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The Beautiful, Unbearable Grief of Don’t Look Now

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).

Donald Sutherland as John Baxter and Julie Christie as Laura Baxter in Don't Look Now still

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.

A strange small woman in a red duffle coast smiles
Surprise! You weren’t expecting her, were you?

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.

A reflection in the water of a little blonde girl wearing a red coat
Christine Baxter moments before she slips into the pond and drowns

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.

John Baxter screams as he drags the body of his little girl from the pond
The agonising grief of losing a child, played devastatingly by Donald Sutherland

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.

John has the premonition of his death, and his whole life has been interwoven with his final moments as his own timeline folds and collapses in around himself.

The snapshot we get to see of Laura and John’s existence has plenty of ominous inclusions of red to reinforce this too—from the blood-like spill appearing across the photograph of a church that spells out his doom in the Venice cathedral, to the Cardinal’s hat as he acts as an overseer to John’s last project, with red becoming more and more frequent the closer he gets to his own impending doom.

image of a church window with a red smear, Heathers blind eyes, the reflections of Heather 3 times at angles and the strange hooded figure with their back turned in a red coat

By the end, the culmination of all these moments that have been seeded throughout to show John’s death. His brilliantly red blood spills on the cobblestones of Venice’s old stonework, and his wife, Wendy, and Heather ride on a funeral boat across the canals in a moment of finality to his story. It’s the same image that he had a vision of earlier in the film when reporting his wife as missing to the police. Confused by his foresight, he believed she was still in Venice rather than at home with their son.

It’s an amalgamation of the future and the past that’s impossible to read for John as untrained psychic.

We can also look at his face-off with the strange, small woman as an interpretation of his grief, and how John’s refusal to accept or deal with the loss of his daughter came back to bite him at the end of the film. He spends all his time running after what he believes to be Christine and never taking steps to actually deal with the anguish thrust upon him. Laura finds a comforting way to deal with her emotions by placing her faith entirely in the hope that Christine exists in the afterlife; whether her way is healthy or not, it doesn’t matter. John spends his time refusing to open up. That he takes a job in the most water-ridden city possible seems like self-flagellation, and it is a closing off to his emotional needs to surround himself with images of death that he never actually processes. The weight of his pain and guilt created a monster that he just couldn’t shake off. This monster would be the death of him.

To chase the last residual image of her and find out that it is death itself for him is poetic. The overwhelming feeling of his grief taking over at long last spills out with the last of his blood. Considering that the serial killer had only killed women by drowning up to this point, that John dies by a sharp instrument feels all the more poignant as the break in that cycle, and reminiscent of John’s own break in the cycle of his distance from his own emotions.

The similarities to the story of Don’t Look Now and of the main thread of Twin Peaks are quite striking in retrospect. The Baxters and The Palmers both suffered a great loss with the death of their beautiful blonde-haired daughters. While Christine Baxter’s death appeared as an accident, in reality, a supernatural being took her life. That entity was a serial killer of women, and in both the film and Twin Peaks, the victim’s bodies were found in water.

The body of a blonde woman is dragged from a Venice canal by a crane on a boat
A victim of a serial killer is pulled from the Venice canals. Her outfit is eerily similar to that of a RR Diner uniform

While unlike the murder of Laura Palmer, neither parent was directly responsible for Christine Baxter’s death, but they both felt enormous responsibility for it. Laura Baxter was able to make peace with her loss because she believed her daughter was in a better place, and that she was happy—whereas John Baxter and Sarah Palmer were never able to get over their loss. Their grief morphed into demons that haunted them; for John, it was the final image of his daughter in her red coat. For Sarah, it was her daughter’s prom photo that she desperately tried (and failed) to destroy in an attempt to end the pain and suffering. Both Sarah and John were said to be gifted and damned, both having psychic abilities but not understanding the symbolic images and messages delivered to them, neither being able to prevent their daughters’ deaths in time.

Laura Palmer and John Baxter were both lured to their deaths by mysterious couplings; The Tremonds/Chalfonts, a boy and his grandmother who gave Laura a doorway into a dream world and the curious sisters, Heather and Wendy, who through his wife, led John to his ultimate fate by offering a glimpse through the whites of Heather’s eyes into into place between two worlds. These tricksters are packaged as helpful and kindly souls, but really they prey on the vulnerable and feed off the suffering of others.

Sisters Heather and Wendy cackle with joy
Sisters Heather and Wendy cackle with joy at the fact that they’ve tricked Laura Baxter into believing her daughter lives on

The demon overcame Sarah, and she slashed the neck of a misogynist truck driver who went too far. While John faced the demon head-on and his throat was slashed, and he was killed instantly. With John’s killer being a dwarf dressed in red, and looking not unlike a puppet from a Punch & Judy show, I might go as far as saying these two stories exist in the same universe. But I won’t, at least not today.

Don’t Look Now is available as part of the Criterion Collection. In my mind, it is one of the most brilliant, beautiful, striking, and haunting films of the 20th Century. You can look now.


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Written by Laura Stewart

Laura is the Assistant Editor-In-Chief, a Writer and Hand to the Webmaster at 25YL. She has been part of the team since May 2017 when she began writing about her favourite TV show of all time: Twin Peaks. She currently Heads the Film, News and Gaming Departments.

Lula Fortune (Wild at Heart) and Lee Holloway (Secretary) are her spirit animals. Her other hobbies include singing horribly and rarely sleeping.

Laura lives down by the sea in Gower, Wales, with her husband and very special little boy.

3 Comments

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  1. Beautifully written about, as you write, “one of the most brilliant, beautiful, striking, and haunting films of the 20th Century,” by a still underrated director. I remember the film so well in part because I was a projectionist at a local theater and ran the film twice every night for a couple of weeks. Haunted me for a very long time, especially when, on a rainy night, not long after it had ended its run, I encountered a small hooded figure dressed in a red raincoat walking near and (thankfully) past my apartment at the time.

  2. I have a completely alternative take on the ending: John is the serial killer and the dwarf was simply defending herself.

    The fact that the killer’s MO seems to be drowning blonde women is the first clue. Also, near the start of the film when John and Laura are in a vaporetto they pass a crime scene, and Laura turns to John and asks him “Isn’t this where you were…?”. Also, we as viewers interpret Christine’s warnings of danger as meant for John, but what if they were meant for Laura? Laura does match the victim profile, after all. At the climax, John is seemingly the aggressor; the dwarf lady had just been chased and cornered by John before she attacked him. If she were the serial killer why would she drown people if she had a huge meat cleaver?? Is it not plausible that a woman would carry a weapon to defend herself with knowing that there is a serial killer on the loose?

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