Won’t somebody think of the (fictional) children whose only purpose, poor things, is to die early in a movie so that the adult characters can be observed in unspeakable grief? Only a masochist would seek out films based on the that premise alone, but we’ve all seen a Rabbit Hole here or a Manchester by the Sea there. The effectiveness of these films varies, but it’s tacitly understood that a movie depicting the sudden death of a fully-realized child character risks heartbreak of box-office destroying proportions. Thus doomed children are usually barely more than stand-ins for our (or the filmmakers’) ideal of precious, fragile younglings. The movies are about coping with unimaginable grief rather than actual parenting.
It’s remarkable then that Nicolas Roeg’s drama/horror film Don’t Look Now deals a perfunctory death to a child character and still approximates the experience of parenting so well. The parents barely share a frame let alone a scene with their children. All children disappear from the film almost entirely after the first six minutes. And during those six minutes, we’re only connecting the children shown playing outside to the distracted adults indoors via their juxtaposed shots and an assumption that the movie is depicting a traditional nuclear family. And yet, the rhyming of the shots in those first six minutes describe a bond that the characters will spend the rest of the film attempting to recover.
Don’t Look Now begins with the drowning of Christine, the young daughter of John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie). The story jumps suddenly from its opening tragedy to an indeterminate future time where John and Laura, now in Venice and apart from their surviving son, deal with a restoration project of a crumbling church and with their aching grief. At a restaurant one day, an elderly blind woman tells Laura that she has had a vision of a happy, laughing Christine sitting at the table with her parents. Laura is comforted by the news. John keeps a skeptical distance. Later the woman warns that John also has the Second Sight and ignoring it will lead to his death. John’s skepticism continues even as he is confronted with sights he can’t reconcile with reality as he knows it, like the appearance of his wife when she should be hundreds of miles away or a distant figure in a familiar red raincoat.
Though he’s the central protagonist for most of the film, Don’t Look Now mixes in shots breaking our limited first person position. Often these inserts match actions between the cuts or contain one or more of a set of recurring motifs connected to his daughter’s death (water, breaking glass, falling, the color red). Roeg often makes quick cuts to events outside John’s immediate point of view, like the clairvoyant woman and her sister in an unsettling cackling session for no reason we can discern. Shots of future and past events also appear with little fanfare. This is done most famously in the movie’s extended sex scene which intercuts explicit nude frolicking with shots of the couple getting dressed afterward. The two characters become simultaneously intimate and separated and a Cubist portrait of marital attraction emerges.
The mingling of shots from disparate times and places suggests John’s ESP encroaching despite his persistent denial of the supernatural. It also approximates the brain activity of a parent who often finds their focus split between several planes of action.
Parenting, not including the most grossly negligent versions but all levels between that and “helicoptering,” necessitates mental multitasking and swift calculation: Pause work. Glance at youngest child. Is he too close to the stove? Listen for oldest child. Resume work. Repair toy. Think on next step for lunch preparation. Glance again at youngest child. Mediate dispute. Attempt to organize thoughts on classic film for essay. Is that stranger a threat? Etc. It’s a mild psychic ability, a feeling for vibrations (or outright tugs) on several strings. A sound, the absence of sound, a quick look, or a feel for time passing – these are the tools that thwart bruises, cuts, crying and much worse. The possibility of those tools failing at the wrong time is the dread of every parent.
This everyday ESP is described in detail by the opening minutes of the film before we’re explicitly aware of a supernatural element to the story. A young girl (whom we later know as Christine) in a bright red raincoat plays in the woods. She throws a ball and it lands in a nearby lake. Her brother Johnny rides his bike, presumably (but not definitely) somewhere nearby. The girl stoops over the water to retrieve the ball and we see the Baxters’ house in the background. Zoom into the placid surface of the water. Cut to a burning fire and pull back to reveal the John and Laura, working separately within the same space. We’re tracking action in two places barely linked spatially, but the cut between opposites – fire and water, indoors and outdoors – sets up a balance of halves, a yin and a yang, suggesting the bond of parent and child.
