There are films that no vision exhausts. Whatever the ending and the stale suspense, their richness is such that they seem to have been made to be seen again and again. Few, however, are those who, like Nicolas Roeg’s third feature film, Don’t look back (1974), adapted from a short story by Daphné du Maurier, invite, from the foregrounds, the gaze into a forest of signs where one senses that the smallest detail will make sense, like the scattered pieces of a puzzle whose The final image would still elude us. So, the opening scene: not only does its fragmented construction and alternating montage inject a tension foreshadowing a tragedy to come – the drowning of a girl in a red oilskin in the pond near the family home – but she is, moreover, punctuated by strange elements which bathe it in an atmosphere of tale or nightmare. A white horse crossing the countryside, the mimicry of the child’s gestures, a slide whose colors begin to rub off, like a puddle of blood flowing upwards, defying gravity … And this way, above all, that the father to study it with a magnifying glass, as if he wanted to finally detect the clue of the disastrous accident which would have enabled him to save his daughter in time. Everything happens, in short, as if this sequence related less to the event as it unfolds than to its fantasized and traumatic reconstruction, rehashed a thousand times in the head of a being devastated by grief and guilt.
A brutal sound connection then projects us into a wintry and gloomy Venice where the bereaved couple stay. John (Donald Sutherland), architect, works there on the restoration of a church as dilapidated as the city itself, then stricken by a series of murders, while his wife, Laura (Julie Christie), meets two sisters, one of whom, blind and medium, claims to be in contact with the little deceased and tries to warn her of a danger that threatens her husband …
Psychological drama, fantasy thriller, metaphysical tale and even yellow, genre from which are borrowed the formal splendor and the fetishism of the color red, always placed in the center of the frame, Don’t look back delivers a questioning of appearances, a crossing riddled with water games, reflections, mirrors, doubles – the silhouette in a red hood frolicking in the dark alleys can be seen as the monstrous replica of the deceased girl. It is also a languid dive into the throes of melancholy, the impossible mourning of a man who strives but fails to restore the past (of a dying civilization as of his own personal tragedy), because ‘he cannot face the present – as the English title suggests, Don’t Look Now.
This inaptitude dictates to the film an exploded and non-linear conception of time, where the before and the after merge, like this historic love scene, interspersed with flash-forward of the couple getting dressed. Caught between two hauntings, the trauma of the past (drowning) and the premonition of the future (his own death of which John is unable to interpret the signs), the film, like atomized time, is a stuffed fabric, a semantic mosaic to be deciphered beyond the fragile geometry of space.
Don’t look back of Nicolas Roeg (1974) with Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland… 1 h 52.