Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic

So, last week I did a post on The Shining and this week I’d like to do a post on another iconic horror movie, namely Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 adaptation of Daphne de Maurier’s Don’t Look Now, which I watched for the first time a couple of months ago, and which made a deep impression on me as one of the most unsettling movies I’ve ever seen.

Don't Look Now

What fascinated me the most about this movie was the way scenes did not stand out to me while I was watching it. In that way it is different from any other horror movie I’ve seen, and as such I think it is somewhat problematic to even categorize the movie as “horror”. Contrary to most horror movies, that lend their strength largely from shock effect and whose plots consist of a building-up of a tension up until a certain point and then a release of that tension, there is such a singular flow in Don’t Look Now that blurrs the lines between past, present, and future.

The disruption of the timeline

And in a way that is much scarier than the trivial shock effect. It’s what we do all our lives; we seperate the present from the past and from the future, and thus we keep our own terminality at bay, I suppose. If we can count on a certain progression of events, generations passing generations, an order of things, a preceding b, then we are safe. Right from the beginning of this movie, however, this order gets mixed up: a child dies.

It’s remarkable, but probably not coincidental, that having children and the concept of parenthood plays such a predominant part in horror films. We are sickened when an alien bursts out John Hurt’s stomach in Alien like a perverted infant from a hellish caesarian section, we feel for Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist as she witnesses a kind of teenage rebellion gone wild through the demonic posession of her adolescent daughter, and there are at least half a dozen horror films out there that feature a woman suffering through the almost cancerous growth of a monstrous fetus and giving birth to a full-grown man. As much as we love our children, they’re the domineering little objects of our worst fears, and I guess nothing emphasizes the necessity of a predictable, steady progression of life as having children, which is of course why the idea of the death of a child is so scary to us; it disrupts our view of life as a straight line headed towards eternity, it brings us face to face with our own mortality.

It’s this face-to-faceness that constitutes Don’t Look Now I think, and it is within this mental space that main character John is trapped in the movie.

Restoration and the Sinking City

Of course it’s no coincidence that it is main character John who gets trapped this way. While his wife Laura remains open to the idea of a coexistence of life and death, listening to the psychic women’s claim that they have had apparitions of their deceased daughter, John seems to have problems with such a juxtaposition. He is a restorer by profession, his job is to restore that which is falling apart, to deny, in a way, the decay or mortality of the world, and it is ironic that John takes his wife with him to Venice while they’re struggling to recover after the loss of their daughter. Apart from being considered one of the most romantic sites and a popular destination for tourists, it’s difficult to find a city where the concepts of decay and mortality are more ubiquitous than in Venice. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice main character von Aschenbach roamed the streets of the city, admiring the statue-like plasticity of a young boy all the while falling apart himself like a rottening fruit, and scientists are still trying to determine how this sinking city, resting unsteadily on bone-like piles, may be secured from getting consumed by the water constituting it. It is this menacing aspect of Venice, rather than a romantic idea of the city, that is explored in Don’t Look Now.

John has accepted a job in Venice, and throughout the course of the movie, we see him labouring indefatigably at restoring the architecture of the city, often seemingly using his work as an excuse to escape from what he perceives as his wife’s unhealthy coming to terms with their daughter’s death, her willing acceptance of death as part of their lives. He is in other words desperately trying to master terminality, to force life upon something dead.

The aged child

But as Freud and, before him, the folkloristic tradition of ghost stories have taught us, it is that which we try to repress that comes to haunt us, and of course John is not successful. Far from restoring through his work the sense of his life as a straight line that was threatened when he lost his child, John works himself closer and closer towards a confrontation with his own mortality. There are no straight lines in Venice: what is supposed to be constructive work almost has John killed as his scaffold gives way during the restoration of a church, John loses his way in the crooked Venetian streets, and Time is equally crooked – John sees his own future mourners passing by him as if they were part of the present.

But John continually refuses to accept this presence of death in his life, and thus it makes sense that what ultimately kills him is the mysterious dwarf that he encounters in a blind alley. The dwarf shakes his head sadly at John as he kills him, because it incorporates exactly the distorted timeline that John has been trying to escape. What John meets is the very epitome of his fears; he believes it to be a child, but the creature turns around and reveals itself to be wrinkled and old, it is an aged child, it is death and life co-existing, and it kills John.

The sex appeal of the inorganic

One of the reasons why this movie interested me so much was that at the time when I watched it, I was working on a presentation for one of my university classes about Mario Perniola’s The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic. The idea that philosopher Perniola presents in this book is that idea that the process of reification that our culture initiated along with Industrialisation might find its ultimate accomplishment in a kind of reification of what is traditionally considered to constitute our closest relation to biology, the most compressed form of our own timeliness as mortal creatures (rise – climax – fall), as well as the very precondition of human life: sexual intercourse. Thus, with the reification of the sexual act, Perniola states, we conquer biology. We reach a kind of superhuman level where the borders between time and space, between our own and our counterpart’s flesh, between genders, between the animate and the inanimate are annulled and we break free from timelieness.

This came to my mind while watching Don’t Look Now not because I saw in this movie a dramatization of Perniola’s idea, but because I saw in the movie the exact opposite of it, and in fact I think the movie helped me a great deal to understand what Perniola is trying to express in his extremely difficult and rather evasive book. The timeliness, the relation to biology that Roeg’s movie depicts is exactly what Perniola states that we might escape through a reification of the sexual act.

Interestingly, the sex scene in Don’t Look Now is a good example of this. Probably in accordance with the idea of Venice as a honeymoon kind of destination, John and Laura indulge in sexual intercourse during their stay in the city. The sex scene is remarkable in as much as it’s placed centrally in the movie, it’s very graphic, and it goes on forever. I’ve heard this mentioned as the greatest sex scene ever in a movie, and I guess I can see what one would mean by that, although not as far as “most sensual”, “sexiest”, or “most exciting sex scene” goes. What I liked so much about it was the way it depicted the terminality of the sexual act. Through the juxtaposition of images, we see John and Laura getting dressed at the same time as we see them undressing, and seperating at the same time as we see them penetrating each other. For mortality is very real and omnipresent in their lives, whether they are willing to accept this or not, and their sexual act is theoretically ended as soon as it’s begun, because the rise of excitement between them only predicts a corresponding fall. Which is exactly why I would never think of the scene as a particular exciting one, and I don’t believe that it was meant to be, either. Unlike most cinematic depictions of sexual intercourse, the sensation that is emphasized in this movie is the decline, rather than the increase of excitement.

Thus in Don’t Look Now what we find, one might say, is an exploration of the sex appeal of the organic. It’s a study, not of an elevated superhuman level devoid of time, but of the opposite; the compressed form of the concete human condition to which we are bound by biology, and within which time and timeliness is the predominant factor. John strives to conquer as a mortal creature within the biologic realms of life, and thus he fails and is trapped in a blind alley, face to face with his own death, the geriatric within the child, the fall entombed within the rise of his excitement.

I actually kind of screwed up that presentation I was to give on The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic, nerves and awe at the complexity of Perniola’s idea preventing me from communicating exactly what I felt I’d learned from the book, but in terms of personal enrichment (as opposed to academic achievement and success) I really feel that the book has opened my eyes to some interesting ideas, as I hope the above will show. Don’t Look Now as well as The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic, whether one agrees with me or not that their opposition creates a kind of connection between the two, are very recommendable.



January 21, 2007. Films.

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