John’s attention is already fractured. In a practical splitscreen, John’s POV shows the object of his immediate attention (slides of the stained glass restoration project he’s working on) and his peripheral attention (his wife, back to camera and absorbed in her own work). Next the slide fills the frame. John turns his head. Now just his wife’s back. He asks what she’s reading. Laura is researching a question from Christine – why a body of water’s surface is flat when the Earth is round (combining two of the film’s later concerns, water and perception). But before Laura finishes her statement, John returns his attention to the slide even though he continues to respond to her. He notices a figure in the slide wearing a bright red raincoat and as soon as we zoom into this figure the film cuts back to Christine’s reflection in the water, as though the image has diverted John’s thoughts back to his children outside.
Christine’s foot strikes a puddle. Cut to a matching shot of her brother’s tire running over a mirror. Her brother falls. John looks up from his slide as if reacting to the fall. He stands up, restless, and continues his conversation with Laura absentmindedly. Cutaways from outside the room now interrupt shots indoors: Laura makes a hand gesture around her mouth, a nonverbal communication that she wants a cigarette. Cut briefly to a close-up on Christine outside, making a gesture around her own mouth. A cigarette (presumably Laura’s) burns on the kitchen counter. John grins slightly, taking all this in. Young Johnny checks his tires then notices Christine. John returns to his table and shakes a cigarette package. Christine flings her ball again. John tosses the cigarettes to Laura.
But it was too soon to relax. Disaster strikes as the inside/outside actions overlap as well as rhyme. John knocks over a glass of water. We hear the glass hit and John’s reaction (“Oh, shit”) but on screen Christine’s ball hits the water. As the ball splashes the glass finishes its fall onto the table. John rushes to wipe the water off his slide. Johnny fixes his bike. John checks the damage to the slide. The water has created a blood-red stain, running across the slide, starting from the figure in the red raincoat. John slowly looks up and we hold on his worried expression interrupted by a shot of his son running. John trots out of the room, running as he hits the back door. Christine sinks below the surface of the water in the lake.
Significantly we’re not privy to Christine’s fall into the water. That image remains out of view – unforeseen and not imprinted as a memory. Soon John is outside. He and his son’s running paths meet. They’re still several yards from the water where Christine’s ball floats. John plunges into the water as his son looks on. In the house, unaware, Christine looks at the slide John has left behind as the red stain spreads. John dives below the surface. Laura tosses the slide away. It lands on a book – Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space. The stain spreads and we hear music on the soundtrack for the first time. Dissolve to John pulling Christine’s drowned body from the water. We intercut between them and the ruined slide as the ominous music cue finishes. John makes a futile attempt at CPR and clutches his daughter’s body. Laura exits the house and screams at the sight of Christine in John’s arms.
Her scream is cut off by a smash cut to a close-up of a drill screeching as it bores into masonry. Pull back to reveal a smiling John. An indeterminate amount of time has passed and we’re at the restoration project in Venice. This plays as a masterful eliding of the time lost to unfathomable grief. But it could just as easily suggest that the opening scene is John’s memory of the day of Laura’s scream, prompted by the sound of the drill. A failure to prevent his daughter’s death that haunts him, even as he refocuses on work.
John continues to have visions throughout the film but he struggles to piece them into a coherent picture, like the tile fragments he replaces in a mosaic. John can only chase down his apparitions, always misunderstanding them and always too late – until one time when he catches up to the figure in the red raincoat. This culminates in a famous moment of shock, a perfect depiction of a moment John was warned about in the abstract, yet could never have predicted in the specifics.
And so Don’t Look Now ends with the only parental anxiety to rival the death of a child, the fear that your best efforts are just failures yet to blossom. That someday you may face your child only to find them unrecognizable and realize too late that you were wrong, so wrong, and the time to repent has long passed.