How Donald Sutherland ever became a leading man remains quite a mystery to me. Perhaps his allure is part of Hollywood’s reliance upon willing suspension of disbelief. Not exactly handsome, not at all ugly, Sutherland’s look is one that is politely defined as unique. Not peculiar enough to resign him to a career of character acting, Sutherland’s doleful face lends itself to scholarly characters. More meek and mentally active than dashing and physically driven towards action film, Sutherland fits comfortably in tweed jackets or loose scarves – not black tuxedos and leather jackets. Yet, some how he gets the chicks.
Don’t Look Back pairs Donald Sutherland with Julie Kristie. Sutherland is working to restore a Catholic church. Kristie is tagging along, trying to forget the painful loss of their daughter. In the opening moments of film, Sutherland receives a painful psychic vision of his daughter’s death, but when he runs out side to check on her it is too late. While in Venice a set of elderly sisters befriends Kristie. The blind sister informs Kristie that she is psychic and that she can see Kristie and Sutherland’s daughter and that she is safe and happy. Whether true or pure malarky the blind woman’s news cheers up Kristie. Sutherland is less convinced, but that doesn’t stop him from taking pleasure in Kristie’s renewed good spirits. Once again, the Sutherland charm mystifies in a rather elongated and erotic loving making scene.
Seeing Kristie naked is not the only thing Sutherland keeps seeing. He also sees his young daughter, still dressed in the same raincoat she drowned in. Around the canals and down the back alleys of Venice, Sutherland chases this ghost. Still refusing to belief that his daughter is anything but dead, Sutherland can’t shake a series of strange visions that come to, each a prediction of danger or death. When Kristie leaves Venice to tend to her and Sutherland’s son, who has an accident while at boarding school, Sutherland begins to have frightful visions of Kristie on a funeral gondola. Rushing about Venice, trying to locate his wife, the two psychic sisters, and the raincoat wearing ghost of his daughter, Sutherland puts his own life in danger as he tries to make sense of that he sees both physically and psychically.
Directed by Nicholas Roeg, Don’t Look Now doesn’t bother tying together loose ends. He’s a cinematographer at heart and he never fails to provide his films with a provocative images. The images may not all add up, an attribute that can madden those wanting a simple solution, but by the end of Roeg’s film the experience has a whole makes sense, no matter how demented that sense may seem. Any viewer confusion can easily be seen as a glimpse into the mind of Sutherland’s character, but the ending – that’s just plain out there. Neither the viewer or Sutherland can see that one coming. Forgetting the weirdness of the ending, which is shot it a chilling manner, rivaling any horror film out there, the payoff to all the suspense is slightly undercut with the sort of confusion that leaves me scratching my head, but not exactly angry. No matter what happens in the film I can’t fault Roeg for whisking me along, shaking up my head, and keeping me guessing. Even if there is no easy answer to what Roeg shows me, I can at least say I enjoyed his screwing with my mind for a little while.
The need to have a clearly explained story is nothing of a recent trend. Movies have often tried to make sense of the world at large. Properly putting pieces into place, the movies are all about setting up events with known pay-offs and filling actors’ mouths with life-affirming dialog. Sometimes movies can be too neat. Especially for me. It has been my experience that most mainstream movies unrealistic events, but what’s even more unrealistic than the events of the film is the striving towards perfect structure, each element of the film needing to be just right in order for me to see the larger picture. In this way, most conventional films feel like jigsaw puzzles, with the director making me watching as they construct the big picture. I too help to put the puzzle together, but its a backseat sort of puzzle construction – input doing nothing to alter the outcome. There is a simple pleasure in watching hundreds or thousands of tiny pieces come together to make a larger image. It makes you wish thing would come together so easily in life. Of course, they don’t. Perhaps, this is why films like Don’t Look Now do not always sit well with broad film audiences. As Roeg is laying out his puzzle pieces I assume that he is working towards a completed big picture, something to step back from an smile because you never would have guess that all the pieces would add up to create such an image. However, just as you think you have figured out the big picture, Roeg looks like he’s about to deliver the film piece to the puzzle, only shake up the table and scatter all the pieces. An act like this breaks the illusion that films provide, the illusion of structure and order in a world of chaos. Sometimes, that shake up is refreshing.