John and Laura Baxter are living in Venice when they meet a pair of elderly sisters, one of whom claims to be psychic. She insists that she sees the spirit of the Baxters' daughter, who recently drowned. Laura is intrigued, but John resists the idea. He, however, seems to have his own psychic flashes, seeing their daughter walk the streets in her red cloak, as well as Laura and the sisters on a funeral gondola.
Few horror films are as hard to watch as Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now. Not because it is particularly shocking, nor even because it is particularly frightening. (For the most part it is neither, although when it does veer into more traditional horror territory the results are devastating.) The mood of the film — which, it's shock ending accepted, is more melancholy than horrifying — is established in the opening scene, when the infant daughter of John and Laura Baxter (Sutherland and Christie) drowns in their garden pond. Sutherland's unearthly howl of anguish as he staggers up the garden with the dead child in his arms is almost unbearable. And it's the pall of grief which engulfs the Baxters, and which they try with touching desperation to escape, that makes the film such an emotionally arduous ordeal.
In an attempt to rebuild their lives, the couple take a break in Venice where John, an architect, is helping to restore a medieval chapel. But this is not the picture postcard Venice of romance and warbling gondoliers. Dressed in autumn colours, it is a murky labyrinth of mouldering stucco, dank stone and dark water. A decaying city, slowly losing its battle with the sea, it serves not only as a sombre backdrop to the Baxters' desolation, but as the perfect metaphor for their disintegrating mental states. Just as beneath their veneer of normality exists measureless suffering, so behind the mask, Venice is crumbling and its streets are infested with fear and death.
In their separate ways, both John and Laura are being driven mad by their loss. One morning, Laura encounters two elderly sisters in their hotel, one of whom has the gift of second sight. Laura is captivated when the woman tells her she has seen their daughter and that she's happy and well. John can see how comforted his wife is by this, but won't allow himself to believe it, even though he knows — but can't fully admit to himself — that he is also psychic. Their daughter's death was revealed to him as a red stain spreading slowly across a photograph he was studying. And now, here in Venice, he is haunted by glimpses of a child-like figure in a red coat, similar to the one worn by his daughter the day she died, darting over bridges and flitting in and out of the city's myriad archways. Meanwhile, a serial killer is stalking the streets and every few days another body, bruised and bloated, is fished out of the canal. Despite the heavy portents of doom — a scaffolding platform collapses beneath him and later he has a vision of Laura in a funeral cortege on the Grand Canal — John pursues the elusive figure, not yet believing that it is the spirit of his daughter, but unable to fight his compulsion.
Now that Roeg's star seems to have faded to a glimmer, it's difficult to appreciate what a truly gifted director he once was, and Don't Look Now is without doubt his most impeccably crafted film. Taking a relatively simple story (from a novel by Daphne du Maurier), he suffuses it with exquisite shades of terror and eroticism, all the while preserving John and Laura's intensely human vulnerability. What makes the film so heart-rending, as well as deeply unsettling, is their relationship, the tenderness between them and how they keep going despite living constantly on the precipice of despair. Their grief guides their actions and warps their perceptions. Ultimately it leads them into tragedy and horror.
Roeg's vision of Venice is also brilliantly realised — arguably the most haunting cinematic potrait of a city — and the scenes of the figure in red flickering against the worn tapestry of its hidden streets and cloistered waterways carry a nameless, almost surreal sense of menace. The final sequence, in which Sutherland enters the room where he can hear the "child" sobbing gently, and finally faces the terrible reality of his desperate quest, is, quite simply, shattering. The image with which the film culminates, the last that John Baxter sees, is one which will stay with you for an uncomfortably long time. And once it has faded, what will remain is the look of pity that flutters momentarily across his nemesis' face before the knifeblade flashes in the darkness.
No other film has ever sustained such an oppressive, ever escalating sense of impending tragedy. And if we have no more idea than Donald Sutherland has of exactly what fate is waiting for him in the echoing back alleys of Venice, we know it isn't going to be pleasant.