Adapted from a novella by Daphne Du Maurier, in Don’t Look Now Nicolas Roeg, who sadly died in November last year, delivers the first of two 1970s films that use a travelling red and white ball as an omen of dread so convincingly, that I shudder even now when they appear on screen.
Apparently, a remake of this classic has been in the works since 2015. When Donald Sutherland, who stars in the original was asked about it, his response was forthright: “Don’t embarrass yourselves by making it. Don’t embarrass yourselves by participating in it. It’s bullshit … Why do they do it? It’s just people wanting profit, trying to profit off the back of Nicolas Roeg, and something that’s very beautiful. It’s shameful. They should be ashamed of themselves.”
I too, am strenuously opposed to remake of this film and in fact of remakes in general (as opposed to adaptations such as Bradley Cooper’s fourth derivation of A Star is Born (2018)). To me, remakes epitomise all that is lazy and greedy about filmmaking: Poltergeist (2015), Fright Night (2011), The Fog (2005), are just three examples of seminal horror films of the 1970s and 1980s, ruined by such avarice and inauthenticity.
Studio Canal confirmed on their Facebook page last November that a 4K version of Don’t Look Now will be released this year. Finger’s crossed given Roeg’s passing, that integrity will prevail and like John, attention is paid to the restoration and protection of the original rather than than the desecration of it.
And – breathe.
I shall now leave you with this picture taken of me when I first heard about a possible remake, park the issue and return to the matter at hand.
Part horror, part thriller and part love story, Don’t Look Now follows Sutherland and Julie Christie as John and Laura Baxter: a couple very much in love, but also in despair as they try to move forward following a fatal accident involving their daughter, Christine. The Baxters’ path takes them from a Hertfordshire pond to the damp catacombs of Venice. In Du Maurier’s story, the Baxters holiday in Venice: an odd choice given the manner of Christine’s death. In Roeg’s version, the setting is explained by John’s engagement to restore a decaying Venetian church, aptly called St Nicholas, the patron saint of children. In the City of Masks, John and Laura seek solace and distractions through work, medication and therapy as they try to navigate their way rough the pain of surviving their daughter. When by chance they encounter two unconventional sisters (one a blind clairvoyant), John and Laura’s paths to recovery diverge and their bond fractures.
Don’t Look Now is beautifully shot by cinematographer Tony Richmond who Roeg took with him on set as Roeg’s AD initially for Dr Zhivago (1965) before Roeg was fired. Despite this, the partnership continued for a number of films including another of my favourites: Far From the Madding Crowd coincidentally, also starring Christie
Don’t Look Now is at its core a haunting film about grief, coming to terms with loss and two people trying to find their way back to each other in tragic circumstances. As Sutherland says: “it was a piece of work indelibly written by Nicolas Roeg. It’s about a family. It’s about death; about having a child pre-decease you. It’s about love. It’s about extra-sensory perception.”
It also contains one of the most famous – or as some would say, infamous – love scenes in cinema. In fact, when Don’t Look Now was first released theatrically in Ireland the love scene was cut altogether.Embed from Getty Images
But in 1973, this was the least of the island of Ireland’s relationship issues.
In March, of the 58.7% Northern Irish that voted, 99% determined to remain part of the UK in the first UK referendum about sovereignty and independence. Less than 1% Catholics voted in that Border Poll which might explain why, possibly in an attempt to demonstrate inclusion, some nine months later, the Sunningdale Agreement was signed by the British and Irish Governments as well as local unionist and nationalist representatives. The Sunningdale Agreement established devolution and local power sharing in Northern Ireland and cross-border cooperation with Ireland. But unionist and nationalist irreconcilable differences predictably emerged more entrenched than ever soon after – and the imitative was abandoned within six months.
Meanwhile over in the United States, although Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon would be having a tumultuous time with the release of his illegal telephone recordings that evidenced his attempts to cover up the Watergate Scandal, things were otherwise improving in 1973 as the last US soldier left Vietnam and the Supreme Court in Roe vs Wade overturned all States’ bans on abortion.
Given the dark and at times graphic content of Don’t Look Now and the release of The Exorcist also that year, it must appear strange to generations after X what the furore about that love scene in Don’t Look Know was all about.
Here’s my take on it.
By 1973, second wave feminism had hit its stride. Successes included in addition to Roe vs Wade, the formation of Olivia Records (a women-only independent record label) and Billie Jean King not only wining the Triple Crown at Wimbledon but also beating the self proclaimed chauvinist Bobby Riggs in a fight for equality on and off the tennis courts superbly dramatised by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Battle of the Sexes (2017). This was a time when male dominated and implemented societal and economic norms were being successfully challenged.
Perhaps then, a love scene portraying a man and woman equal in their nakedness and vulnerability, with John as the main pleasure giver, was a step too far in women’s liberation and the real reason for the controversy. Explanations that the scene offended a then more conservative society fail to acknowledge that this was after all, the Golden Age of Porn when the Supreme Court in 1973, much to the delight of Hollywood generally and the porn industry particularly, narrowed the definition of obscenity in Miller vs California resulting in fewer prosecutions.
We are now in the fourth wave of feminism and the 2016 surge against inequality, division and intolerance gathers momentum. Inclusion riders, equal pay amongst actors and actresses, anti-bullying and harassment policies implemented by “woke” studios and production companies are all steps in the right direction, but the entertainment industry and society as a whole still has a long way to go. Whilst Ireland’s referendum in May repealed its strict anti-abortion laws, Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial appointment in the US in October as an Associate Justice risks Roe v Wade being overturned by a conservative majority now sitting on the Supreme Court
As King tweeted last year in response to Forbes’ recent publication that there were no women in the 2018 top 100 highest paid athletes:
Sutherland said that “Don’t Look Now, was a depiction of married intimacy. There’s a scene where they make love in the movie, and it’s not voyeuristic. You don’t watch people making love. What happens when you watch it is you remember having made love, having been in love yourself.”
As I unpack my red duffle coat in Brighton and reflect on the recent trip home to Belfast and 2018 more generally, although not without its challenges I do feel energised and optimistic about 2019. In fact, reflecting on Sutherland’s words about love, it occurs to me that focusing on optimism, love and loved ones is rather a nice way to ring in the new year.
Just not in Venice.