illustration by Tom Ralston
We’ll start at the end.
The ordeal is seemingly over. His wife and son are safe. John walks back to his hotel in Venice. He sees a little girl in a bright red raincoat, reminiscent of the one his daughter was wearing when she died. The girl scampers across boats and over bridges, crying. He calls out to her, hoping to help and also to quell his own superstitions. He follows her into the alcove of an ancient church. “It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m a friend,” he says. “I won’t hurt you.” Suddenly, he knows something is wrong.
The little girl finally turns around and it’s not a little girl at all. It’s a little person—referred to as “the dwarf” in the film’s credits—with a large nose and a wrinkled face. She shakes her head, grinning, and then pulls a cleaver from her coat and chops right into John’s neck.
A series of mesmerizing, frantic images play out, a mix of memories and supernatural visions interspersed with John’s own bleeding and shuddering as he dies. The vision he had earlier in the film, of his wife on a boat, becomes a reality when she rides in his funeral procession along the canals of Venice.
Don’t Look Now is a 1973 film based on a novella by Daphne du Maurier. Over the years, this jarring ending has become a synecdoche for the entire film, though it’s not an entirely accurate one. The film is also intensely romantic, a beautiful portrait of a relationship where love has been sharpened by agony. It’s a haunting portrayal of Venice that leans into the city’s twisted alleys and shadowed bridges. It’s an examination of faith and agnosticism that questions if there’s logic found in either way of thinking.
That’s not to say the ending doesn’t deserve its legendary status. It’s utterly shocking, a gasp-inducing experience and a turn so unexpected that it feels cruelly absurd. Director Nicolas Roeg’s signature poetic editing is stunning, creating a version of life passing before your eyes that captures panic and pain alongside realization and longing. John’s memories are so pointed, so starkly juxtaposed between his spinning point of view and the image of him dying, that they’re bound to imprint on your mind and remain there long after the credits roll.
In the several years between my first and second viewing, the film remained in my brain, popping up whenever something reminded me of it in the slightest—a brightly colored scarf, rain on pond water, photographs of old churches. I enjoyed the film when I watched it. There was a lot to love, from the beautiful editing to the fantastic performances. But the film left me with an odd taste in my mouth. It took me a long time to revisit, simply because I couldn’t reconcile the frankly fucked-up nature of its ending with what the film had communicated to me prior to that moment. It was a lovingly portrayed piece about a husband and wife so haunted by their grief that they felt lost in the world, tourists with only the slightest grasp on the vocabulary of normal life, their language struggles pulling them apart from each other and the outside world. Yes, there had been mentions of a deranged serial killer earlier on in the film. But what did that have to do with anything? How could a drama about a grieving couple and a Dwarfsploitation slasher be the same movie?
In du Maurier’s novella, the very last line is John’s dying thought: “Oh God,” he thinks. “What a bloody silly way to die…”
What a bloody silly way to die.
What a bloody silly way to end a film.
Bloody silly, but no less terrifying for its absurdity. It’s an ending that holds the contradiction of eager faith and stolid logic; of Laura’s hope in something beyond, and John’s insistence that seeing is believing. In the end, both philosophies are misguided. Laura’s confidence in psychic powers and spiritual visions causes her to invalidate her husband’s own grief. John’s closed mind keeps him from listening to his wife, leading him to be dismissive of her joy, and later to his own demise. With these mindsets, they both become oblivious to what is really happening. Is John’s violent death really what visions foretold, or is it an unfortunate thing that happens to an upset man in an unfamiliar city? The film invites us to hold those two ideas at once. Don’t Look Now sits in the uncanny valley between these things happen for a reason and these things happen, forcing the viewer to confront humanity’s inability to avoid tragedy despite our desperation to predict the future.
Don’t Look Now is bookended by its two most disturbing scenes. The signature bloody ending, yes, but the film also begins with violence: John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura’s (Julie Christie) young daughter Christine (Sharon Williams) dies, accidentally drowning in the pond on their property in the English countryside.
