Sunday, November 16, 2008

If the world is round, why is a frozen pond flat?

Wow, "Don't Look Now" was -- not at all what I expected. I'd heard of it as a super-scary horror classic and guess I was expecting something on the order of "Rosemary's Baby" or "The Innocents" in Venice. But wow, WOW. It's just like nothing else.

Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, of course, play a married couple whose daughter drowns in a pond on their property. Grieving and racked by guilt, they try to move on with a working vacation in Venice, where Donald restores old churches. There they run into a psychic who claims she can communicate with their daughter, and from there things get weird.

But things were pretty weird from the get-go. The opening sequence introduces the film's fragmented editing, full of quick cuts across space and time: from indoors to out, from the immediate past to the future. "Nothing is as it seems," murmurs Donald as he looks over some slides of churches. (It's so cute to see slides. And it's so funny that it's cute to see slides. While on the subject of cuteness, Donald and Julie have these great identical wavy perms that are almost hypnotic.) I watched the opening and then *immediately* skipped back to watch it again. It's gorgeous how the tension builds, and how you get a sense of Donald and Julie's closeness right off the bat; and how their daughter already looks like an otherworldly harbinger of doom.

What surprised me the most thought is just how unbearably sad this movie was. Not sad because a little girl dies; but because it shows you in the most visceral way that everything you love and believe in is just hopelessly fragile and transient. This movie's sex scene is famous for being graphic, but also for the way it flashes forward throughout to shots of Donald and Julie dressing afterward for dinner. The gimmick's been read as a joke or as an illustration of Donald's second sight, but I took it to mean that everything ends, even the most blissful feeling of connection. One minute one is rolling around in shared ecstasy, the next minute one is sitting on the same bed dressed in an uncomfortable suit, pouring some scotch and staring off into space. In the context of the end of the movie, the contrast becomes absolutely, unutterably heartbreaking.

As for the end -- the big reveal -- what's crazy about it is that you can't possibly prepare for it (I screamed out loud), but somehow, on some level, you *know* what he's going to see. You want to stop him and you can't. You're as helpless as Julie behind the iron gate. One day your story will end too, and your own finale will turn around and look you in the eye; and that's scary as hell.

Final Girl has a fab review, which I was excited to finally read after watching the movie! I also went and looked up the NYT's review and read Pauline Kael's review in one of my books; neither of those two enjoyed it much. (Pauline really hates it when she thinks filmmakers are just trying to be arty.)


Arbogast said...

I connect with sadness more than any other emotion in art and it's rare but oh so welcome for a horror movie to engage that in me. Don't Look Now certainly does it - have you seen The Others?

AE said...

Yes, I loved The Others, although it didn't strike me as a particularly sad movie. The scene where her husband returns was so discordant to me. I identified so powerfully with the children's fear, there was no room for anything else. (And once again, the scariest moment is when a child's face is replaced with an old woman's..)