Spoilers ahead, so unless you want to reveal the labyrinth of Venice to yourself, catch a gondola out of this particular piazza.
Don’t Look Now is based on the short story by Daphne du Maurier, which features in the collection entitled Not After Midnight. It has du Maurier’s signature withholding of the significance of essential details until the denouement, which is both brilliant and extremely upsetting. It is also a prime example of her mastery of exploring the psychological motivations of the characters, and constructing a narrative that is not so much about the “external” happenings of the story, but about how the characters perceive these events, and how they try to decode these events. du Maurier was happy with the adaptation, saying that she felt that the director, Nicolas Roeg, who also adapted Roald Dahl’s The Witches, “understood the essence of John and Laura’s relationship”.
Although the film has extremely strong supernatural overtones, most obvious in Heather and John’s possession of second sight, and also the representation of Heather and Wendy as being almost akin to witches for much of the film; what really makes the story possible and so incredibly powerful, is John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura’s (Julie Christie) overwhelming and all-consuming grief at the tragic and unnecessary death of their daughter, Christine. And so the film is less an exploration of the otherworldly, and more about the very real consequences of the death of a child for two parents who seemed to have a perfect life until they just didn’t.
The story also shows du Maurier’s brilliant ability to represent characters in an ambiguous manner that makes the audience come to a conclusion that is usually incorrect. Wendy and Heather seem to be sinister, especially in their first encounter with Laura. Heather is seen reflected in triplicate in the bathroom mirrors, as if she is watching Laura from all aspects even though she is blind. Laura’s subsequent collapse also seems to be the work of the two sisters, but this is only suggested, and mostly perceived to be so by John.
Because I could not stop for Death
The film begins with a blonde haired child, Christine, wearing a shiny red macintosh, playing next to a large pond. She comes closer and closer to the water, her reflection rippling in the leaf heavy surface.
Her mother, Laura, and father, John, are inside the house. John is examining a small slide of a stained glass window inside a church, and he seems disturbed by the presence of a small, red hooded figure in the picture. He knocks a glass of water over, and the red from the hooded figure portentously bleeds across the image as John rushes outside to discover that Christine has fallen into the pond.
The portentous bleeding consumes the entire slide as John struggles to get Christine’s lifeless body out of the pond and onto the bank, where he falls over, crying hysterically. Unaware of the death of her daughter, Laura lights a cigarette, before she sees John holding Christine’s body, and screams in anguish.
An undisclosed time later, Laura and John are in Venice, where they are dining at a restaurant they habitually frequent, as shown by Laura ordering the dish she had the previous night. They have settled into some kind of routine, although it seems to be a rather shaky one, as neither John nor Laura seem genuinely at ease or happy as they did at the start of the film before Christine’s death.
Two old women are staring at the couple from the other side of the restaurant. The doors suddenly fly open, causing something to land in one of the women’s eyes. Laura follows them into the bathroom to help remove the obstruction, where one of the sisters, Heather, who is blind, tells Laura that her daughter, Christine, is happy, that she can see her running and smiling. And that she also saw Christine sitting between John and Laura in the restaurant. Laura is severely disturbed by this, and collapses upon returning to John.
Upon waking up in the hospital, Laura assures John that she is happy after a year of terrible depression and guilt. She recounts her encounter with Heather and Wendy to John, who humours her, but is extremely skeptical and quite dismissive.
On their way to their palazzo, they are told by a policeman that they need to find an alternate route, because a murder has been committed in an apartment near the canal. Laura tells John she wants to go to a church, which surprises John, before he becomes slightly annoyed at his wife’s desire to light a candle for their daughter. The two sisters are also at the church, and Heather’s behaviour seems strangely irreverent. As the couple leave the church, the candle lit for Christine is extinguished by something unseen.
This lack of spiritual reverence, particularly for the sanctity of the church, is reinforced by the disinterest of the bishop who is acting as a liaison between John, who is restoring what seems to be a Renaissance era church, and the Catholic church. The slide that featured earlier in the film of the stained glass window is from the church that John is restoring, seemingly also reinforcing the portentous elements of the story.
John and Laura make love before going out for dinner. The scene is intercut with footage of them getting dressed afterwards, which also connects with the representation of time being fluid throughout the film. Laura and John become lost when they try to locate the restaurant they are to dine at. John sees what seems to be Christine, dressed in her shiny red macintosh, running through the labyrinth alleyway across the canal. This is juxtaposed with the sound of a man screaming in one of the apartments overlooking the canal.
Heather and Wendy come to the church that John is restoring, and speak to Laura about Christine. Heather tells Laura that she believes that John has the gift of second sight, and that Christine is trying to make contact with John. Laura asks if she can speak to her daughter through Heather, who is reluctant as she believes her gift is not something to be used for entertainment and is god given, but she is persuaded to fulfil Laura’s request as it is heartfelt. As Laura and John are seen arguing about Laura’s association with the two sisters, with Laura reprimanding John for doubting her judgement by highlighting that it was his judgment that caused her to allow Christine to play near the pond; the sisters are seen seemingly laughing maniacally over a photo of someone.