The moments leading up to the tragedy are idyllic. Christine and her brother Johnny (Nicholas Salter) play outside with not a care in the world. John and Laura work in the house, displaying that quiet, easy familiarity that can only be achieved by love, time, and intimacy. Laura searches through books to find an answer to a question her daughter asked her: if the earth is round, then why are lakes flat? John looks through slides of his next restoration project. All is right in the world, if a bit rainy.
Moments before it happens, John looks up, as if he’s heard a cry. He can sense that something is off. He cuts his finger on the edge of one of the glass slides. Blood drips onto the image, overtaking it. Laura asks him what’s wrong. “Nothing,” John says. But as soon as he leaves the room, he breaks into a run. His son comes to him, crying, but John already knows. He dives into the pond to retrieve Christine’s body and then cries—screams—as he attempts to carry her home, slipping in the mud.1
There’s an inevitability to all of this—a fatalistic sensibility that’s apparent from the start. The majority of shots showing Christine are not of her, but of her reflection, a red coat dancing across the pond’s rippling surface. Christine doesn’t speak, leaving us with only the disembodied words of the talking doll she carries. Christine is already a ghost.
Aided by cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond (who would go on to shoot another dreamlike masterpiece, 1992’s Candyman), Roeg’s camera and editing switches from hyper-subjectivity to cool objectivity with hardly a moment’s notice. At first, dramatic angles and slow motion are paired with the images John sees in his mind’s eye—but once he pulls Christine from the water, the camera stays back, firmly an outside viewer.
We are left to watch the unflinching portrayal of a man overtaken by grief. John lets out a guttural moan as he stumbles out of the pond and attempts to revive his daughter. When it’s clear that she’s gone, he clutches her to his chest, struggling to get back to the house amidst his anguish. He drops into the mud, writhing as he tries to get back up. It’s a moment so helpless—so primal—that it awakens a similarly primal need to help, to reach out. But the camera remains distant as he struggles to his feet.
That’s when Laura finally looks out the window, and screams.
In a Hitchcockian match cut, Laura’s scream fades into the sound of a drill, where, in Venice, John works on restoring a church. The transition is harsh. The film throws the viewer out of the rain and leaves them blinking at the sunlight. But as we catch up with John and Laura, they seem happy. The horrors we just saw fade into the background.
Nevertheless, starting the film on such a harrowing note creates a sense of unease, and John and Laura’s peace feels more patina than permanent. Indeed, it takes mere moments for something to go south. At lunch, two strange women stare at John and Laura from another table. The elder woman gets something stuck in her eye. On their way to the restroom, the women bump into Laura. Seeing them struggling, she rushes off to help, leaving John smiling at her impulsive kindness. In the bathroom, Laura introduces herself to the bumbling Wendy (Clelia Matania) and Heather (Hilary Mason). Heather is blind—hence the difficulties once Wendy got something in her eye. As Laura helps Wendy, Heather suddenly cries, “You’re sad. You’re so sad and there’s no need to be!” Wendy quickly says, “My sister’s psychic,” as if that should explain everything. Heather relates her vision: she can see little Christine sitting next to John and Laura, laughing. Laura grows increasingly upset at the description of her dead daughter. When she returns to the table, she faints before she can sit. The table topples over, and water spills across the floor between broken dishes.
When John later picks Laura up at the hospital, she’s seemingly fine. In fact, she’s glowing. She plays with the children who are on the other side of a nearby glass partition. When John comes in, she grabs his hands. “John,” she says. “Christine is still with us!”
For the first time, John responds with no humor or warmth. “Christine is dead, Laura” he says, with terrifying finality. In Venice, up through this point, Donald Sutherland plays John as all smiles and familiar touches. There’s even banter when he’s around Laura. But here, his face falls flat, expressionless, except for the sorrow in his large eyes. “Christine is dead” John pleads. He looks worn down, upset, lifeless. But Laura insists. “I feel really fine!” she says. “I don’t need pills, I’m not going crazy, I feel really great!”
John loves his wife. So he softens. “I believe you,” he says. “Seeing is believing. I believe you.”
They leave the hospital smiling. In the background, one of the children plays with the same ball Christine was playing with when she died. John and Laura don’t notice.
