[Cross-posted from Kamera, and written in 2001]
Perhaps the most succinctly insightful critical response to the work of Nicolas Roeg might be Michael Clark’s portrait of the British director in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Entitled “al-jebr”, this Arabic word means “the bringing together of broken parts”. There are certain keywords that recur in critical appraisals of Roeg’s work: fractured, shattered, collapsed, labyrinthine. This is no less true of his now thankfully re-released 1973 masterpiece, Don’t Look Now, which forms part of an early body of work, including 1970’s astonishing Performance (co-directed with Donald Cammell), the deeply pessimisticWalkabout (also 1970), and the glacially prescient The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). These films inspire similar “what ifs” to the contemporaneous career of Francis Ford Coppola. After his under-appreciated 1980 film, Bad Timing, Roeg seemed unable to reach the intense complexity his earlier work had shown, and has since managed to succeed where even Coppola has failed, by earning the epithet “largely forgotten”.
Don’t Look Now begins with the tragic drowning of Christine, daughter of John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), and in a sequence famed for its elliptical yet instinctively communicative editing, introduces the key symbols and themes of the film. The motifs of water, of the colour red, of breaking glass, of criss-crossing (noted, in the left-right alternation of shot angles, by Manny Farber in his 1975 essay on Roeg), of spirals, of aural/visual disjunction, of deception/perception, of restoration (forgery/authenticity), are all introduced and established. An early, Hitchcockian, jumpcut from Laura’s scream of horror to the screech of a drill in Venice brings us forward in time, and establishes also Hitch’s presence as an influence. John and Laura have travelled to Venice, where John is working on the restoration of a Byzantine church (which, in a Gothic film, provides a pleasing counterpoint of styles). There they encounter two eccentric sisters, one of whom, apparently psychic, claims to be able to see their dead daughter standing between John and Laura, but also warns them that their lives are in danger while in Venice. John is sceptical, while Laura is willing to believe, and finds a degree of calm in the sisters’ words. The sisters even suggest that John himself possesses second sight, a possibility he denies to himself, in spite of otherwise inexplicable sensations.
This denial cuts to the heart of Roeg, his treatment of time in particular; that we preserve our illusions of control over time, that we structure and order them to give our lives structure and order, and that when encountering alien conceptions of life and time, some of us can make the leap and others won’t. John, professionally engaged in making the present look like the past, will not admit the possibility that he can see the future in the present, despite all signs to the contrary. Roeg’s camerawork increasingly jars sightlines and angles, giving the impression that John is being watched. Venice’s legendary ability for confusion – between east and west, sea and land, decay and splendour – begin to make their presence felt, as John, separated from Laura, is led through the city’s labyrinth by a false Ariadne, to his death.
There is something insistently ecstatic – rapturous, yet distanced – about the rapid montage of John’s demise, a change, and his acceptance of that change, in his consciousness. There is a sense in which only by the “bloody silly way to die” (as the ending of Du Maurier’s original short story has it) can John’s sense of guilt be reconciled. Even at the last, his reconciliation with his apparent “gift” is fudged and distancing. In contrast, Laura’s acceptance of the supernatural leads to growth and survival.
Sacrifice, experience by example, collective progress, all of these, along with his professed belief in a collective unconscious, place Roeg firmly within a Jungian framework. This positioning is emphasised in the fascination with reflective surfaces, and in the sound design, especially in the sequence where John is chasing Roeg’s fairy-tale ogre, accompanied not by Hermann-esque music, but by deep Jungian churnings. Within the canals of Venice, Roeg’s mise-en-abyme of the auditory canals also manages to suggest a mosaic or even fractal structure – of structures within structures. Chris Marker’s observations, in Sans Soleil (1983), on Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), about the spiral nature of time, elicit another strand of Hitchcockian imagery in Don’t Look Now – the spiral. First seen on a slide in the opening sequence, then in the flight of pigeons, in a stairwell, in a bishop’s crook, in the misty wake of the dwarf and John – all contributing to, Farber’s words, Roeg’s “cubistically spiralling style”.
At a time when visual, narrative and emotional complexity seem inaccessible and inconceivable to British film financiers and distributors, film makers, and perhaps even the audiences, an opportunity to revisit one of this country’s most glittering, underrated and serious talents is welcome and necessary. It remains to be seen whether it will influence any of the above constituencies one iota.