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The Shining (1980)
Where a hedge maze becomes a hall of mirrors
The music, the hedge maze, the empty ballroom, the elevator doors opening to a tidal wave of blood, Nicholson's celebrated hook; in terms of cinematic iconography, The Shining is unrivalled. However, to applaud the film simply because it has cultural appeal would be a great discredit to director Stanley Kubrick's subtle use of subtext and skillful creation of a sustained atmosphere that is tense and genuinely creepy. This is one of those supposedly scary films that does chill - even if it never quite makes you jump out of your seat in terror - with Kubrick blending elements of intense, psychological horror with an almost soap-opera-like melodrama to give us a film that really goes beyond the limitations of the horror genre to create something much more substantial.
From the outset, Kubrick makes no explicit allusions to this being a horror-film in the traditional sense, since there are no creatures in the shadows, or jolts and jumps; with the shocks coming from the juxtaposition between the film's created-reality and the more outlandish spiritual elements from Stephen King's original novel. Instead of generic scare tactics, the director creates disturbing images out of the most mundane of situations, with the most lingering images including skeletons dressed for a ball, children and their toys and wounded guests that refuse to leave the party. The images come from this idea of marital collapse and the guilt of the adult protagonists filtered through everything from 20th century war atrocities, 18th century literature, Scandinavian art-films, crime scene photography and the images of Diane Arbus.
For an excellent example of this idea in full effect take a look at the scene between Jack Torrance and the women in the bathroom; which not only seems surreal on a purely superficial level, but also taps into the guilt of infidelity, crushed masculinity, death, decay and old age. Later in the film, Wendy's fear of her own husband is interpreted via implied homo-eroticism, when she stumbles across a man receiving oral sex from a spectre in a dog-costume. However, the figure in the dog-costume could easily be a woman, so perhaps this is a signifier of Wendy's own infidelity to Jack. This scene - like the rest of the film - is open to interpretation.
The ending of the film hints at spiritual-transcendence, the playing off historical coincidences and internal-mirroring. Here, the ending offers us a number of plausible narrative explanations. The most common explanation being that Jack has been driven mad by isolation, and, having heard about the previous caretaker who went mad and butchered his family, has psychosomatically descended to that exact same mental state. This leaves the final image - and the enigmatic questions that are raised - completely unanswerable. A second interpretation would be that the 'story' we believe to be real - the one taking place in the late 1970's - is actually the story being written by Jack. That he never really suffers from writers block, but instead, rather like King in reality, uses the writers block, coupled with his isolation and the pain of his inner-demons, to write the story we see unfold (The Shining).
A final possible ending, and one that proves to be the most complex and complicated, deals with the mirroring of past and present, the re-occurrence of different characters within different time-lines, such as the two incarnations of Grady and the two incarnations of Jack; who, in the words of one character, has "always been here". This ending is the most unsatisfying in terms of overall denouement, but is the most fun when it comes to re-evaluating Kubrick's subtle use of imagery, dialogue and subtext. To me however, regardless of what interpretation you choose to apply to it, The Shining is simply a great film; one that rewards with an interesting, continually fascinating plot rife with possible interpretations and Kubrick's always interesting use of cinematic composition, editing, music and performance.
Il conformista (1970)
Borgesian psychodrama and masterpiece of cinematic form
The Conformist is primarily a stylistic exercise, but one where the stylisation is a part of the character's psychology. As such, it's one of the great works of cinema that is actually "cinematic."
Since the entire film is a flashback within a flashback (the end of the film is in fact the beginning) it takes the form of an extended sequence of personal recollections in the life of a character haunted by terrible betrayals; unable (through arrogance or simple- mindedness) to understand how he could so egregiously sell-out his closest friends.
As such, the film is not a linear retelling of actual events, but an abstraction of these events. Colour, lighting, camera placement and transitions between scenes are each intended to remove the film from reality and evoke the character's state of mind; his fear, passion, duplicity and cowardice reflected in the filmmaking form.
The character here is intended to symbolise the progression of the country itself; here the question of complicity during WWII becomes far more relevant to the corruption of Italy's dark war-time past. As such, the film is as an accusation against this character and in turn an accusation against Italy during the pre and post-war years.