John says seeing is believing, but of course it’s not as simple as that. He wants to believe his wife, but he can’t hide his concern that Laura has such conviction for something she can’t see.
Seeing is believing—that’s John’s assertion. But his frame of vision is different from Laura’s. While Laura is in the bathroom at the restaurant, helping the strange sisters, John waits at the table. He looks at the glinting water in the canal outside. The film immediately cuts back to the rain at their house in England, and the day that the grief-stricken couple drove away to pursue a change of scenery. The memory lingers on the rain hitting the water—an image of that pond, the one where Christine died. When Laura cheerily tells John that Christine is still with them, it’s no wonder John is so upset. Seeing is believing, and he saw the horror of his daughter’s death in all its grotesque immediacy—and he continues to see it in unwanted memories that replay every time he sees the water. Notably, one of the few changes Roeg made to the plot of du Maurier’s story was the nature of Christine’s death. In the story, she dies of an illness, but in the film she drowns. John cannot escape the water, just as he can’t escape his own grief and regret. The omnipresence of water in Venice feels like a cruel joke.
Upon leaving the hospital, Laura begs to stop at a church. She wants to say a prayer. John agrees with a smile, a sigh, and an “Oh, Laura.” But his amiable mood doesn’t last long. “I don’t like this church at all,” he says. “Well, I do,” Laura shoots back.2 John indulgently gives Laura change to buy candles to light for Christine. As she does so, he moves to the other side of the church and fiddles with a hanging electric light. Both are achieving the same end—illumination—but by vastly different means.
Overall, John is uncomfortable in holy spaces, unless they’re part of his work, and his work leads him to see all of these religious icons as zombified problems—murals that need to be patched, statues with missing heads or limbs, or gargoyles spitting out their disapproval of him. He swears—“Jesus!”—as the priest performs mass in the background. But Laura has suddenly become besotted with faith. She kisses the ring of the Bishop supervising John’s restoration project, prompting him to ask if she’s Christian. The question flatters Laura. The Bishop wonders with her if God has priorities other than restoring old churches, if God’s children have stopped listening. When he leaves, John leans in to Laura and wickedly says, “You have the sensation he doesn’t give an ecclesiastical fuck about the church?”
In a sense, the Bishop is right—God doesn’t seem to have time for the churches. They’re crumbling all around Venice, and Venice is crumbling with them. While John is frustrated with Laura for trying to resurrect Christine, if only on a spiritual level, he’s full of the same misguided hope. He’s trying to resurrect a church! He’s trying to lift the sinking Venice out of the water, to turn back time—just like he lifted his daughter out of the water, and how he wishes he could turn back time and make that fated day end differently.
John is terrified at how easily his wife believes something he thinks is ludicrous, but he’s also seeing things that aren’t there. The echoes of his trauma come uninvited, images and memories bubbling up to the surface. And he thinks he sees his daughter in the red-coated figure, believes that they are an innocent child in need of help, even though that is far from the truth. “Seeing is believing,” he asserts—but can he truly trust his own vision?
Watching John and Laura, you want them to be happy. They love each other. They laugh at each other’s jokes. They reach for each other’s hands or gently touch the other’s shoulders or waist, as if to say, I’m here. They look at each other with comfort and ease and admiration. Even their bickering is filled with tenderness. “I can’t hear what you’re saying!” Laura yells from the bathroom. “What are you doing?” John calls out. “I’m having a bath!” John chuckles to himself before yelling back, “You heard me that time!” Their familiarity is erotic—which could be the thesis of Don’t Look Now’s sex scene.
