Underneath Venice, there is a hidden forest. The forest was cut down over a thousand years ago in what is now Slovenia and the trunks were driven into the marshy soil of the 117 islands on which Venice was then built. Under the water, deprived of oxygen, the wood petrifies. Venice is a labyrinth, built on a dark stolen wood that has slowly, over the centuries, turned to stone. A city perfect for the darkest of fairy tales. A little red figure sits in a church. A little red figure crosses a bridge. But (to paraphrase Shelley) if Little Red Riding Hood comes, can the wolf be far behind?
Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 horror film has one of those titles, like Eyes Wide Shut, that at first glance appear naff, but in which every word takes on a different meaning during and after a viewing of the film. It is a warning, but one that we most commonly expect to be ignored: ‘Don’t Look Now but someone is staring at us’. The Italian title gives us a giallo feel: A Venezia… un dicembre rosso shocking, which, translated, means ‘In Venice… a Shocking Red December’ – a time, a place, a colour and an emotion. But to concentrate for a moment on the place: Venice.
Venice has provided an exotic location for historical romps, a Klaus Kinski vampire film, an Al Pacino Shakespeare adaptation and picture postcard backgrounds to several 007s as well as the recent Johnny Depp excretion The Tourist. [I must here declare my bias. I almost got a job as an extra on this film, but was turned down as (apparently) I resembled the lead actor and would have only caused confusion.] Working in Venice the last 10 years, I got used to turning a corner and walking onto a film set. I even had the ambiguous pleasure of seeing Donald Sutherland (a very tall man) preparing his role for the remake of The Italian Job (hence the ambiguity) at Campo San Barnaba. And yet Nicolas Roeg’s Venice is different and its difference is of a piece with the oddness of Don’t Look Now, which despite its recent elevation from cult gem to National Treasure (Time Out’s Best British Film Ever™) stills retains a gritty, mucky unusualness that no amount of praise can polish off.
Fundamentally, Don’t Look Now is a dirty film; a film of spreading red stains, of dripping liquids, of mud and blood and breaking glass. It is a messy examination of entropy: things fall and fall apart and we try to restore what can’t be repaired and recover what has already been irretrievably lost. And this filthiness comes with the city of Venice. When we first see Venice (aside from a brief shot of the sunlight through the slats of the Venetian blinds), we are in a trench with John Baxter, the bereaved architect played brilliantly by Donald Sutherland. He is supervising the restoration of a church and the workmen are drilling into the foundation, the petrified forest of the city’s substrata. ‘Tutto marcio,’ the disgruntled Baxter tells the Italian worker. ‘It’s all rotten.’ In a crucial change to the Daphne du Maurier short story, John Baxter and his wife Laura are not holidaying in Venice, rather he is working. Venice, for Baxter, is a building site, and not a good one. The church, San NicolÃ² dei Mendicoli (Saint Nicholas of the Beggars), has an unassuming, perhaps beggarly exterior, and (in a city that is almost all faÃ§ade) has no great faÃ§ade. Tucked away in an unvisited corner of Venice, not far from the prison at Santa Marta, the church was in the process of being renovated in 1973, providing Roeg with the scaffolding he needed. Roeg’s Venice is a wintry, dirty workaday city; a city of hospitals, police offices and off-season hotels. It is a city with a rat problem (still very much the case), a city of lost gloves on windowsills and a baby doll abandoned on the steps down to the canal. In the final funereal shot of the film, we see a huge pile of bin bags in the background, also awaiting disposal.
Baxter’s work of putting the pieces back together reflects the piecing together of the Baxters’ lives after the death of their daughter. The Baxters live in rooms of middle-class clutter, strewn with books, papers and half-empty glasses, unable to find their cigarettes. This messiness and Baxter’s work are also reflected in Roeg’s justly famous non-linear editing, which mixes up the narrative in such a way as to make us uncertain as to where we are and (crucially) when we are at any given time in the film. The past pollutes the present, as indeed does the future. But this messiness is all the point and Baxter’s and the viewer’s analogous urge to bring it to some coherence is literally a doomed project. Ultimately, things fall apart. When Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) collapses onto the dinner table at the restaurant, Roeg’s slow motion, unlike Peckinpah’s epic beautifying of violence, prolongs the agony, the moment of helpless tragic knowledge when we grasp at a world that is slipping through our fingers, the glass rolling off the tilting table towards the tiled floor. While restoring a mosaic in the church, Baxter is almost killed, when a falling beam destroys the scaffolding on which he’s standing high above the floor of the church. The mosaic tiles he had been meticulously examining are scattered to the winds.
The source of all muck and chaos is the muddy English pond of Christine Baxter’s accidental death. There are very few moments of horror in the Horror genre that live up to the meaning of the word. John Baxter’s grief-filled bellow, the freezing brown water (Roeg makes sure we hear John gasp as he plunges into it), the slippery muddy slope and the hopeless struggle to carry the girl’s small body to safety are moments of bungling, tormented pain, absolutely stripped bare of any staged dignity. This is Conradian: ‘the horror’. Later in Venice, a woman’s body will be pulled, knickers dripping, the soles of her feet, from a canal in a similarly undignified end to a life. There is a murderer on the loose. However, the film refuses to comply to generic requirements. The police investigation is essentially a red (there’s that colour again) herring. We might understand at the end what we were seeing but we won’t understand why. There are no resolutions. [SPOILER] Baxter’s own death is just another meaningless death in a long line of meaningless deaths. The true horror is that all death (and all life) is ultimately meaningless.
The beam of wood falls for no reason, just as we never fully understand how Christine came to drown in the pond. There is no angry ghost, no curse, no original sin to be punished and no demonic presence. We might seek meaning, motivation, an explanation, the way Baxter chases his Little Red Riding Hood through the forests of Venice, but in a universe as arbitrary as this, death is deprived of such comforts and does not follow a narrative arc, and our Little Red Riding Hood could just as easily turn out to be the Wolf.