For all this talk of politics, the character is not political. He is - as the title suggests - a "conformist." He presents whatever personality or conviction he thinks people want him to possess. As such, the filmmakers create a character preoccupied only with the surface of things; he's essentially shallow; a dress-up Marxist turned dress-up Fascist with no genuine beliefs or ideologies of his own.
Again, this characterisation and the use of stylisation are a way to show the world as the character sees it (or more accurately how he wishes he could see himself); it is not the reality, but becomes more of an extended psychodrama of how the reality has been transformed by years of regret.
Further, this lack of actual "character" is presented in other aspects of the film. The protagonist is a heterosexual, who after being molested as a child convinces himself that he's a homosexual, and then as a reaction to this tries to pass himself off as a heterosexual (again) in order to conform. This is something only revealed to the character at the end of the film when he finally discovers that the molester he thought he had killed as a child is really alive; his guilt and shame were his own invention.
Finally the film is profoundly personal to Bertolucci. The relationship between the "conformist" and the professor is based on the relationship between the filmmaker and his great hero (and biggest cinematic influence) Jean-Luc Godard. Bertolucci, who desperately wanted to be Godard and couldn't, betrays his mentor and has him brutally murdered. This is further reflected in the style of the film, which builds on elements of Godard's own style (especially in the films Le Mepris and Pierrot le fou) with the influences of German expressionism, pre-war French cinema and the American film noir.
With The Conformist Bertolucci is drawing a line under his "Godardian" political films of the 1960s and embracing a more formalist cinema that deals with the psychology of characters and their own perception of the world as they create it.
Lady in the Water (2006)
A film about the power of stories to inspire hope in a time of great depression
Beginning with an animated prologue that establishes the context of the story (as well as the more important theme of 'storytelling'; creating a link through the deliberately crude style of animation to the earliest cave paintings), Lady in the Water (2006) announces itself as something strange and unconventional.
Dismissed by many mainstream critics as a bloated vanity project, Lady in the Water is without question the most personal film (to date) from the American filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan; a controversial figure in contemporary cinema, who came to public attention with his third feature, the global blockbuster The Sixth Sense (1999), before turning down the likes of Harry Potter and the Batman franchise to direct strange, beautifully crafted, often earnest (to the point of invoking jeers) genre movies that express his own individual feelings on human relationships, death, fear and community.
As with many of Shyamalan's previous films, Lady in the Water blends contrasting elements of comedy, drama, fantasy and the supernatural to tell the story of Cleveland Heap, a middle-aged maintenance man unable to connect with the world around him.
Like Signs (2002) and The Village (2004), it's essentially a film about a character scarred by tragedy, the severity of which has left him unable to communicate (both verbally and emotionally) and barely existing behind the concrete walls of a low-rent apartment complex where he now works as caretaker and general repair man. Like 'the village' in the film of the same name, the apartment complex (significantly named 'The Cove') becomes a microcosm for America in the wake of 9/11, populated by several different nationalities (Mexicans, Koreans, Indians, North Americans, even an Englishman) and numbed by a general sense of apathy, loneliness and paranoia.
Through the introduction of the 'lady' of the title, these characters find a reason to re-engage with the art of living; no longer wasting time in their apartments (like prison cells), watching the news coverage from Iraq and growing more and more distant from the outside world; they're re-energised, given a sense of purpose; a direction. The film is as much about the nature of communities (like in The Village) and the perseverance of the human spirit as it is about the characters on screen. It's also a film about the power of stories, explicit in the name of the title character; 'Story', who is created by these characters, to bring hope to their hopeless existence.
In discussing the film, Shyamalan likened it Spielberg's E.T. (1982) and Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride (1987); the former having a similar feeling of childhood wonder in suburbia; the latter having the same emphasis on the way ideas are communicated through the art of storytelling.
