“Don’t Look Now:” Du Maurier’s Story, Roeg’s Film, and Venice, Then and Now

November 2, 2011 § 3 Comments

Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland at their fateful lunch in "Don't Look Now"

I first saw Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” when I was in my early teens, but I already knew the story. I had heard it blow-by-blow from my sister, who had seen the film without me and come home terrified. In the years since, I’ve watched “Don’t Look Now” a number of times, both for its depiction of Venice and the performances of Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, who pull off that rarest of acting feats: a realistic portrayal of a married couple.  (The fact that Sutherland and Christie were a real-life couple at the time is no guarantee of naturalism, as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Eyes Wide Shut” make clear.)   

As much as I loved the film, until recently I had never read the short story on which it was based. Its author is the great Daphne Du Maurier, from whose pen sprang the stories of two other notable films: “Rebecca,” and “The Birds.” Last month, on the eve of my first visit to Venice, I finally read “Don’t Look Now,” and was fascinated by the differences between it and the screenplay. Since my return from Venice, I’ve also watched the film again, this time through new eyes.

In Du Maurier’s story, an English couple arrive in Venice on an extended vacation following the death, from meningitis, of their young daughter, Christine. Venice was the location of their honeymoon ten years earlier; now, in the wake of a devastating loss, John and Laura have returned to revive their marriage and move forward. While touring the nearby island of Torcello, they encounter elderly twin sisters, one blind, who stare at them across a restaurant. “Don’t look now,” John tells Laura in the story’s opening line, “but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.” Shortly thereafter, in the ladies’ room, Laura is told by the blind sister, a psychic, that she has seen Christine sitting between her and John, and that the girl is happy.

Those who know the film will note that Roeg and his screenwriters, Allan Scott and Chris Bryant, made a number of changes to the story. It’s unfortunate that the remark that gives the story and film their title is left out of the script, along with the conversation that follows, in which John and Laura speculate on the two women’s origins and motives. It’s also too bad that in the film the women are only sisters, not twins, and that their meeting with John and Laura takes place in Venice proper, rather than on the less traveled, and therefore more fateful, Torcello. But other changes, symbolic and visual, work to sharpen the story.

The film opens with an extended sequence that cuts back and forth between John and Laura in their English country house and their son and daughter as they play outside. As Laura reads and John, an art historian, examines slides of the church in Venice whose restoration he will oversee, the boy bicycles on a huge lawn while the girl, incongruously dressed in a hooded red raincoat on a sunny day, plays by a stream with her red-and-white ball and talking action figure. Many cuts later, John–propelled outdoors by a premonition even before his son calls to him–pulls his drowned daughter from the stream.

The theme of water dominates the rest of the film. It is raining heavily when John and Laura depart on their trip to Venice, a city that is literally drowning. The Chiesa di San Nicola, which John will try to restore, is severely water damaged, so much so that its mosaic murals have been eroded. It is late fall when John and Laura arrive in Venice. The city is sparsely peopled, waterlogged and decrepit, a maze of dark alleys, murky canals and peeling paint. The film’s palette is mostly grey, while the characters dress in earth tones, or black and white. Into this drab, watery world, Roeg injects a shot of color, in the form of a mysterious creature in a red hooded coat.

The color red is so crucial to the film that it functions almost as a character, but in Du Maurier’s story, it appears only once–as the color of Laura’s coat, not Christine’s. It is the scarlet of Laura’s coat that catches John’s eye as he rides along the Grand Canal and sees his wife, who has just flown to England, standing with the two sisters on a passing vaporetto. In the story, Christine’s clothing, as described by the blind woman, is the blue-and-white party dress she wore on her last birthday. By exchanging the blue dress for a red hooded raincoat, Roeg, Scott and Bryant link Christine to the mysterious red-cloaked figure, and to blood.

Another notable difference between the story and the film is John and Laura’s lovemaking, which marks the first time the couple has had sex since the death of their daughter. Du Maurier writes the scene briefly, and from John’s point of view:

‘Now,’ he thought afterwards, ‘now at last is the moment to make love,’ and he went back into the bedroom, and she understood, and opened her arms and smiled. Such blessed relief after all those weeks of restraint. 

In contrast, the film features an extended and famous sex scene, widely perceived to be authentic, which Roeg (who began as an editor) intercut with the scene that follows, in which John and Laura dress to go to dinner. Though Roeg has said his motive in combining the two scenes was to get the explicit content past the censors, the sequence brilliantly foreshadows the film’s denoument, in which John sees Laura and the sisters on the vaporetto. Like the dressing scene, the vaporetto scene belongs to the immediate future, which John–unable to accept his own prescience–foresees but cannot comprehend.

The Vaporetto Scene from "Don't Look Now"

Then there’s Venice itself, a crucial part of both the story and film. In a recent, illuminating piece on “Don’t Look Now,” Peter Bradshaw writes about Du Maurier’s attachment to the city, which provided her both with inspiration and an escape from her life as a long-married wife and mother:

For Daphne du Maurier, “Venetian” was her private word for lesbian, and she herself had a lifelong struggle to come to terms with her own homosexuality, never far from the surface. Furthermore, “going to Venice” was her private code for having a lesbian sexual adventure. Crucially, Du Maurier herself, long before this story was written, went to Venice to get over the death of someone dear to her – her lover Gertrude Lawrence – and it may have been on this visit (although she made a number of literal visits to Venice) that she herself mistook a dwarf for a child. Denial and fear and excitement are transformed, in this story, into a tale of supernatural longing and horror.  

Because my idea of Venice was heavily influenced by “Don’t Look Now,” I was thrilled to finally visit–and surprised to find not only sunny weather but a city transformed by decades of renovation. Though still sinking, Venice appeared far more freshly painted, rebuilt and prosperous than I had expected, with exponentially more traffic–both boat and tourist. Its many canals and bridges were vaguely familiar, but otherwise Venice was nothing like the crumbling, mysterious city of the film. For a place whose demise has been predicted for centuries, it seemed vibrant and renewed–a stark contrast to the Venice of “Don’t Look Now.”

Along the Grand Canal, 10/15/11/Hope Anderson Productions


“Don’t Look Now,” by Daphne Du Maurier, 1971.

“Don’t Look Now,” dir. Nicolas Roeg, script by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant. Paramount Pictures, 1973.

“‘Don’t Look Now’ and Roeg’s Raincoat” by Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, January 18, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/jan/18/dont-look-now-red-coat



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