Cross your fingers that remake never happens…every moment of Don’t Look Now is unthinkable in any other form, or with any of its shards moved even an inch out of place. Director Nicolas Roeg is often accused of coldness, impersonality, and of jumping so quickly between tones and genres that he lacks a distinct imprint. But what Roeg and Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie were able to accomplish in Don’t Look Now still feels unmatched in the horror genre: the ultimate coupling of love and death, both represented in their extremes. Don’t Look Now may be famous for its “creep-outs”—and rightfully so: all that time it devotes to watching Sutherland’s mourning father wandering the decrepit nighttime streets of a Venice drained of tourists at the end of the season puts even Visconti’s Thomas Mann adaptation to shame—but why it sticks with us so many years later is that its horrors are so completely dependent on sadness. And it’s a real, true, gut-wrenching sadness, one which the supernatural can try to assuage, but for which it is ultimately meaningless.
The infamous sex scene isn’t renowned for its graphic nature so much as its delicate editing conceit: Sutherland and Christie’s John and Laura Baxter, in Venice both for his art restoration work and for their post-trauma necessity, make love, gently, while Roeg and editor Graeme Clifford intercut their quiet passion with postcoital dressing for dinner. The result is one of the most intimate scenes of marriage ever put on film (Soderbergh ripped it off for Out of Sight, and, as usual, was praised for his inventiveness…but it didn’t work as well as a casual one-nighter between cops and robbers). Even more remarkably, Roeg lets the scene speak volumes about their pain: Having just lost their little girl in a horrifying drowning (shot in terrifying, empathetic slow motion at the film’s surreal opening), John and Laura’s attempt to reconnect isn’t fraught with any verbal psychoanalyzing; it simply plays. Which makes the horror to come all the more terrible.
Few films end more frighteningly, both in their visual shock and their metaphysical implications. For those who haven’t seen the film still, it’s not worth ruining, for Don’t Look Now is indeed a puzzle, but one that never calls attention to itself as such. Roeg conceives of extra sensory perception so organically, and the supernatural is woven into the fabric of the film so graciously and imperceptibly, that it can’t help but take you by surprise. The final bloodletting remains, for me, along with Hitchcock’s Psycho, one of horror cinema’s great ruptures—in which the genre gives way to such melancholy and unfairness that all that’s left is a rush of primal emotion. This is the film’s final testament: despite all of its intellectual concerns (its narrative and temporal audacity) and its “twist” ending, there’s really nothing to solve or be resolved. Roeg lays bare horror’s capacity for all the world’s sadness. Why haven’t more filmmakers been able to capture that?