Ultimately the movie is probably too strange or unconventional to appeal to fans of either film; the stylised dialogue (full of hushed whispers, blunt emotional statements and the deliberate omissions of contractions) probably has more in common with the writing styles of David Mamet or Hal Hartley, while film's experimental visual approach, full of bold autumnal colours, long takes from fixed camera perspectives and fragmented compositions (making the inability of characters to connect, emotionally as well as physically, all the more direct), owes a greater debt to the later films of Jean-Luc Godard, such as Détective (1985), or Hélas pour moi (1993), than the more contemporary approach of filmmakers like Christopher Nolan or Paul Greengrass. For me, Lady in the Water is first and foremost a great piece of cinema.
Shyamalan may have gone on to direct a couple of weaker films since, most notably the B-movie pastiche The Happening (2008) and the big-budget fantasy adventure The Last Airbender (2010), but for this reviewer, Lady in the Water is one of his boldest, most sincere and most imaginative films; a grown-up fairy story full of wonder and emotion, comedy and tragedy, and every bit as essential as his earlier films, Unbreakable (2000) and The Sixth Sense.
Varjoja paratiisissa (1986)
A charming and unconventional romantic comedy-drama in the Kaurismäki tradition
There's an almost silent film like quality to much of Kaurismäki's work, with that notion of a cinema of images that works without the extraneous use of dialogue or the broader notions of exposition. What this results in is a style of film-making in which the most simple of images tells a story. Simplicity is essentially the key to this film; not simply within the set up, in which a bin man begins a furtive relationship with a supermarket checkout girl, but in the presentation of the film itself. Some critics have used worlds like minimalist or unassuming when discussing the films of Kaurismäki, and in particular, his early trilogy of films, of which Shadows in Paradise (1986) would be the first, but to me, it's more about simplification; stripping away all the usual narrative window-dressing and over complicated presentation of technique to get to the very centre of the story and the heart of these characters.
This was Kaurismäki's third film as a director, though at times you could argue that it feels more like his first. His actual debut came with Crime and Punishment (1983), a typically straight-faced adaptation of the classic Dostoevsky novel, with the more obvious Kaurismäki touches at this point still being in the somewhat embryonic stages. This was followed by the oddly surreal and coolly episodic Calamari Union (1985), a bizarre black and white comedy that drew on the influence of Bertrand Blier's Buffet Froid (1979) to tell the story of fifteen men - fourteen of them named Frank Merciless, and an idiot man-child named Pekka - who leave behind the hopeless working class district of Eira and quest to the near-mythical suburb of Kallio. These films are somewhat ambitious, both in terms of their narrative scope and the technical presentation, suggesting the work of a filmmaker already fairly confident about what cinema is and what his cinema should accomplish. In comparison, Shadows in Paradise seems content to tell an honest story about small, everyday characters in such a way as to not draw too much attention to itself.
There's nothing wrong with that. There is a pure art to the presentation of subtlety - something that Kaurismäki is well aware of - and although I tend to prefer his more inventive and idiosyncratic films, such as the aforementioned Calamari Union, as well as the far greater films like Hamlet Goes Business (1987), Ariel (1988) and The Man Without a Past (2003), there is something quite commendable about a film that attempts to work on such a honest and simple level. The relationship between the characters here is something most of us can identify with, as the odd relationship between Nikander and Ilona propels the story, which is further grounded by Nikander's friendships with his co-workers, Esko and Melartin. As even with Kaurismäki the film works as a result of the perfect casting, with Matti Pellonpää, Kati Outinen, Sakari Kuosmanen and Esko Nikkari, all regulars of the director's work, managing to give so much information about the lives of these characters with gestures so small and exchanges so subtle as to be completely lost on a less attentive audience.
For me, Shadows in Paradise isn't the greatest of Kaurismäki's films, or indeed, the best place to start. However, it does show hints of the style that would be further developed, not least in the two films that would continue and close this loose, thematic trilogy, Ariel and The Match Factory Girl (1990), but in far more ambitious and imaginative projects like Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), Drifting Clouds (1994) and Lights in the Dusk (2006). That said, Shadows in Paradise does offer the usual high quality of performance and direction, with the typical Kaurismäki approach to low-key production design and warm cinematography. If you're already familiar with the director's later films then Shadows in Paradise is certainly worth seeking out, if only for the chance to see the formation of that unique style and the soon to be recognisable approach to character and narrative.