I said earlier that the film’s ending had, in a way, become larger than the film itself, but the same could be said of this notorious scene. The scene itself was not part of the original script, nor was it planned to be the shocking centerpiece of the film it became. However, as they were working through the shoot, Roeg realized that the love between his central couple was the core of the story. The love scene was filmed in a mere hour and a half at a hotel, with only Roeg, cinematographer Richmond, and a focus puller on the crew. At the time of the film’s release, it was unlike other sex scenes, in length and content and frankness, and continues to be singular in many ways. Sutherland and Christie bring to it the same practiced intimacy that shines throughout the rest of the film, resulting in a scene that is both intense and beautifully natural—so natural, in fact, that rumors spread that it wasn’t simulated (it was).3 Such rumors gave this infamous scene a life of its own, especially once it was censored for United States audiences.4
John and Laura, back at the hotel, lay side by side on the bed, on their stomachs. They’ve both just showered. Laura looks over to John. “You’ve got toothpaste all over your mouth.” He grins, mischievous, then says, “Eat it off.” They kiss—and then John waits, waits to make sure Laura wants to. She strokes his bare back gently, eventually moving lower. John flips her over and bows his head between her legs to pleasure her. There’s a sense of patience as well as relief. This is the first time they’ve made love in a long while.
From here, this scene, shown in non-linear fragments, is intercut with a later one, where John and Laura dress for dinner.5 The intensity of their lovemaking first feels at odds with the casual business of buttoning up a sweater. But the implication is that this is commonplace for the couple. It’s a normal afternoon and a normal expression of love in this marriage. As they get dressed, their habitual glances and smiles are evidence of their ardor as much as their passionate embraces. While they make love, they smile and laugh and fumble. It’s a romantic sequence precisely because it is presented as ordinary. It momentarily appears that John and Laura are going to get a happily-ever-after. The scene carries hope with it, banishing those foreboding, foreshadowing visions.
While John and Laura’s familiarity makes for exquisite romance, it also serves as a gauge for sensing when things are taking a left turn. Intimacy can fuel cruelty as well as love.
Laura has another happenstance meeting with the strange sisters, Wendy and Heather. She asks them to perform a seance so that she can speak with Christine, and begs John to come with her. He again pleads with her to listen to reason—to listen to him. “I’ve listened to you,” she retorts. “You were the one who said, ‘Let the children play where they want to.’ You let her go near that pond?” John’s response is more weary than angry: “Thanks for the memories, Laura.” This is an argument they’ve had before—but does that make it sting less? Laura pushes it by saying, “You said you’d give your life in exchange for hers. Well, you can’t do that!” The implication being that he can let Laura attend the seance. And he does.
Here, Roeg quickly cuts to the two strange sisters, who are almost forcefully laughing in their apartment, apparently at nothing, before Christine arrives. Are they laughing at John? At his sorrow? Where earlier familiarity provided comfort, now seemingly benign things like the couple bickering or sisters laughing feel overwhelmingly hostile. That night, while Heather is in a terrifying trance, Christine supposedly communicates to her that John is in danger and must leave Venice straightaway.
This leads to another argument. Laura desperately tries to get John to heed the warning: “John, do you hear what I say? It was Christine, our daughter!” At the mention of Christine, John becomes cold and angry once again. “My daughter is dead, Laura. She does not come peeping with messages…back from behind the fucking grave! Christine is dead! She is dead! Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead!”
As he raises his voice, Laura pulls back and retreats to the wall. She realizes what he’s been thinking this whole time—that she’s sick. “If I’m ill,” she says, “I should be seeing Dr. Jameson…Maybe those women were influencing me…maybe I should start taking my pills again.” John jumps at this. He quickly stands to get her a glass of water, his relief palpable. His reaction is too fast, and Laura notes how he so easily believes that she’s losing her grasp on reality, but struggles to believe her. Once more, their intimacy, their knowledge of each other, is weaponized. Laura only pretends to take the pill.
Don’t Look Now is a funny title—a little off. It comes from the original story, where John says, “Don’t look now…but,” when he urges Laura to look at the strange sisters in the restaurant. “Don’t look now” is usually followed by a “but.” It’s a command, a cheeky one, begging you to disobey. Look! Look now!
After Christine warns that John is in danger, the world becomes a dangerous place. When you’re looking for it, death is everywhere. And despite the fact that John supposedly does not believe in clairvoyance, he’s still hyper-vigilant, if only to prove he’s right. Which leads to the ultimate irony: Heather believes that John himself is clairvoyant. There have been hints that this is the case. John could tell something was wrong before Christine ever fell into the pond. There have been moments when he seems to be looking beyond. Are they memories or are they premonitions? What does John truly see?
