Daphne du Maurier’s story “Don’t Look Now,” first published in the collection Not After Midnight (1971), is one of the great pieces of fiction set in Venice. For all its beauty and art and atmosphere, “The City of Water” has served like no other city as a backdrop for sinister tales of mystery and doom. From Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) through to Ian McEwen’s 1981 novel The Comfort of Strangers, Venice in fiction has especially been a place where visitors come to seek an escape from something unsettling in their ordinary life, only to find that the gorgeous city of canals and alleyways draws them into a situation more disturbing than whatever it was they sought to leave behind.
In “Don’t Look Now,” English couple John and Laura have come to Venice after the death of their young daughter, Christine, from meningitis. They have a son named Johnnie who is in prep school back in England, but it’s clear that he does not mean quite as much to Laura as Christine did. Since their daughter died, Laura has been living in “numb despair,” and as John says: “The girl meant everything. She always did, right from the start, I don’t know why. I suppose it was the difference in age. A boy of school age, and a tough one at that, is someone in his own right. Not a baby of five. Laura literally adored her…”
When John and Laura—dining out at a restaurant one night—run into an odd pair of elderly twin sisters, they start making little jokes about the eccentric looking women. It seems as if the holiday will provide a temporary respite from their sadness, as John had hoped. But they soon realize that the sister who has an odd manner is actually blind, and that the sisters are as aware of them as they are of the sisters.
The blind sister claims to be psychic, and the other twin, who often acts as the blind sister’s translator, says that her sister saw Christine sitting at the restaurant table between John and Laura. Christine was laughing and happy, she says. While Laura accepts the sister’s vision as genuine, finding great comfort in it, John rejects it as claptrap and takes a strong dislike to the eccentric women. He views them as charlatans intent on preying on his vulnerable wife. He has no belief in telepathy or anything connected to the occult and feels that his wife’s susceptibility to belief is due to her fragile mental state.
What follows is a brilliantly wrought story, full of tension and suspense, in which John and Laura deal with a series of increasingly bizarre and frightening events. For one thing, someone has been sneaking around Venice murdering people, and one night, while out wandering around, John sees what looks like a little girl in a pixie hood who may be fleeing the killer.
Later, he and Laura run into the sisters again, and this time the message they have contains a warning: Christine is telling her parents that they are in danger and need to leave Venice fast. As if this is not upsetting enough, Laura relays an extra point the blind sister conveyed; she tells her husband, “Christine is more worried over you than me. And the extraordinary thing is that the blind sister says you’re psychic and don’t know it. You are somehow en rapport with the unknown, and I’m not.” Needless to say, John does not credit this information, and he continues to pursue a path of rationality, though inexplicable things keep happening.
Laura apparently returns to England because their son falls ill, but he sees her in a boat on the canal with the two sisters. He becomes a kind of detective, trying to distinguish between the real and the illusory, but his refusal to accept anything not blatantly rationale does not serve him well. He misinterprets sign after sign he’s presented with, and in the end, he suffers terribly for it. The ending of “Don’t Look Now” comes as both a shock and a perfectly logical conclusion built on what has come before—a masterful resolution to a story meticulously constructed by du Maurier.
Best known as a writer of historical novels like Jamaica Inn and Frenchman’s Creek and for Gothic-tinged work such as Rebecca, du Maurier was perhaps at her most original and daring in shorter work like “Don’t Look Now.” As novelist Patrick McGrath says in his introduction to a New York Review of Books selection of her stories: “In the stories du Maurier was not at all wedded to a happy outcome … She was also tantalizingly inconclusive at times, demanding of her readers that we devise for ourselves explanations for the uncanny events she describes.”
All of these traits are fully in view in “Don’t Look Now.”
Nicholas Roeg’s film adaptation of the story came out in 1973. After a great career as a cinematographer, Roeg had co-directed Performance in 1970 with Donald Cammell and made his solo directorial debut a year later with Walkabout. Screenwriter Allan Scott, working with Chris Bryant, had adapted the du Maurier story and offered the script to Roeg, and after Roeg decided to make the project his third feature, he was able to get the two actors he wanted as his leads: Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. Both were big stars at the time.
