The fear of death is something we all have in the inner beat of our mysterious minds. Whether it be the fear of ourselves, or our loved ones, succumbing, death is the ultimate unknown - the thing that fear thrives on. Death is something that will one day befall all of us, though when, where or how it will feel is completely incomprehensible to us. That being said, most people will at some point experience the death of a loved one and, through that, they can explore their reaction to death in the only way realistically possible: by grieving.
In fiction, grief is often presented as being linked to a disruption of time. Ian McEwan’s A Child in Time is a novel about what happens to a couple when their daughter goes missing in a supermarket while out shopping with her father. The story focuses on the way that the loss of a child can completely destroy a relationship, rather than bring it together, but mostly it is about how time heals all wounds - even the most grievous. McEwan’s novel is written with the past, present and future juxtaposed, as the chapters are not in chronological order, which is not dissimilar to the way that grief can create all kinds of conflicting emotions which affect the way that time is experienced: days can turn into months, while a death a year ago might still seem like yesterday.
Many films have also attempted to tackle grief, yet it often ends up being one of the most complex subjects to deal with. A good example of a film that crams layer upon layer of differingt emotions into a mere 110 minutes is Don’t Look Now. Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 opus, adapted from a Daphne du Maurier short story, portrays grief as something extremely personal yet utterly terrifying and has become a classic depiction of the horrors that can unfold from ordinary situations.
The film follows a bereaved couple as they escape to Venice after the accidental drowning of their young daughter. Don't Look Now treats time in a similar way to McEwan's novel, using it to convey how John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) experiences the different stages of grief. There are many sequences in the film that present two juxtaposed images, for example the notorious love scene. As John and Laura (Julie Christie) make love, the scene is intercut with shots of them subsequently getting dressed. The contrast creates an ambiguity about which version of events correctly reflects their inner emotions - united in dealing with their grief, as in the lovemaking, or apart, as in the more clinical, post-coital return to the separation of clothing. Later in the film, Laura has returned to England to check on their other child after he suffers a fall at his boarding school but John thinks that he sees her, in Venice, aboard a funeral barge dressed in black. This turns out to be a premonition, but it is used by Roeg to illustrate how one's perception of things can change when confronted with the reality of death, and grief - two events from which most of us are thankfully removed for much of our lives.
In Venice, architect John has been hired to help restore a church and in one scene, he is replacing pieces of mosaic in a stained-glass window. While balancing precariously on unstable scaffolding, an accident sends a piece of timber crashing into his rig and almost causes him to hurtle to the floor. This sequence is an allusion to John trying to restore order into his life after the trauma of tragedy and just as he attempts to fix things, his world just arbitrarily shatters again. The world is random and no matter how much we may seek order, things simply happen out of the blue to upset the apple-cart - which is what Roeg cleverly demonstrates here. Roeg’s use of mise-en-scene throughout the film to literalise John's grief adds a new layer of meaning to a narrative that in written form was essentially a supernatural tale of premonition. Another sequence that gives symbolic representation to what the couple are feeling inside occurs when Laura is running hither and thither around the canals, with John looking for her. Laura is often shown running in the film, while John is chasing, which illustrates the difference of approach between the two of them to their shared loss: Laura is content to put it behind her, while John is stuck with pursuing a way to deal with it - becoming ever more obsessed in the process. The deployment of mirrors, glass and water is also prevalent throughout, as they all act as objects of (self-)reflection as well as being reminders of their daughter’s demise by drowning.
Roeg's use of mise-en-scene is similar to the way in which Alfred Hitchcock would establish story and character through imagery rather than dialogue. (Hitchcock started out as a director of silent films.) One example of this is Psycho (1960), in which a sense of unease and fear of the unknown surfaces as if by magic, despite nothing much really happening. Rain, night, flight, isolation and a room full of stuffed birds all combine to inspire uncertainty and trepidation at the Bates Motel before Norman has even reached for his knife. Hitchcock’s ability to intimate psychosis and phobia through visual cues is one which is rarely duplicated nowadays, yet it has a profound impact on the viewer. In Vertigo, we can experience the terror that James Stewart feels thanks to a pioneering camera movement, and the same element of catharsis occurs in Don’t Look Now with its almost tangible air of sadness and irreconcilable loss.
There have been many films concerned with loss and grief, but few which have contrasted it with the fear of death. The Others (2001) is an example of another horror about how grief can manifest itself in mysterious ways, as is the Korean A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), with its memorably destablising twist ending. Don’t Look Now tackles the real relationship that people have with grief, but weights it with a side-helping of horror. (John's obsession encourages him to 'see' images of his dead daughter where there are none, which ultimately leads him to his own fatal encounter with destiny.) The common theme in these films is the need for their protagonists to come to terms with grief, not let it get out of control, otherwise it can have detrimental effect on one's well-being, and in ways that cannot be foreseen.
Don't Look Now is all about foreseeing - about sensing danger, dealing appropriately with consequences, and putting things in their proper perspective. But John Baxter is forever looking in the wrong direction.
That was precisely Nicolas Roeg's point.