Latest Feature – The Representation of Venice in ‘Don’t Look Now’

To celebrate the release of the first ever 4K Ultra High Definition restoration of Nicolas Roeg’s iconic thriller, DON’T LOOK NOW, out now in UK cinemas and available on DVD, Blu-ray, EST and in a new Collector’s Edition on 29 July 2019, we are taking a closer look at the representation of Venice in the landmark film.

Based on the short story by Daphne du Maurier, Venice is essential to the narrative, whether it is interpreted as a dominant theme, ominous setting or even a character in itself. Du Maurier also referred to homosexual desire as ‘Venetian tendencies’ in her writings, and it was the place to which she would travel to meet her alleged lover Gertrude Lawrence, before the latter’s death in 1952.

The location is therefore seen by some to represent both illicit love as well as death and grief, and this is something which is certainly present in the characters of John and Laura Baxter (played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), who travel to Venice following the death of their daughter, Christine.

Du Maurier was inspired to write the story after a trip to Torcello, the largely deserted island on the fringes of the Venetian lagoon. While she was having lunch in the sunny garden of the Locanda Cipriani, du Maurier recalled observing a young couple at a neighbouring table. She said of the encounter ‘They looked so handsome and beautiful and yet they seemed to have a terrible problem and I watched them with sadness. The young man tried to cheer his wife up but to no avail and it struck me perhaps that their child had died….’

The theme of water dominates DON’T LOOK NOW, from the initial drowning incident with Christine, to the heavy rain as John and Laura depart on their trip, to Venice itself, a city that is literally built on water and almost drowning.

In fact, in the du Maurier text, as John Baxter is sheltering from a downpour in St Mark’s Square, the author writes that he thought ‘Venice is sinking. The whole city is slowly dying. One day the tourists will travel here by boat to peer down into the waters, and they will see pillars and columns and marble far, far beneath them, slime and mud uncovering for brief moments a lost underworld of stone.

In the film, the Chiesa di San Nicola, which Sutherland’s character John is there to help restore, is severely water damaged, so much so that its mosaic murals have been eroded. It is while repairing these murals that John nearly falls to his death, thus linking the connection between water and mortality even further.

Julie Christie’s recollection of filming there also referred to the ominous nature of the city: “Venice had that strange, ghostly emptiness you see in the picture, full of magic and portent, very wet walls, dark alleyways that were damp and glistening. And continual reflections; everywhere you looked there was water.”

Director Roeg and cinematographer Antony Richmond underlined this sense of ominous doom in their use of light in the film. As the film was shot in Winter, the city was less busy, so the waterlogged and decrepit nature of the buildings and the murky canals are more obvious. In fact, there is a scene where John and Christine are going to dinner and get lost in the maze of alleyways, when they hear a scream nearby out of the echoing silence, causing them to run in the dark towards each other. The heightened sound and lack of light make this scene even more threatening.

Richmond said of the guerrilla style shoot with largely Italian crew over 6 weeks to be a difficult one: “We shot in places that people don’t go: there’s [only] one shot of the Grand Canal. Our’s is the people’s Venice. But as beautiful as it is, Venice is a scary place in winter. Nic and I went to dinner one night at Julie’s place on Giudecca, one of the other islands, and on the way back we got off at the wrong stop and got sort of lost. It was really creepy. I think the film’s a little bit odd and off-key and it’s a by-product of that strange environment.”

Richmond added that they used the weather and interesting light in Venice to underscore the ambiguity between hopefulness and threat.

“You can get bogged down in terrible rain when you’re filming but the weather worked in our favour. The great thing about Venice is that the light goes very quickly because it doesn’t get into those little alleys, so it can always be dark no matter what the weather’s like”.

Added to this, the film’s palette is mostly grey, while the characters dress in earth tones, or black and white, making the appearance of the mysterious red hooded figure even more stark and seemingly otherworldly.

While other writers and filmmakers have romanticised Venice as a city of romance and dreams, DON’T LOOK NOW shows how easily a dream or promise can become a nightmare.

However, the ending of the film shows that this can be reversed, as Laura has not embraced the darkness or the shadows like John, but actually seems serene and full of acceptance, on the water and in the light.

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