“Don’t Look Now,” the story, runs about fifty pages. The film contains all the story’s characters and follows its plot closely. Roeg’s film has all the creepiness and narrative tension the tale does, but he made a few significant changes to the story, and these changes make the film that much more emotionally powerful than du Maurier’s creation.
To start with, there is the way John and Laura’s daughter dies. The film opens with an unforgettable scene that shows a little blonde-haired girl in a red macintosh frolicking in an English countryside setting near a stream. While she plays with a doll, another slightly older child (her brother) rides his bicycle, and the two ostensible parents of these children are nearby but inside, cozily ensconced in their house. John is seated at a desk doing art work related to what the viewer assumes is his job, and Laura is relaxing on a couch.
The domestic tranquility of the movement quickly changes to fear, however, when John seems to have a premonition that distracts him from his work and the son starts running toward the house. Christine, we see, has fallen into the stream, and despite John’s frantic dash to save her, he is too late. John and Laura’s daughter is dead. What was—in the story—essentially a plot whose driving forces were the occult and the terrifying mystery of the irrational becomes a study of grief in the film. It’s one thing to lose a child to an illness, quite another to live with the knowledge that your child died in an accident you might have prevented had you been watching.
From this difference alone, the film has a sense of melancholy much more pronounced than the story. But the film also shows, in more depth than the story, the ways the couple deal with their grief. They suffer but they are resilient, and in a famous love scene not anywhere in the story (and beautifully played by Sutherland and Christie), we see them affirming intimacy and the physical pleasure that comes with living.
The love scene is also notable for how it is edited. The entire scene unfolds with shots of the lovemaking intercut with shots of the couple after the lovemaking, getting dressed for a planned dinner out. The fractured editing establishes a normalcy you don’t normally see in bedroom scenes, but the lack of perfect linearity also ties in with how the film is constructed as a whole.
Here, too, the film and book differ. Du Maurier’s story unfolds in a smooth, chronological flow; Roeg’s method is to create a fragmented mosaic by cutting between juxtaposing images. And what he does with the visual scheme, he does with sound, using it to alternately lull and jar the viewer. No modern city sounds like Venice because it has no cars. A walk at night through the back alleys can be a walk through silence broken by a voice or laugh that startles.
Early on, we see the cover of a book titled Beyond The Fragile Geometry of Space, and it is both space and time that Roeg plays with through the film to unnerve the viewer. While watching, one sometimes feels as on edge and confused as John trying to navigate around Venice. The murder subplot, which is laid out clearly in the story, is handled in an elliptical fashion that I didn’t even fully put together the first time I saw the movie.
Indeed, as effective as the story is, one does feel they have understood it after one reading, but I can’t say that one viewing suffices for the film. The film, which I love, asks that you work to make connections. Roeg takes the plot and basic themes in the story and uses the tools of cinema—montage, sound design, music—to immerse the viewer in a weird experience where not everything is as it appears. In a film obsessed with what is seen and what is not, with vision and blindness, John keeps saying, “Seeing is believing,” but Roeg’s movie functions to refute that notion.
Unlike Daphne du Maurier’s couple, whose stay in Venice is strictly for rest and recovery, the film’s John has a professional assignment in the city. Consistent with the movie’s method and focus, he works on mosaics, restoring them in an old church. But while his attention to detail is obvious—he can see what’s in front of his eyes at his job—he completely misreads everything else going on around him. Here, the story and film correspond. In each, John is a determined rationalist despite the evidence that he himself may have a gift for clairvoyance.
The endings of each are the same, leaving you with a chill. But where the grotesque figure at the climax of the story nods her head, Roeg’ figure shakes her head over and over. Both figures grin, in the story and the film, but Roeg’s alone moves her head from side to side as if to explicitly tell John that he screwed up. Without words, the figure tells John that he understood nothing. He ignored evidence that was right before his eyes and did not follow his own precept that seeing is believing. What’s suggested by du Maurier is made more explicit by Roeg.
You’d be hard pressed to find a better story/film combination than this one. With the story, Daphne du Maurier was in top form, and as adaptations go, Roeg’s film is among the best. He took strong literary material and managed, at once, to stay close to the source and make something that’s pure cinema. It’s no wonder that du Maurier herself, when she saw the film, liked it very much.
Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His most recent novel is the psychological thriller Graveyard Love, available from Broken River Books.