Laura goes to the palazzo where Heather and Wendy are staying, and she notices that they have a table of photos of children and a small bust of a child. Wendy tells Laura that she, too, lost a child, but was able to have more children. However, Heather points out that one can never replace the child one has lost. Heather goes into a strange, intense trance during the summons of Christine. This is intercut with John finding the palazzo, and being chased away for being mistaken as a prowler.
Laura informs John that Heather told her that Christine is warning the to leave Venice as something terrible is going to happen, specifically to John. John is angry, insisting to Laura that they need to accept that Christine is dead. He also admits that he believes Laura is unwell, and tries to get her to take her medication. Laura pretends to take the medication to appease him. Later that night they receive a phone call that their son, Johnny, has been injured in an accident at school. Laura believes that this is the fulfilment of Heather’s prediction, and that they should heed Christine’s warning. John is dismissive of this, but agrees that Laura should return to England to see if Johnny is really alright, as the headmaster’s wife claims.
After seeing Laura off, John goes to the church he is restoring, where he examines some mosaic tiling that the bishop assures him he can arrange to have faithfully reproduced. John climbs up on a scaffold to compare the reproduced tiles to the original mosaic, and almost falls to his death, which is preceded with a brief, over-layed image of Wendy’s open mouthed, laughing face in profile.
Once John is deemed alright, he and the bishop go for a walk, where they observe a young woman’s corpse being removed by the canal. A large crowd has gathered, with many of them dressed bright red or outfits that have the colour as distinctive accent. Red is quite pervasive throughout the film, with both John and Laura wearing it, and of course, Christine wearing it at the beginning of the film and in the brief images we see of her when she is referred to by the other characters, most notably Heather. This scene has the most obvious concentration of the colour, which reinforces the association of red and death in the story: Christine died in a red macintosh, this young woman’s watery grave is being observed by red clad onlookers.
Whilst on a barge on the canal, John observes Laura and the two sisters on a funeral barge going in the opposite direction. But when he calls out to his wife, she does not respond. He reports her “disappearance” to the police. The detective with whom he speaks seems rather dismissive of John’s concerns, but while John recalls the events of the last few days, the detective transforms one of the sketches of the sisters into a hideous witch like rendering, and observes them walking past on the path upon which his window overlooks. At the detective’s direction, John retraces his steps in the winding, narrow alleyways in an effort to relocate the palazzo that Heather and Wendy are staying at.
John finds the palazzo, but they seem to have disappeared, which he informs the detective who has been assigned to follow him. He goes to the Catholic church to speak to the bishop, where he phones Johnny’s school. Much to his confusion, Laura is indeed in England, and she assures him that Johnny is indeed well and that she will be returning to Venice soon.
Heather and Wendy are arrested for their supposed part in Laura’s disappearance, prompting Wendy to go to the British consulate. John collects Heather at the police station, and apologises to her for his assumptions about their involvement with his wife, while he walks her to her palazzo. She informs him that she and Wendy moved because the other palazzo was dirty and that there were “prowlers”, a belief that is probably caused by John being mistaken for one earlier in the film. Heather has a terrible fit when Wendy returns, prompting John to leave. In the meantime, Laura has returned to Venice, and goes to the sisters palazzo, where she finds that Wendy has been trying to get John to return to the palazzo at Heather’s request, but to no avail.
Laura pursues John through the alleyways as he chases after a “child” in a red coat. He eventually follows the red clad figure into an abandoned house. He assures the “child” that he is only there to help, but much to his shock and horror, he discovers that the “child”, who he perhaps believed was Christine, is actually a hideous dwarf woman who is actually the serial killer that has been terrorising Venice. She attacks John with a meat cleaver while he is frozen in confused horror, and slashes his throat. As he bleeds to death, he has visions of past events that make him realise that he did not actually see Laura in Venice when she was supposed to be in England, but that he saw she and the sisters on his funeral barge. He was unable to ascertain this information at the time, as he has never been able to hone, or even been aware, of his precognition. But it seems that despite his second sight and Heather’s warnings, his death, like Christine’s and the Venetian murder victims, as well as that of the servant in Appointment in Samarra, were inevitable and could not be avoided. Death cannot be outpaced no matter the lengths that we as human beings go to to save ourselves and others from it.
Then the merchant went to the marketplace and he saw Death standing in the crowd and he said to Her, “Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning?” And Death said, “That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
—Boris Karloff in Targets (1968).
It is therefore revealed at the closing of the film that it was not in fact Heather and Wendy who were evil, or equivocatory as The Weird Sisters in Macbeth were, but rather just two old women who were trying to help a young couple grieve the death of their daughter. A process which neither of them had undertaken, and which cost John his life.