[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. Read More