Venice in winter: is there any place more susceptible to supernatural shiverings than the ‘city in aspic‘? Here, a blind woman can fall into an eroticized trance and set in motion a great tragedy, and we feel that it is somehow reasonable. And here, coincidence can transform into something surpassing itself, a form of entropy, the strivings of all things towards an ultimate disorder.
Horror is an inexact thing, perhaps the closest to absolute movie magic that we have. I have seen Don’t Look Now many times. I know the particulars of its plot. Yet I never fail to be terrified by it. Perhaps it is the emptiness at the core of the film. Believe enough, these shiverings seem to whisper, but never hold faith, because that will destroy you. Terror is etched not in the moments of bombast, but in the layers of crumbling certainties. The film functions in the waterways of disorientation, reflections. It is the emptiness of dementia, things half-remembered, the parallelism of creeping hysteria.
Yet the idea of a serial killer hidden in these crumbling streets is a beautiful one. The silent city of water, closed in fear, its citizens communicating in whispers. This is great art, and du Maurier provides the spirit, while Roeg does remarkable things. Take the red coat: vulnerability transcended, become savagery, sensuality and, finally, pure horror. Images of innocence, taken and transmuted in our minds, until that original innocence begins to shrivel, age, decay, quite literally. Roeg understands the muddiness of the human condition. If there are shiverings in the cold Venice air, they must fall useless at the feet of cold butchery. This is the truth of things.
The film categorizes grief, and its numberless deceptions. Shiverings become ripples in lives touched by devastation. The lost are easily led, even men of great practical application. And the film outlines tenderness, the marital form, uncommon to the movies. The sex scene is a burst of plausibility, the greatest compliment of all for simulation, smoke and mirrors. The tragedy grows far grander in view of this tenderness, even if we cannot quite believe in the players.
John Baxter never considers the idea that he will be slaughtered brutally in the Venice night. ‘Nothing is what it seems,’ he declares. He is talking about frozen lakes, which are not flat. He has the gift, but we are the ones who can see: the whole terrible synchronicity of it is there for us, and it sets us reeling. I’ll say it again: from the spreading pinkish smear of the polaroid, to the twitching head of one of the cinema’s finest apparitions, this film terrifies me completely.
“Oh God, what a bloody silly way to die.”