Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 thriller, Don’t Look Now, operates on a variety of planes, imitating fragmented reality through the lens of cinematic mosaic. As onscreen couple John and Laura Baxter grapples with the loss of a child and the disintegration of reality as they know it, the formal features of film parallel the indeterminateness of the real, the fantastic and the phantasmic. Reality within the film is not linearly legible, and therefore, neither is its space. The mathematical certainty of geometry falls prey to the disjointed logic of the occult, with surrealistic line and form expressionistically rendering the unsettling dissolution of truth. These sharp angles are underscored by the ebb and flow of (uncontrolled) liquid, which navigate the many currents of reality in Roeg’s uncanny cinematic world. In the opening sequence of Don’t Look Now, Roeg fills his filmic space with untamed angles and liquids to create a vision of reality both skewed and fluid.
Harsh angularity perforates the opening scene of Don’t Look Now, visually manifesting the film’s skewed depiction of reality. The scenery of an idyllic, poetically meandering country estate, is cut and mangled by jagged lines, suggesting a fractured reality lurking beneath. Mist enshrouds the landscape, but does not soften its edges; the hazy greens and grays of the English country are punctured by the sharp angles of action on screen. Contrast comes in motion and direction: a girl ambling across screen and the cantering horse that passes her, her brother biking diagonally down-screen, the girl marching in a path perpendicular to his, a ball thrown to crisscross all lines of motion. The diagonal paths in contrast with the fixed verticality of the forest etch a veritable cinematographic pentagram onto the pleasant backdrop. With each cut, a new, diametrically opposed line of action enters the screen, visually mirroring the contradictions within the film’s reality. Like the crisscrossing veins of reality within the film – where the probable intersects with the supernatural – filmic action and mise-en-scene evade the navigability of linear motion.
This motif of angles and their association with the occult formalizes as the scene shifts indoors. In this space, the walls, beams and human figures that occupy the home replace the outside’s trees and household items balanced at irregular angles stand in for the sloping of the outdoors. A slanting table and the copy of (the revealingly titled) Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space thrown haphazardly on the sofa indicate that John Baxter is an architect — a profession indebted to regularity, blueprint, line. For Baxter though, this geometry certainly is fragile. He is surrounded by variations on normalcy, both in his topsy-turvy surroundings and in their implied surrealism. A canted shot of a kitchen island suggests that even the flatness of the quotidian can easily be skewed. When he places a slide of a church to-be-restored on his viewer, he puts the negative on crookedly and must correct it, that is to say, he must upright it to restore the reality of the image. To a man who deals in erection and symmetry, misappropriated angles can be read as blunders of Pisa proportions. Yet in this cinematic space overrun by illusion, vertical – or upright – rarely meets its horizontal counterpart; instead, it intersects with diagonals and curves, crafting a jarring visual labyrinth rather than a fixed grid. This skewed mesh expressionistically reveals the anxiety between the real and the illusory. Everything on screen is in constant threat of being literally overturned, easily extrapolated as the possibility of the objective inverting itself. When an object loses its normal incline, it becomes illegible, thus skewedness is irreconcilable with the canny. Yet in the opening scene, glasses are precariously placed, tables are slanted, books and photos are flung but never stacked. Matching shots of glasses falling, liquids spilling, books and slides being tossed all lead to the eventual implied tumble of the young girl into the creek.
This innocent’s fall, the culminating piece of the opening sequence, underscores liquid as an otherworldly danger. The laws of physics cannot tame water; as Laura pithily notes, even frozen lakes bend to evade the reassuring orderliness of linearity. Liquid poses a threat to the film’s reality in its very lack of containment. When Baxter spills his drink onto his photo slide, the captured form of the cloaked figure oozes into a red blur, ruining the veracity of the image. The photographic image – read here as the real – becomes formless and subjective when seen through a liquid lens. As the waterlogged photo flows into a visual match to the girls’ red rain slicker, water’s visual association with the solubility of the real reappears. The bleeding image becomes a portent for the girls’ death; just as the photograph, a supposed shield against death, bleeds with moisture, the girl, despite her impermeáble, is still the current’s victim. The physical motion of her fall into a watery grave is unseen. Instead, a matching shot links the seeping photo to an image of the drowned girl, heightening the agency of the water rather than the human. Thus, characters in the film are mere conduits for the more powerful currents and undercurrents at play in this wild vision of reality. As John Baxter plunges underwater to recover his daughter’s lifeless body, Roeg breaks continuity to have the two figures emerge again and again. The repetition of the tragic both reinforces the melodrama of the moment and reiterates the rippled surface of reality, so fragmented that it can reemerge in endless splashes.
Roeg’s depiction of reality, broken into shards or distorted through a liquid film, is prismic, shifting between the illusory and the real in fractal form. The planes of the occult and the apparent might intersect diametrically, but the possibility of so clear a distinction is dissolved by the relentless current of what-lies-between. Reality here can function as a construct, but not feasibly as a construction, — lest one designed by Escher or the mad planners of Venice’s traversing waterways. The truths we are left with are slanted and sinuous, either puncturing the confines of geometry or flowing around them. Despite its title’s warning, Don’t Look Now requires a close viewing, so that Roeg’s chilling visuals can reveal their uncanny verisimilitude.