It has been at least 25 years since I last watched Don’t Look Now, and I certainly didn’t appreciate it back then. As an art student, I was impressed with the cinematography, but I never really took in just how unbelievably brilliant both Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland were in their roles as grieving parents.
One of the seminal films of both the 1970s and horror as a whole, Nicolas Roeg’s vision of grief and violence—and of course that one particularly intense sex scene everyone remembers it for—has made Don’t Look Now a lasting piece of cinematic history. But it’s also a surreal watch; a story created through symbolism and visuals rather than dialogue. (As far as that sex scene goes, I don’t think it was real. Too much rolling, not enough rocking).
Taking a more impressionistic approach to his movie, Roeg tells us a story that has a foreboding atmosphere, built upon hard cuts and interwoven scenes that suggest something far larger and darker at play than the surface narrative we’re given. It works brilliantly in establishing a creepy, brooding tone, but it makes it difficult to understand what the ending really means. And God, I love that so much.
Especially when the said ending is a random maniacal dwarf woman in red appearing full Twin Peaks style and hacking Donald Sutherland in the neck with a massive knife. Literally no-one was expecting that.
But let’s explore exactly what led up to this moment, and how one little girl’s death was the pivotal point that sent the Baxter family on a downward spiral. Christine Baxter is at the heart of this story, decked out in a blood-red rain mac that haunts our protagonists, sending a message from beyond the grave that requires translation.
The overarching story of Don’t Look Now is the attempts of grief-stricken couple John and Laura Baxter to reconnect and get through the pain of losing their daughter, who drowned in their garden pond while the pair were chatting away inside the house. A few months later, architect John takes on a job in Venice to restore an old church, where he and Laura try to find some solace in their new domain and move on from the tragedy that defines their continued existence. Initially, everything appears to be going well until the pair meet two older women in a restaurant—Wendy and Heather. Heather is blind and has psychic abilities and claims to see Christine in the afterlife, laughing and playing between her parents.
John begins to have supernatural visions, witnessing Christine’s red raincoat around the city of canals, and he slowly comes to believe in the two women’s tales as eagerly as his desperate wife does. His mistake comes when he tries to track down the figure in the coat, resulting in his brutal murder at the hands of a stranger.
While initially, it feels like the film makes no sense with this completely jarring ending, on deeper reflection, Roeg has planted seeds throughout the film as to what actually can be perceived as happening by the time we witness a murder. The most crucial factor to take into account, then, is from Heather’s claim that John also has a psychic ability early on in the movie. When speaking with Laura, as the trio meet in the cafe, she tells her:
“He has the gift. That’s why the child was trying to talk to him. He has the gift. Even if he doesn’t know it. Even if he’s resisting it. It’s a curse as well as a gift.”
Just like the mysterious Heather, John has the ability to see beyond this world and into the afterlife, a sixth sense which brings with it premonitions that at first appear to be his daughter attempting to communicate with him. His lack of control over and acceptance of his sensitivity is what renders these manifestations so confusing to him as well as the audience, as we watch through his viewpoint and experience his fractured vision of both the natural and supernatural in one.
The first time we see John experience a premonition is during the drowning of Christine. The weaving of the scenes with John and Laura in the house, while Christine’s last moments play out is nothing short of stunning, and chilling. Despite knowing precisely what was going to happen, the tension makes it almost unbearable to watch—if it wasn’t for some of the best cinematography and the most exceptional natural acting I have ever seen in a film, I would have to look away.
John jumps out of his chair and runs out to find Christine submerged under the water as if he sensed that something was already wrong. His son Johnny gives his parents no warning despite being outside with Christine. Laura is distracted as she meanders around their sprawling home. It is then that a strange sense of knowing fear crosses Johns face that leads him precisely to the terrible fate of his daughter in the middle of their property. A Polaroid photo of the red coat sitting in the church due to be restored by John bleeds red.
He then runs for his life to the pond, tries and fails to save Christine. We can insinuate that John does not entirely understand his psychic powers. He knew something was wrong, but not what, or the urgency of it, and he failed to harness his skills in a way that could have had a tangible effect on this tragic outcome.
From that moment on he’s haunted by the colour red. The same red of Christine’s raincoat that she was strangely wearing on a day of clear skies, ironically not saving her from a watery death at the bottom of their pond. While this is both a representation of the Baxter’s grief at losing a child and the constant reminder of her death, it’s also a supernatural reminder that Christine isn’t gone, and by making her presence known so vividly, she is doing her best to warn and save her father.
Christine’s death feels almost premeditated; on the surface, it looked like a tragic accident but is made more suspicious by how quickly it all happened and how little anyone could help.
From here on in Don’t Look Now shifts into supernatural territory, showing a small, strange figure in red appearing and disappearing at will through the watery walkways and under the bridges of Venice. This is interpreted as Christine’s ghost, who communicates with Heather that there’s a great danger for John in Italy, resulting in those around him trying their best to get him out of the country.
It is revealed that a strange, small woman is the owner of the red mac. She shakes her head in a violent ‘no’ when John finds her, telling him how wrong his assumptions have been that she was his daughter before driving a machete into his throat. She’s the serial killer that has been rumoured to be stalking the canals of the city, and he’s found her out in some self-fulfilling prophecy that has led him to his death. This woman is wearing the same coat he’s seen throughout the film and is the culmination of the danger he was rumoured to be in since arriving. Christine’s death was no random accident; it was a physical manifestation of the warning John has been signposted for potentially his whole life.