Don't Look Now

Most monsters exhibit a duality. Vampires can either be a menacing brute that would destroy you instantly with bodily harm or they can corrupt your soul slowly through temptation. If a werewolf story is about the man who becomes a wolf you'll probably pity him for his curse; if it's about a normal man threatened by a werewolf then you'll want the wolf destroyed. Zombies are in many ways the least nuanced of the modern bogeymen, but sometimes they represent our fear of a slow lingering death and other times they represent our fear of a sudden violent death.

But of all the various fear-givers, ghosts probably have the widest gulf between their two poles, because sometimes a ghost story is a literal story about an evil spirit who wants to hurt the living, but other times ghosts are metaphors for something lost. Regardless of how seductive a vampire is it can only represent destruction, but ghosts can sometimes represent our fears about the afterlife and they can sometimes represent our regrets about this life.

Don't Look Now is a movie about a family who loses their daughter after she accidentally drowns in their backyard pond. The father retreats into work and the mother retreats into catatonia. Then one day while the two of them are eating lunch in a nice restaurant the wife runs into a blind woman who claims that she can talk with the dead. This prospect enlivens the mother's mood for the first time in months, but it angers the father, who doesn't believe in spirits, and who thinks this woman is trying to con his wife.

It's not uncommon for supernatural stories to pair a skeptic with a believer; it's a smart maneuver because it allows you to represent and then neutralize the logical objections that the audience might have. Generally the story will tip it's hand and definitively prove either the skeptic or the believer right, but there are stories that want to remain ambiguous, and they have to tread carefully so they don't end up getting stuck in no-man's land. Don't Look Now tries to ride the line between the father's side (where the visions he sees of his daughter would be an embodiment of his melancholy) and the mother's side (where the ghost of their daughter is real, and troubling supernatural forces are at work around them). Unfortunately, it can't quite reconcile those two tones into a cohesive tone.

The problem is that there just isn't enough of a focus on the ghosts. You get brief glimpses of the dead girl's red raincoat out of the corner of your eye every now and then, but there's a lot of side plots that distract from the central ghost story. There's nothing wrong with the scenes where the couple try to rebuild their relationship, or where they explore Venice, but they also don't lead anywhere, and they sap the central question of it's vitality.

That said, the unreconciled halves of this movie will probably speak more to fans of 70's cinema than it did to me. Don't Look Now is of a piece with a lot of the auteur driven classics of that generation: it values style over plot and ambiguity over momentum. Those are legitimate approaches to genre filmmaking, even if they don't always work for me. I suppose it's fitting that this movie is about ghosts, because when you watch it now it feels like the lingering presence of a long gone style of storytelling, and some viewers will find that it's out-of-date style offends their tastes, but others will view it with a twinge of regret for something that's definitely passed.

Winner: The Cat

Don't Look Now on IMDB