Savage Messiah (1972)
Underrated and surprisingly understated biographical drama from the always iconoclastic Russell
Art, expression, age, repression, sex, revolution and death... just some of the themes central to Ken Russell's typically exuberant biographical film, Savage Messiah (1972). At its most basic, the film looks at the troubled and often confusing relationship between French sculptor Henri Gaudier and struggling writer Sophie Brzeska. However, director Russell - ever the iconoclast - uses the film's internal subject matter as a platform to attack the idea of artistic criticism. With this in mind, the film goes beyond the more identifiable elements of biographical fiction to become something of a satire, as Russell eventually branches out and takes further swipes at film producers, financiers and the viewing public, who - in Russell's view - have destroyed the notion of 'art', both in its own right, and in the purely cinematic sense of personal expression.
As the film unfolds it becomes clear that Russell is using Gaudier as something of an alter-ego; a stroke of characterisation that I'm sure is pure egocentric fabrication, as we see Gaudier become a laughing, wailing, scamp; obsessed with phallic symbolism and the female form and completely opposed to authority (sound familiar?). In Brzeska, his desire to find someone like-minded is fulfilled, whilst his appetite for lust and high-society remains just out of reach. The film is clever enough to subvert the usual love affair clichés, by depicting the couple's relationship through various alternative incarnations; mother and son, sister and brother, friend and foe, etc. As the film moves closer and closer to its final act, Russell offers us a touching and subtle depiction of loss, loyalty and friendship that ties all of these previous themes together exceedingly well.
Here the usually bombastic director elicits a number of wonderful performances from his cast, allowing them to feel their way through the portrayal of these complex and not always likable characters, as opposed to simply acting it out. Amongst the stars, Scott Anthony impresses as the wildly enthusiastic genius Gaudier, whilst dance choreographer Lindsey Kemp plays the pitiful, snivelling promoter Angus Corky. However, it is Dorothy Tutin as the tortured Brzeska who really stands out; delivering a beautiful performance that registers long after the film has finished. Russell's creative restraint is also evident in the way the film is put together. Set design is again by Derek Jarman, who creative the city of Loudon in Russell's earlier masterpiece The Devils (1971). Whereas that film relied heavily on theatricality, pop art expressionism and stylisation, Savage Messiah instead creates a more low-key reality that is no less iconic or impressive.
The realisation of the film is in the cobbled streets, the dingy basements, the gutters overflowing with rancid, rotting fruit and vegetables, the constant pouring rain, the art and the artist, and the juxtaposition of the polite, stately bourgeoisie with the common artiste they so adore! Even the cinematography and lighting manages to forgo the usually vibrant, cartoon-like buffoonery of some of Russell's more outré endeavours, using natural light - including candles, bonfires and actual sunlight - and unobtrusive compositions reminding us of what a great talent Russell was before the likes of Tommy (1975) and Lisztomania (1975) took him beyond the boundaries of taste. The film has a number of amazing sequences, such as the first trip to the art gallery, Gaudier's all-night sculpting session, the trip to the rockery, the carnival-like nightclub and, of course, on a more superficial level, the young Helen Mirren posing nude.
Unfortunately, the current cinematic climate tells us that we should ignore the films of the past, and instead look forward to vapid remakes with that dry, MTV mentality. A sad fact, since despite a couple of minor flaws, Savage Messiah is a true original; one of Russell's many personal and groundbreaking explorations of artistic expression, and one of those films that demonstrates his true talent and stature of one of British cinema's true originals.
Sombra dolorosa (2004)
Another wildly imaginative and striking short-film from the endlessly inventive Guy Maddin
A four-minute masterpiece of music and movement, montage and more; Sombra Dolorosa (2004) is typical of director Guy Maddin's work, filled with archaic film references and an appropriation of silent cinema conventions to tell a vague and enigmatic story that plays out in a dreamlike and metaphorical world rich in visual symbolism. Although Sombra Dolorosa isn't a silent film, as such - it does feature snippets of Spanish dialogue and a densely layered soundtrack of music and atmospherics - it still borrows heavily from the style and tone of silent cinema in a way that is reminiscent of The Heart of the World (2000) or elements of Brand upon the Brain! (2006). In this respect, we have the incredibly quick cutting style and bombardment of visual information that reduces narrative to mere montage; as well as the use of on-screen captions and inter-titles, which present to us the information that is spoken on the soundtrack in a manner that is deconstructive, but also slyly satirical.
