11.28.2016

A mosaic city: "Don't Look Now" (I)



“I was not particularly well in Venice […] I saw the city through a feverish influenza haze.  So it looked more like a hallucination than ever.  In this unusual state, it was the water everywhere that made Venice all so strange.  The enormous, pale, amniotic lagoon that surrounds Venice, and of which you are never unaware, glitters in all the colors of green from jade to oil.  The water invades the city itself, and veins it with those bottle-green canals the water of which never moves.  Venice seems an interuterine city, place of birth and hence (by all the laws of equivalences) of death.  The silence of the night is the claustrophobic hush of the womb.  This is probably why the city has such a regressive effect on its aficionados, especially those from the masculine and Protestant north.  They go to the dogs here.”

-- Angela Carter, “Wet Dream City”
The tragic hero of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), John Baxter (Donald Sutherland), goes to the dogs in Venice, undone as much by his own stubborn rationalism as by his resistance to the chaotic forces that seem to govern the city itself.  Both prove fatal to John and his skeptic’s logic.  Throughout much of the film he argues with his wife Laura, played by Julie Christie, about whether or not a psychic acquaintance has really been in communication with the spirit of their late daughter.  Laura believes; John resists.  And then, in a truly mind-bending twist, it turns out that John is not only undone by his own refusal to listen to the psychic’s premonition that something bad will befall him if he stays in Venice—he turns out to have been psychic himself, having unknowingly foreseen his own funeral cortege floating down the Grand Canal in the days before his murder.

Resistance proves futile in Venice, and, as Angela Carter writes in her essay, all roads lead to death.  In Don’t Look Now John resists against the decadent spell woven by the city and dies; in Death in Venice Count von Aschenbach gives himself over to it and dies anyway.  The psychic’s sister compares the city to rotting leftovers at a banquet for phantoms.  The city itself, which has been sinking into the sea practically since its founding, is a study in mortality and ephemerality. 


John with mosaic tile.

And yet everything about Don’t Look Now—still a gorgeous and haunting film, forty-plus years on—insists upon the beauty of Venice and hence the beauty in decay, in ephemerality, even in death.  As filmed and edited by Roeg and Graeme Clifford, John’s death scene is beautiful in all its surreal horror.  It’s scored to Pino Donaggio’s serene and lilting love theme (previously heard during Sutherland and Christie’s infamous sex scene) and it’s intercut with a shower of images from earlier in the film.  These images are not meant to suggest John’s life flashing before his eyes, since many of them are not sutured to John’s point of view.  Rather, they work to bring the entire film to a kind of sublime consummation.  Roeg’s brilliant montage sequences resemble the mosaic tile work in the Byzantine church John works to restore: dozens of tiny images working to create a bigger picture, but one in which the pieces always remain individuated, jagged-edged.  They fit together, though never exactly, much as Venice itself—a riven, fractured city, a mosaic city—is cut into pieces divided by water.  Don’t Look Now is about the beauty of jagged edges and jagged images, broken glass and broken mirrors, and the unruly flow of water and ink and blood.                  

A blot of ink, a rivulet of blood, a canal.

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