All at Once
Michael Joshua Rowin on Don’t Look Now
“What my eyes saw was simultaneous; what I shall write is successive, because language is successive. Something of it, though, I will capture.”—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph”
In his 1951 lecture “On Synchronicity,” Carl Jung defines the phenomena in the following terms: “Synchronistic phenomena prove the simultaneous occurrence of meaningful equivalences in heterogeneous, causally unrelated processes; in other words, they prove that a content perceived by an observer can, at the same time, be represented by an outside event, without any causal connection. From this it follows either that the psyche cannot be localized in space or that space is relative to the psyche.” In other other words, synchronicity occurs when a trait is common amongst elements and events that otherwise possess no major commonalities. Since the theory of relativity was several decades old by the time Jung had written “On Synchronicity,” his definition should include time as well as space. This expanded definition makes synchronicity applicable to the opening sequence of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, the horror masterpiece in which a man’s psychic intuitions intrude upon his rationalistic belief in spatiotemporal linearity.
In the 1970s Roeg consistently practiced the art of cinematic synchronicity, to the point where he made his name virtually eponymous with the effect. Adapted by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant from a short story by Daphne du Maurier, Don’t Look Now focuses on psychic phenomena’s disruption of linear space and time, allowing Roeg to masterfully explore the possibilities of creating, through camerawork and editing, a thoroughly nonlinear temporality even while depicting a succession of events. But to evoke synchronicity through editing involves a touch of the ineffable. A director must not only create a clever set of connections among images, sounds, and actions (which would render the final product a merely ingenuously designed construction) but also generate a sense of the universally uncanny, a sense that the edited sequence has properly captured an amalgam of forces and that the viewer has been given a peek into the omnipresent but rarely perceived workings of fate, of a time outside of time.
The narrative of Don’t Look Now is fairly simple, though filled with twists. The film opens with the drowning death of Christine, the daughter of John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie). Not longer after, John and Laura leave England (and their son Johnny, who stays behind with family friends) for Venice, where John heads the restoration of a deteriorating Catholic church. Julie meets a pair of sisters, one of whom, though blind, claims to have seen Christine via “second sight,” or supernatural clairvoyance. Later the blind woman (Hilary Mason) has another vision: John is in grave danger while in Venice. But John remains in the city when Laura returns to Britain to tend to Johnny after the child suffers a minor injury. Now on his own, John thinks he sees Laura on a boat with the sisters attending a funeral; soon he begins seeing a diminutive figure he believes to be Christine. But that figure is actually a dwarf (Adelina Poerio) who has recently plagued Venice with a string of grisly murders. Following and cornering the dwarf in an alley, John meets his fate.
John is the perfect tragic Roegian protagonist because he defines his identity through the logical mastery of spatial and temporal fields that, according to traditional Western thought, remain distinctly separate from the psyche. The Venetian church he has been hired to restore is a monument to supernatural powers that can only be worshipped, not possessed. According to the Church, God’s control over space and time is total and cannot be shared with man, who must understand the universe as matter created and harmonized by the Father. Similarly, the past, present, and future must be comprehended as a linear series of events beyond or through which only the Father can see.
But this understanding, and the underlying rationalistic belief in this understanding, will be intruded upon in Don’t Look Now’s virtuosic six-minute opening sequence, an especially significant section of which this essay will focus on. At his beautiful, bucolic country estate, John prepares for his restoration work by studying the church interior as documented in a series of photographic slides. One of these slides catches his attention, and as he studies it under an enlarging glass he spots a figure cloaked in a red hooded raincoat. The cloaked figure troubles John: sitting among the pews on the right side of the frame, it upsets the symmetry of the composition and what would have been the unobstructed centrality of the church interior’s beacon-like stained glass windows. This figure is the same one that John will mistake for Christine in Venice.
A zoom-in enlarges and centers the red-cloaked figure, leading to a graphic match with the next shot, which has Christine, wearing a bright red hooded raincoat, in the center. This shot is an inversion of the previous shot: Christine is running near a lake outside the country house, but she is depicted as a reflection in the waters and therefore appears upside-down. The camera then follows Johnny, who, riding his bike near Christine, moves from screen-right to screen-left, the opposite direction in which Christine was moving. Just as Christine splashes a puddle in the field, Johnny runs over a pane of glass that punctures a tire and forces him to fall off his bike. At the same moment John looks up from his slide—he has sensed something is wrong. Nearby, looking up from the books she’s consulted in reference to an earlier question from Christine, Laura exclaims to John: “Aha! Lake Ontario curves more than three degrees from its eastern-most shore to its western-most shore. So frozen water isn’t really flat.”