Though the worry of being overwhelmed by the rapidity of the on screen information and the complete genius of the director's mise-en-scene is always apparent with Maddin's work, Sombra Dolorosa is never inaccessible. In fact, it is fairly easy to pick apart and interpret the vague semblance of narrative if we carefully follow the information as it appears on-screen; with the director gleefully taking influence from Latin American melodrama, with its roots in arts and magic-realist literature to chart a tale of lost love, life and death, and the extraordinary ability to overcome. It is, like the vast majority of Maddin's work, an absolute marvel of film-making energy and imagination, with the presentation of suicide attempts, death and regeneration, and that striking image of a wrestling match between a widow and the grim reaper all working alongside that continually striking use of colour, composition, music, design, performance and all to create a one-off visual experience that is sure to delight and overwhelm.
Les astronautes (1959)
An enjoyable work of collage-based animation; and an obvious influence on Terry Gilliam
The Astronauts (1959) is a short, collaborative animation project between eccentric filmmakers Walerian Borowczyk and Chris Marker. Borowczyk would later move into live-action film-making, turning his attention to a cinema of perverse eroticism with projects like Goto, The Island of Love (1969), The Immoral Tales (1974), Beast (1975) and Emmanuelle 5 (1987). Likewise, Marker would produce the short masterpiece La Jetée (1962), the celebrated proto-documentary Sans Soleil (1983) and his critical study of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, A.K. (1985). The film, at twelve-minutes in length, is a testament to the creative energy and ideas of these two filmmakers, not only standing as an interesting short film in its own right, but as a window into the creative world of these two, highly skilled, highly original filmmakers. It remains an amazing piece of work for this very reason, more so perhaps than any other; even if it is admittedly impossible to distinguish between which filmmaker was responsible for each individual part of the creative process, leaving us to assume that it was a pure collaboration in every sense of the word.
In terms of actual style, The Astronauts can be seen as an obvious precursor to Terry Gilliam's work on the "Monty Python" (1969) television series, with surreal, copy and paste photographic images hand-printed and cropped to work in a bizarre, almost stop-motion approach, stressing the use of collage and caricature. Clearly, it is no surprise that Gilliam cited Borowczyk's film Les Jeux des Anges (1964) amongst his ten best animated films of all time (alongside work by Jan vankmajer, the brothers Quay and the Pixar animation studio), with both the visual look, sense of wonder and sly satirical humour of this particular approach all showing an influence, not only on his work with the Monty Python team, but on classic films like Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). Like those particular projects, The Astronauts is certainly worth experiencing; if only for the window that it offers into a completely unique creative mindset, wherein Borowczyk and Marker succeed in putting together some astounding little sequences and ideas to create this warm and enjoyable sketch.
It seems odd that these wildly different filmmakers could get together and produce a work of utter, creative symbiosis, and yet here, with The Astronauts, they deliver a fantastic work of short-form animation filled with clever visual references, an expressive and experimental approach to the manipulation of sound, and an extraordinary amount of visual and thematic imagination conveyed by both the story and the actual presentation. Clearly, it is the kind of film that will be of more interest to fans of these particular filmmakers and of avant-garde animation in general, but I think it is definitely a film that is worth experiencing at least once; if not for the obvious thrill of the creative act itself (and in the ideas presented on screen), then for the delightful little story that is really quite witty and brilliantly delivered over the course of its comparatively short, twelve-minute duration.
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
The word 'overrated' is thrown around a lot on IMDb - usually without justification - but it seems appropriate when discussing this supposedly "so bad it's good", "worst movie ever made" candidate, which for me doesn't live up to the hype.
Sadly this film wasn't as "side-splitting" as I'd been led to believe. In fact it wasn't very funny (or interesting) at all.
