Sunday, 10 December 2006

Don't Look Now (Special Edition) (1973)

Don't Look Now

I should point out, right from the start, that there are many, many film critics who've given this film a full five star review. Many have called it a masterpiece. Some have gone so far as to call it the 'most terrifying film ever made' or even 'the best British film ever!' I beg to differ!

'What's brilliant about this film', the critical cognoscenti tell us, 'is that it's all explained in the first three minutes'. To which my retort can only be: "if that's the case, why put yourself through the misery of the 103 minutes of turgid symbolism and 'atmosphere' that follow it?!"

In those first three minutes we see the death (by accidental drowning) of a child. The impending death is 'sensed' by the child's father, who is reviewing some photographic slides at the time, and he rushes to save his daughter, unfortunately arriving minutes too late to be able to revive her. One of the slides the father has been looking at - of a church in Venice that he has been working on as an architectural advisor - has a smear of blood on it which grows to cover the whole slide. Oooh, spooky! Is the blood real or is it a warning of what is to come?

The remainder of the film, after that first three minute scene setter, jumps forward in time to deal with a working holiday the distraught parents, played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, take in Venice to try and get over their grief, depicting the strange 'horrific' events that seem to happen around them.

I won't spoil the film by giving away the 'explanation' for what unfolds, but suffice to say it's a very simple premise, that just isn't conveyed sensibly enough to make any real sense. While the film has great 'atmosphere' (to the extent that the authorities in Venice were very angry that the depiction of their city would damage tourism) it is too inconsistent, ponderous and confusing to be enjoyable.

Don't Look Now reminds me of The Wicker Man (which has also dated badly) but has none of that film's real terror and charm, and the conclusion here is much more confusing than Wicker Man's stunning climax, at least until you hear the 'explanation' on the accompanying extra's on the DVD release.

That being said, there are things that can be admired about the film. The acting from the two leads is perfect. The film has a very distinctive atmosphere - whether you find that 'terrifying' or just plain gloomy is down to interpretation I guess, but it is helped significantly by an excellent musical score.

But at the end of the day this is a very simple plot, stretched out over a painfully long 106 minutes. The 'red herrings' such as the police inspector who appears to be just doing his job on the one hand, but is also shown to have some connection to the two weird sisters who have the key to understanding the picture, to my mind make the film inconsistent and unbelievable.

Maybe I'd have warmed to Don't Look Now more if I'd seen it when first released in the 1970's, but all I can say seeing it for the first time in 2006 is that I found it painfully slow in pacing, unbelievably dated in look and feel, and confusing in the extreme. And I find the often-repeated justifications for the title 'masterpiece' made by some of its fans as pretentious beyond belief!

Don't Look Now screencap

The first thing I should say about the DVD transfer is that the picture quality, given the age of the material, is superb. This is a transfer that totally lives up to the promise of that misleading term 'digitally restored'. Unfortunately that good work is totally undermined by the work done on the sound, which is truly dreadful. I would go so far as to say this is the worst quality sound I have heard in a collection of over 2000 DVDs! At times the monaural soundtrack is so distorted I thought I'd blown my central speaker, and regrettably it makes some of the dialogue virtually inaudible. For a supposed 'Special Edition', and one that has clearly had so much time spent on fine-tuning the picture, this is totally unacceptable.

Fortunately the sound is the only blemish on this 'Special Edition' issue. The Amray case comes in a cardboard slipcase and there is fairly lavish 16 page booklet. Extra's wise you get an introduction from 'luvvie' Alan Jones whose gushing enthusiasm for the film just left me thinking 'what a load of pretentious old tosh'. This is a man who thinks that the fact that water and glass breaking are shown repeatedly throughout the film are 'deeply meaningful' and clever. Follow his arguments to their logical conclusion and all you need to do to create a 'masterpiece' is have a recurring motif (paint drying on a wall perhaps?)! Fetch the men in the white coats to carry this man away before his pretentious piffle catches on with other 'critics', please!

A Looking Back featurette with director Nicolas Roeg and his cinematographer and editor is much more interesting, if only because they contradict Jones and other critics. At the time of release there was much controversy over a rather explicit sex scene between the two lead actors. Critics go to great length to justify this scene, saying it is essential to the story, to convey the deep love between the married couple who've lost a child. Switch to the director admitting these were the first scenes shot and he didn't know what to do with them - hardly sounds "crucial" does it?! At 20 minutes the featurette is rather repetitive, but short enough that it doesn't totally outstay its welcome. There's also a 20 minute 'home video' interview with the film's composer, Pino Donnagio, which is thankfully free of marketing hype, and also an audio commentary from the director.

The general consensus is that this is a 'must have' purchase. I'm afraid I disagree, finding the film slow, dated, overly pretentious, and with sound so appallingly bad that at times listening to this can only be described as a difficult exercise in endurance. I can understand its success with the film-making intelligentsia, but I suspect your average movie viewer will feel much the same way as I did. I'd therefore suggest you rent this before considering a purchase, despite its seemingly bargain price.

Don't Look Now screencap

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