How can you possibly have an objective film review? That’s just silly. A movie, by its very nature, is something of an ‘experience’, which will be different to every individual who watches and listens to it. Some might be moved by the visual style, others by the rousing score, whilst others still find it hard to relate to a single character and are simply not taken by it at all. It’s purely subjective – a film reviewer’s opinions on a movie are exactly that: his opinion. But can those opinions offer something more than just a blinkered personal viewpoint? Can they, through research, re-watching, passion and determination, find a different understanding than just their personal ‘feeling’? Is it possible to comprehend why a film has been labelled as a classic, why it has been lauded with praise and critically acclaimed at every juncture, and air this view whilst still opining personal disdain? After all, loving a movie is completely subjective, but admiring a movie could surely be more objective? You may be able to see the greatness in Darren Aronofsky’s harrowing Requiem for a Dream, but it may be too much for you to ever say you ‘liked’ it, let alone loved it. You may have seen Bad Boys II more times in your life than The Godfather Part II, but are you really in any doubt as to which is the better movie? Personal feelings aside, it is possible to see why a movie is great; why it is lauded as a classic.
Don’t Look Now, commonly regarded as a classic, is a 1971 film which tells the story of a John and Laura Baxter, a married couple who are living in Venice following the tragic loss of their daughter, Christine, who drowned at their family home in England. John has been contracted by a bishop to restore an old Church but, whilst staying in Italy, the couple come across two sisters, one of whom purports to be clairvoyant, and in communication with their dead daughter. Of course John thinks this is utter nonsense, and seeks to find a rational explanation to it all, but the matter becomes yet more mysterious when he spots a strange child-like figure running around the streets of Venice sporting a red-coat which was just like the one his daughter used to wear.
The works of British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg are surprisingly polarising – not in terms of current critical acclaim, as he is now almost universally regarded as a great filmmaker, but in terms of ongoing public favour, and critical reaction upon release. It is relatively easy to come across viewers who simply do not ‘get’ his movies; the often non-linear storytelling style, fragmented narratives, fractured editing and heavy-handed symbolism leaving some people out in the cold – and this seems to have been the general reaction of some critics at the time. His debut, co-directed, film, Performance, was regarded by many as utterly worthless at the time of release; it has since gone on to make several all-time top British film charts, and is now regarded as something of a Brit classic. His sophomore effort, Walkabout, was, at the time, regarded as somewhat muddled, particularly in its depiction of Australian culture; but it has since been praised for its beautiful and haunting visual imagery and inimitable style.
His third feature film, Don’t Look Now, was based on a short story written by Daphne du Maurier, whose works had previously been adapted into several Hitchcock films, including Rebecca and The Birds. An independent British-Italian co-production the opening sequence was shot in Hertfordshire, but the majority of the movie was filmed on location, both utilising the Church architecture and the labyrinthine canal-system in Venice to great effect. Although the filmmakers followed the short story reasonably closely, some minor changes were made, to great effect, tying in the narrative structure more tightly – at least visually – than the book initially provided for. It was no coincidence that du Maurier’s earlier works had been adapted by Hitchcock, as Roeg himself saw the great director as a significant influence on his production; he used techniques both in terms of camerawork (jump cuts) and themes (the notion of running away from bigger problems; an innocent man wrongly accused by the police) within his film. However the greatest contribution arguably came from his work with Editor Antony Gibbs, with whom he had collaborated on all his previous films, adopting the same non-linear techniques which they had perfected on Walkabout and Performance, but taking things to the next level. Unlike their earlier films, Don’t Look Now inherently lent itself towards a non-linear structure, flash-forwards and flash-backs further emphasising the clairvoyance explored in the story – providing the viewer with visual portents of what was to come.
The end result is a masterful use of imagery and editing, with breathtaking style, innovative narrative disposition and daring non-linear artistry; the director crafting a mood piece rather than a point-A-to-point-B story, and depicting the grief-stricken life of this married couple with haunting resonance.
Pseudo-objectively I can totally see why critics have almost universally praised it across the decades, and why its fan-base is so strong and fervent. Indeed, so great was the aura around Don’t Look Now, that when I had the opportunity to review it, I leapt at the chance to see this great classic, and finally experience the psychological mystery first hand.
Unfortunately, irrespective of everything I know to be great about the movie, I did not particularly enjoy it. The fractured narrative style was effective, but, coupled with an incredibly slow-burning plot, it just did not have the desired effect on me. I felt distant from the characters, rather than involved in their lives, however realistic I found the couple’s relationship to be (that sex scene has to be one of the most honest, unflinching portrayals committed to film, beautifully juxtaposed with the routine aftermath). The director clearly wanted to go for subtlety rather than in-your-face horror and supernatural happenings – that’s fine, credit to him for avoiding the less refined tactics that would plague horror films for the ensuing decades, but there simply was not enough made of the background clairvoyance, and, indeed, this left the final act massively anticlimactic. Some of the acting also has not aged all that well – some of the Italian actors (including the police investigator) did not even understand the English that they were told to ‘speak’, which surely cannot help when it comes to acting?! Sure, the lead couple are well-played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, but everybody else feels like a cheap extra – not least the odd sisters, whose séance is laughable at best. Then there’s the ending. I don’t even know how to express how disappointing the ending was. Really, that’s the big reveal? It’s not shocking, it’s just shockingly bad. I cannot think of an ending (off the top of my head) which has ruined a film more. I know some others have found difficultly with the ending, and have rationalised that it is more symbolic than anything else; how the actual reveal is not all that important – it’s the haunting realisation that is important instead. Well, sorry, but I can’t help the fact that I am stuck with that undeniably silly image.
Subjectively, I failed to react to Don’t Look Now in the way that the director had clearly intended; his moody atmosphere was decent enough, but his thick, plodding narrative and disjointed style did not draw me in, and, ultimately, I felt that his film simply did not deliver what one might assume was promised by all the critical acclaim and universal praise. Perhaps my expectations were too high; perhaps one day I’ll sit down and try and digest this piece of art once again, but for now, I remain resoundingly disappointed. Pseudo-objectively, I can see exactly why others regard this as a masterpiece – it just didn’t have that effect on me.
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