Maybe if you were with a large group of people and you were all drunk and/or stoned, then maybe you could derive some cheap laughs at the expense; but really that has nothing to do with the film and a lot to do with the individual experience. A large enough inebriated-audience would probably laugh and joke wildly through Schindler's List if the mood was right; but that doesn't change the objective quality of the film.
I just found this to be a rather dull, below average '50s B-movie. The worst thing about it is the editing; the discontinuity and the use of the same footage three or four times during different parts of the narrative (the shot of the police car driving by the cemetery is used four times; the shot of Lugosi flapping his cape is used twice, etc).
Other than that it was badly plotted and suffered from some rather flat, lacklustre performances from a mostly amateur cast. But at no point would I call it "so bad it's good"; more like "so mediocre it's boring". Or perhaps my generation has been spoiled by the truly awful and endlessly hilarious likes of Ben & Arthur and The Room.
Either way, calling this the "worst movie ever made" is giving it more credit than it deserves.
La mala educación (2004)
Multi-layered narrative; part love story, part thriller, part ode to cinema itself
A meta-fictional construction; with one character writing a script that serves as a key to the past, which is then subsequently adapted by another character, creating a film that holds the secrets to the present. It is all blended together with the director's usual interest in characters that exist on the fringes of society - with artists, crooks, adulterers, lesbians, homosexuals and transvestites all interacting with a narrative of reminiscence that deals with the director's usual interests in illicit and obsessive love affairs, hopes and desires, secrets and lies - and all further embellished with the filmmaker's continuing reliance on films about film-making and the allure of the cinema itself. It is also a thriller, and a film that deals with the controversial blending of childhood, religion and sexuality; though all handled with a confidence and a subtly by Almodóvar that many of his more scathing critics may not necessarily expect.
The drama focuses on the aftermath of such events, looking at how the ghosts of the past have shaped the course of these characters lives over the ensuing sixteen years, and more importantly, how the various unanswered questions that have plagued these protagonists will once again come under close scrutiny following a chance encounter that conspires to throw together elements of the past and the present, for what could be the very last time. Throughout the film, Almodóvar offers us many interesting twists and turns, while still managing to maintain our connection with the characters and the friendship that develops between the two protagonists to form the main bulk of the story. Once again, this relationship is a subtle one in comparison to many of Almodóvar's earlier films, such as Matador (1986) or Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), but nonetheless, it is still indicative of the director's style and flair; with the ironic visual compositions, bold, summery colour schemes, leaps within the narrative, characters within characters and the always delightful subversion of camp, melodramatic kitsch, into something altogether more moving.
As ever with this particular combination of cold film-noir and feisty melodrama - used most notably in the director's earlier masterwork The Law of Desire (1987) - the background of the characters are used in a way that is entirely self-aware; fitting into the meta-textual tapestry that Almodóvar is able to weave so seamlessly, taking in elements of cinematic self-reference, memory and fiction, not to mention the contradicting elements of the real and the imagined. It works because the experiment is tied to a story that is interesting enough to support the bold leaps from comedy to drama, from warm nostalgia to cruel reality, and because the characters remain interesting and engaging throughout. Again, there is a certain self-aware quality to the portrayal of these main characters, as if they are somehow looking in on their own lives and documenting their fate as it appears (a familiar devise in all of Almodóvar's work), and yet, they remain sensitive, believable, intelligent and ultimately sympathetic.
It is perhaps worth noting also that Bad Education (2004) is Almodóvar's first explicitly "gay film" since the aforementioned Law of Desire nearly twenty years earlier (though there were certainly elements of a homo-erotic subtext to the highly successful Talk to Her, 2002); with the return to these themes offering a nice change of pace from the female centric dramas and tales of obsessive male/female partnerships that acted as the central focus of his work throughout the 1990's. It is also notable for being a return or recreation of sorts to the late 70's/early 80's world of the Madrid art-scene that had flourished, post-Franco, and was home to none other than Almodóvar and his collaborators before the success of their first film, Pepi, Luci and Bom (1980). Like Almodovar, one of the characters here is a filmmaker that has found success in the underground, and combined with the recreation of the early gay-scene, with its attitudes and trends, we can begin to see this as a much more personal and important work within the Almodóvar filmography than we might have previously suspected.