The couple gets a call that their son, who’s at a boarding school back in England, has appendicitis. Laura takes a last-minute flight to England, and John heads to the church to try and wrap up some business before he follows his wife back home. They’ve just gotten some new tiles with which to restore the mosaics high on the church walls. John climbs up into the scaffolding to see how well they match—and the scaffolding breaks. John nearly falls, managing to grasp onto a rope.6 Hanging stories above the church’s marble floor, it seems like the mysterious warning may hold some weight.
Much of the second half of the film is simply John’s waking nightmare as things grow more and more off-putting. He’s saved from the scaffolding incident, but it’s only moments later that he walks upon the harrowing scene of police pulling a body out of the river—another victim in the string of recent, senseless murders.
And then he sees Laura standing in a passing boat with the sisters.
Laura was supposed to board a flight to England, to be with their son. As soon as John sees his wife on the boat, he drives into a nearly fevered frenzy as he tries to locate her. He becomes convinced that the sisters have manipulated her into staying in Venice, with them, and that she’s wandering the maze-like streets while a serial killer roams about. He does not yet know that he did not really see Laura at all.
John begins his search for Laura by going back to their hotel. That day, the building has been closed for the off-season. The tourists are gone and the hotel furniture is covered in white sheets to wait for spring and sightseers. John tracks down the hotel manager, who is enjoying his time off in the company of a woman. Of course, he hasn’t seen Laura at all.
John continues looking while Venice empties for the winter. Doors and windows are shuttered. The walkways and canals are empty. John’s isolation comes into focus; his lack of connection with Laura and the outside world has been obscured by his shepherding of Laura, but, left alone, the solitude of his grief is apparent. He stops at steps leading into a canal to pick up an abandoned baby doll floating in the water. Perhaps he’s thinking of Christine.
Ever logical, John’s next step is to go to the police. He speaks with a detective in a cavernous room, sitting in the center of a long couch, far from the detective’s desk. The detective is oddly detached, making offhand, vaguely threatening remarks, such as “The skill of the police artist is to make the living appear dead.” Their conversation echoes, the detective largely dismissive. When he asks John, “What is it you fear?” it feels like an existential question rather than a practical one. Despite John’s obvious distress, the detective retains his odd smile and far-off look while he doodles. When John leaves, the film cuts to that doodle: the detective has been adding demonic features to a police sketch.
John continues on, continuously overlooking the repeated images that haunt him—those of the little girl in the red coat, or glinting water. He is utterly convinced that his wife is still in Venice, either unable or choosing not to contact him. His desperation eventually leads him to the Bishop—to the church!—even though he mocked Laura for her own steps toward faith. His attempts to make sense of the inexplicable seem rational to him, but in reality they closely mirror Laura’s grasping at psychic visions. Both are trying to find meaning in the wake of their grief.
While waiting to see the Bishop, John places a call to England to check in on his son. To his surprise, he’s put on the phone with Laura. She’s in England. Of course she’s in England. She’s happy and fine and about to catch a flight back to Italy to help John pack up. John, who has so firmly insisted that seeing is believing, suddenly has reason to doubt his sight. John really did see Laura on that boat. For all the subjective editing and suggestive soundtrack, his point of view has always remained objective. We’ve been given no reason to doubt him. But he was wrong. He saw something that wasn’t there.
Don’t Look Now is a story about vision. The things we see, the things we don’t, the things we see without using our eyes. It’s about being imperceptive to ourselves and those we love. The terror of Don’t Look Now is less the terrifying reality of the world and more the fact that our vision is so unreliable. Roeg gives us fragmented images that we shape into a narrative—a reality—which ends up not being true. And really, fractured images are all we’re working with. Like John working on the church’s mosaic, we’re fitting together tiny pieces of what we see, and then essentially stepping back and declaring it a cohesive image. How often is our vision right, and how often is it an optical illusion?
