or shoddy characterisation depending on how you're feeling when you watch it. As for the blind seance and her sister, the pair work well together as a double team, providing the majority of the movie's welcomingly sparse exposition with a kind of friendly creepiness that makes you feel that there's more to the pair then you're ever properly shown.

She's not actually blind, she's just worn the same contacts for 30 years.
Venice is sublime (I'm coming out with all the wanky sales talk today, ain't I); it's beautiful and serene yet at the same time imposing and ominous, the uneasy balance between atmospheres illustrated nicely through a series of eerie murders that occur during the time of the Baxter's stay in the city. Once again, the images of sodden bodies being fished from the murky water of the canals create a parallel with Christine's drowning, connecting these murders with the Baxters in a way that isn't made apparent until the film's final moments. And that brings us nicely along to my final comment on the film: the overarching creep that pervades the whole thing.

"Seriously? Pervades?"
The movie is slow. The whole story can essentially be boiled down to man and woman meet a seance, everyone is a bit worried for a little while, ten minutes of crazy stuff and cue credits. It beat The Blair Witch Project to the make-us-watch-mundane-shit punch by 26 years (fun fact: the famous final shot of Shaky Cam: The Shakening is actually an homage to the ending of this movie), and that's probably my biggest niggle with the whole thing. But, and this is a big but (I cannot lie), the film is so expertly, if slowly, paced that it doesn't actually matter. You get so swept up in the lives of John and Laura that you don't care that you're spending ten minutes watching John fix a church statue or drawing naked.

"Paint like I'm painting you like one of your French girls..."
The film's genuinely engaging study of a couple's methods of dealing with loss is interspersed regularly enough with tiny drips of mystery, be it in the form of a strange child in a red mac running through the dark or a glimpse of a person where they definitely shouldn't be, that there's always enough to keep you interested but never too much that you aren't distracted from the chilling, uneasy atmosphere, beautiful setting or spotless acting. It takes patience and a little bit of thought at the end, not everything is explained as plainly as it would be nowadays, but it's absolutely worth it for a great film that's as much a touching romance as it is an unsettling mystery and is absolutely mesmerising to watch.

Bonus points for fitting six naked Donald Sutherlands in one shot.

Overall Ben Equivalence Rating

Staring at Donald Sutherland's Moustache - 
Full-bodied, flawlessly well-trimmed and slightly arousing, yet it somehow makes you feel just a little bit uneasy. 

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