The Rear-View Mirror: Don’t Look Now (1973)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

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There are many mysteries and unforgettable images at the heart of Don’t Look Now. The recurring motifs of falling, broken glass and the colour red. Getting lost. Not understanding each other, not understanding what is happening. This is the way the supernatural might infringe on the every-day.

Shortly after the sudden accidental drowning of their little daughter, John and Laura Baxter decide to spend time together in a grey, wintry Venice in order for John to work on restoring one of its many sinking churches. “Venice in Peril!” warn the signs. The city itself is almost a character in the film, presented as a necropolis, its effect disorienting. A serial killer is on the prowl. Even the hotel, about ready to close for the end of the season, feels like a funeral parlour. Decaying and labyrinthine, the city is shot without its tourist attractions or its famous views. It was apparently a nightmare to shoot in, and watching the movie that is not hard to believe. In the whole movie there’s only one shot of the Grand Canal, and it’s in the background.

At a dinner for two, John, distracted, notices two ladies. Staring, slightly weird. He notices a brooch of a particular shape on one of them. These elderly ladies contrive to make contact with Laura. They claim that one of them is psychic and she has seen their little girl sitting between her and her husband, laughing. Laura is eager to believe this. John is skeptical, and averse to the idea. “Christine is dead, Laura” he says, shocked. A seance does take place, however, though with only Laura actually present, and it is revealed that it is in fact John, who may be in grave danger. Whatever the premonition may mean though, it is clear John is already losing his grip on himself.

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Their second child – a son, currently in a boarding school – has a fall, prompting Laura to rush back to England. This leaves John alone and frayed, falling apart in the frigid city.

What this thriller manages to do so brilliantly, is to focus on tragedy, loss and trauma, only loosely framed by the plot. The relationship between the couple seems fleshed-out and real, two people lost in a foreign city, as well as in their own grief. As it turns out, John is the one who may have the gift of precognition, but what is it he sees? A small figure in a red coat is glimpsed throughout the film, but does he see the future, or only visions of the past? As events unfurl, the audience is pulled into Johns perspective, as we are shown the things he sees but doesn’t notice. Does the shape of the brooch (a mermaid) have meaning? Or are they just coincidental. Note too the recurrence of a funeral barge, which ends up as a pivotal plot point.

The richness of the film, and the way it comes together is mostly due to the cutting and editing. Its editor, Graeme Clifford says the film is meant to be “visually connective” and it is. We see hints very early on of where the plot will take us: but we don’t know any more than John does which images are significant and how. One of the joys in watching this film is finding out where it all leads. But after you’ve seen it once, watch it again for the visual details, and the intricate ways the plot and themes are woven together.

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The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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