So far Roeg has put into play several elements that subvert, or else represent the subversion of, spatial harmony and coherence: the figure in John’s slide; the depiction of Christine as a reflection, visually echoing while also inverting the position of the figure in the slide; breaking glass (after a 180-degree reversal of character and camera movements); Laura’s dialogue on deceptive appearances. John’s response to Laura provides a platitudinous—and exceedingly broad—summary of one of the film’s major themes: “Nothing is what it seems.” What’s interesting about this utterance is that John speaks it. Among the film’s characters he is the one who first demonstrates “second sight,” the ability to see beyond the illusory order of the visible world. But he is also the first to disbelieve in it, leading to a misreading of his own premonitions.
Before disbelief, however, John senses: prior to Christine’s fall he feels something is wrong as his son takes a spill. And that uncanny feeling of wrongness is pinpointed by synchronic events: John’s discovery of the figure in the church, Johnny’s fall, and Christine’s playful splashing of a puddle (a precursor to her own fall) all take place at the same time. Only the viewer is witness to the coincidence of these events as John feels their cumulative force upon his “second sight.” It’s here that the viewer is asked to make a leap from recognizing the editing matches of figure, movement, color, and motif to a conscious understanding that this editing invokes a metaphysical significance beyond their mere simultaneity. So far not a single shot has broken the linear chain of events, and yet that time outside of time has been subtly initiated.
A series of graphic matches follow. First, Laura nervously flutters her fingers near her mouth, an action echoed in a brief subsequent shot of Christine covering her mouth with her hand. Soon thereafter, three shots graphically match the action of John tossing a set of slides to Laura with Christine throwing her ball (which contains asymmetrical circular red and white patterns). As the ball lands in a puddle John accidentally knocks over his glass, spilling liquid on the previously viewed photographic slide. Looking at the slide under the enlarging lens, John watches as the red ink from the cloaked figure spreads over the stained glass windows (eventually curving to form a circular stain). John looks up, deeply disturbed, and begins walking toward the door. Outside he will discover that Christine has drowned, and that he has been too late to save her.
These graphic matches compare characters in a way that defies spatial and temporal linearity. Laura and Christine’s synchronic hand movements, for instance, evoke a joyful, earthy bond between these characters. While Laura does not possess second sight, she possesses a belief in it. This belief allows her natural love to follow Christine into the supernatural realm when Laura accepts the medium’s contact with her daughter later in the film. The second and third graphic matches are of a different order, and connect several falls: a falling ball, a falling set of slides, a falling glass, and, offscreen, Christine’s fall into the water. The fall that kills Christine is represented by the spreading, blood-like ink stain, which alerts John to Christine’s imminent death.
But John never becomes conscious of his otherworldly realization or his second sight. He never admits to experiencing a premonition of Christine’s death, he sharply denounces Laura’s belief in the medium’s vision of Christine, and he misconstrues his funeral vision for an image of the present. This is why, at film’s end, he mistakes the murderous, red-cloaked dwarf for Christine: unable to consciously accept or harness the power of second sight, and thus understand time and space beyond preconceived rational notions, John misreads his visions (the funeral) for reality and reality (the dwarf) for his visions.
In light of John’s failure to accept and harness his power, Roeg leaves it to the viewer to understand the events of the opening sequence as a synchronized communication. Roeg does so by encouraging the viewer to see, but not in the purely or simply visual sense. Truly perceptive vision, according to Roeg, includes a belief in connections, an ability to intuit larger concepts that work through basic, everyday objects and events. The medium for this message, cinematic synchronicity, involves the creative communication of thematic material through visible means. And so the viewer must understand the circular objects and shapes that dominate the opening sequence as representing a circular time in which events recur in some other form. The viewer must understand the dominant color red as a warning not to misread appearances, which can often be changed through distorting and reflecting media (lenses, water). And the viewer must understand matching actions, especially those major and minor falls, as representing a metaphysical submerging—not only into the watery depths of the great beyond but also the murky deeps of the unconscious, where the circuits of imagination and eternity are forged in a time outside of time.