John believed that his perspective was objective, but now he’s confronted with a situation that proves otherwise. And he’s certainly made a mess of things. The police have arrested the sisters and taken them in for questioning, and in the confusion Heather has been left alone in the jail, Wendy having gone to the British Consul. Resigned and apologetic, John heads back to the police station, finds Heather, and offers to walk her home. He gets her there safely, but quickly leaves when she begins to have a psychic vision. He hurries to his hotel, not knowing that Heather yells and begs for Wendy to get him to come back, nor that his wife, back in Venice, is desperately looking for him. Even after all the many indications that he should be more wary, he doesn’t believe what the women have told him.7 Instead, John continues to pursue the idea that seeing is believing. When he sees the red-coated figure, he runs after it.
Roeg and his editor, Graeme Clifford, use a fragmented style reminiscent of Soviet Montage.8 The strongest association is that between Christine and the red-coated figure. It starts right from the beginning—there’s a strange red shape in the slide John is examining right before he senses something is wrong. While this editing is manipulative, it also reflects the very human impulse to find meaning. Is there really a connection between the red-coated figure and Christine, or are we jumping to conclusions? Are we deriving patterns from nonsense, assigning meaning to happenstance, forcing the randomness of the world into our easy-to-swallow understanding of narrative?
But John is insistent in his belief that there is an explanation. There isn’t, of course. Both Christine’s and his own impending death are senseless tragedies, bloody silly ways to die. The fact that senseless, unnecessary death is part of life is more fucked up than John could have comprehended, let alone foreseen. Maybe this is why he suspects nothing as he follows that little red coat up and down the labyrinth of Venice.
As John continues into darkness, Roeg suddenly cuts from the walkways of Venice to the Bishop, who looks at a candle in a red holder. The candle’s small flame is gradually overtaken with the image of water and the reflection of a small person in a bright red coat—just like the cut from the fire in John’s home to Christine at the beginning of the film. The billowing dust and strange ambience mimic underwater. Laura has a moment of prescience: she reaches through the gate, gasping, “Darlings!” But, like John’s premonition about Christine, it’s already too late.
As John runs toward the red-coated figure, he runs toward his death.
- Despite extensive rehearsals, Sharon Williams, who played Christine, became inconsolable and terrified after the first take. The production tried to bring on another young actress, a strong swimmer local to the area, but she too became upset when the cameras started rolling. The final version includes three different girls, and much of it ended up being shot with a water tank. In the short documentary Don’t Look Now: Looking Back (2002), Roeg said that Williams’ fear of the scene was the moment that clued the entire creative team to the fact that “inside this fiction was the possibility of extraordinary truth.”
- According to an interview with Mark Sanderson for his BFI Film Classics book, Don’t Look Now (2019), the scene was originally a very scripted conversation. However, Roeg heard a similar exchange from Sutherland and Christie between takes, and decided to rework the script with the improvisational help of his two leads.
- Rather hilariously, in my opinion, American censors approved a cut that only removed nine frames. These frames, carefully chosen by Roeg, were cut to adhere to the censor’s advice: “We cannot see humping. We cannot see the rise and fall between thighs.”
- Daphne du Maurier herself, while very pleased with the film as a whole, said it was “a pity about the sex bit though,” as it was too explicit for her sensibilities. Of course, another account hints that she might have been more amenable to it than she let on. In a letter to a friend, she wrote, “the funny thing was, there is a terrific bed-scene in it (not in the story) and I was shown the version in which it is cut!! But the version that will be shown in London this week has it in, and Kits [her son] says one sees everything!’”
- Quite famously, this scene’s intercutting served as the inspiration for the sex scene in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight.
- Due to a dispute about insurance coverage, the stunt person for this scene backed out at the last minute. With the production desperate, Sutherland stepped in and offered to perform the stunt himself. As Sutherland suffered from vertigo, his reaction to the fall was, at least in part, genuine.
- It is notable that spiritualism and clairvoyance is one of the few wide belief movements that was led, driven, and practiced primarily by women—and yet is perhaps the widest belief movement to be wholly dismissed after its prime.
- When interviewed years later, Clifford related that Roeg often called Don’t Look Now “his exercise in film grammar.”