DON'T LOOK NOW is a 1973 film shot in Venice starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as an English couple staying in La Serenissima after their young daughter’s accidental drowning. The movie’s Venice has no tourists. It’s winter. The sky is overcast, without a hint of titian pink. The narrow, twisting, medieval streets are quiet, and the broad campos and stone bridges over the back canals rarely are put to use. That’s one reason the film fascinates me: I have never seen this Venice. Each of my four visits has been in the heat of summer, when the plague of tourists can be as fatal to pleasure as the cholera of Death in Venice was to human life. Thomas Mann pegged this ornamented, impossible city as a locus of obsession. He had that exactly right.
Sutherland’s character, John, is restoring a church and Christie’s character, Laura, mostly watches him, except for the notorious scene where she has completely believable, unusually watchable, and utterly rapturous sex with him. We see staccato frames of intertwining bodies intercut with some of the mysterious, frightening, exhilarating things that go through the mind when the body is free of it.
Don’t Look Now is an occult horror movie (based on a story by Daphne du Maurier) about the role grief plays in our lives. Venice is an exquisite setting for this, because its baroque beauty feels as anchored in melancholy as it is elevated by the sublime.
Just about the only other people we see in the film, aside from John’s Venetian assistants and hotel personnel anxious to close for the season, are two middle-aged sisters from England. One of them is blind but has “second sight.” She can communicate with the dead child. John also has second sight, but he doesn’t know it, and this tragic flaw dooms him.
I don’t have second sight. I’m stuck with what’s in front of or behind me, and I still can’t always see what’s there. No matter how many times I go to Venice, I get lost there, or lose myself in its skirts. Yet one or the other of the labyrinthine streets always leads, eventually, to my destination, after I discover parts of myself that I never would have seen if I hadn’t turned the wrong way (which also happens in the film).
Mostly, though, Don’t Look Now is a movie about Venice, the most unnerving and romantic city I’ve ever experienced. Once, when I was there, ostensibly for the opening of the art biennial, I was in the throes of a romantic obsession that the city indulged as if it were following a script. Every encounter was by chance, and always with an invitation to an adventure or a meeting with desire unbound. Desire for food, for love, for direction.
Coming back to San Marco from a biennial dinner on San Giorgio Maggiore in a water taxi given to us by magnanimous revelers who got out first, we had a driver who sensed that we didn’t want the night to end. He slowed our pace almost to a drift, deftly slipping us beneath bridges that hovered over us like veils, moving us through the languid air and past the looming palazzi, all silent witnesses to the dream we were in. We sat in the open back of the boat, outside the cabin, and reenacted the love scene from Don’t Look Now, except with our clothes on, changing positions, top and bottom, caressing, kissing, reaching into the deepest recesses of our bodies with our hands, our tongues, our eyes.
That’s when I learned that when in Venice, you don’t need clairvoyance, but it always helps to know someone with a boat.
Linda Yablonsky is an art journalist based in New York City.