Don't Look Now (1973)
The loss of a child, represented as the ultimate horror
Once again, a film that has suffered as a result of the limitations of genre classification, with many viewers hearing of its subsequent reputation as a horror film of legendary, note only to then feel slighted by the distinct lack of gore, brutality or obvious dramatic tension. Nonetheless, this is a horror film in the best possible sense; or at least, as far as a more mature adult-orientated audience is concerned. Like many great horror films, it works because the thematic set-up has a certain sense of plausibility, establishing a theme of human fragility that reverberates from that opening sequence and eventually ends up colouring everything from the judgement of the central characters, the interference from external forces and the clear lack of any kind of outside influence, as the world of the film and the world of these characters becomes progressively more claustrophobic, or closed in. This notion is perfectly expressed by the continual atmosphere of dread and uncertainty that is suggested by the incredibly drab colour schemes, the dilapidated, almost decrepit locations, and the general overcast, foggy-wet misery of Venice out of season.
Nonetheless, we feel that sense of connection, just as we feel that the fragility of this relationship, and the scene of isolation, or perhaps even alienation - be it from grief, or simply the idea of foreigners in a strange and exotic land - is entirely real and true to these protagonists as actual human beings, even when clearly stylised for purposes of a greater dramatic connection. The use of Venice as the film's primary location works incredibly well, reminding us of the influence of Luchino Visconti's near-infamous Death in Venice (1971) - a similarly morose film about loss and self destruction - and director Aldo Lado's underrated Giallo thriller, Who Saw Her Die? (1972). By setting the film in Italy, director Nicholas Roeg is able to tap into the grand tradition of Italian horror cinema of the mid-to-late 1960's, from Mario Bava to Dario Argento, with the ultimate concern of the film - like Bava's The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) or Argento's The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) - being about sight.
With this notion in mind, the film deliberately focuses on characters who, for one reason or another, are unable to see the situation for what it truly is - both in the pre-credit sequence and in the subsequent scenes leading up to that cryptic, heart stopping finale - until it is entirely too late. This is brilliantly contrasted by a secondary character who is unable to see in the literal sense, and yet, is able to perceive the world around her, not only experiencing things that have already happened, but those that are yet to come. The notion of second sight, which is almost the ultimate cliché of films that deal with subjects of a supernatural nature, is here fully explored by Roeg, not simply in the traditional, storytelling sense of character and script, but in his fantastic, elliptical approach to structure and editing, which again, carried over from his previous experiments with the late Donald Cammel on their groundbreaking debut film, Performance (1970).
As with that particular film, which was also centred on the notions of sight and perception, we have an emphasis on moments that at first seem fairly inconsequential, only to later take on a greater thematic importance once the pieces of the film, particularly in light of those final scenes, eventually fall into place. Roeg's film is often noted for three standout sequences: 1) the opening pre-credit tableau, in which a scene of drab domestic existence is literally cross-cut with the death of the couple's youngest child; 2) the sex scene, which is not only exhilarating in the sense of the two characters uniting through the burden of grief, but in the sense of showing a scene of genuine passion that seems tender and true; and finally 3) the shocking revelation of the penultimate scene and the various questions that it raises. As amazing and compelling as these sequences are - and as a testament to the greatness of Roeg's direction and the central performances of Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie - there is much more to the film than these sequences alone.
The film works because the characters are believable; we recognise the situation and how the spectre of loss and grief hangs above these protagonists, creating tension, anxiety and often animosity. As the film progresses, the relationship between John and Laura becomes as central as the growing supernatural elements, illustrating once again that this is a very grown up (horror) film about grown up people. It is rare to see this level of emotional complexity and maturity in film, horror or otherwise, with these two very normal, very unassuming middle-aged characters coming together in one of cinema's most infamous and mostly celebrated expressions of tenderness and passion, as they explore one another's bodies and eventually learn how to continue on in life (as a couple). Again, these are themes that may be missed by a less mature audience (it has little to do with age and a lot to do with attitude) who will be unable or unwilling to engage with the film on this kind of highly personal, sometimes uncomfortable, but always fascinating level.