Alamy It is red: In director Nicolas Roeg's movie classic of the English supernatural, Don't Look Now trailer , based on the short story by Daphne du Maurier , this mac is what she is wearing when she drowns in the pond of her parents' English country home.
Her art historian father, John, later takes his grieving wife Laura away for a healing trip to Venice of all the ironic waterlogged places , having accepted a commission to restore a church building. There, two strange, elderly ladies persuade his wife that their daughter, Christine, is speaking to them from beyond the grave, and John sees the red plastic mac flickering by the dark canals, as its tiny wearer rushes and scampers by the water's edge.
It is a revelation that comes at the same time as the miraculous revival of their sex life. Their daughter has come back, haunting the dark alleys and echoing waterways of Venice, with a message. Is it a message of forgiveness, of love — or a terrible warning? All too late, John then discovers a second garment, a bizarre red coat, apparently woollen, like Paddington Bear's duffel coat, being worn by a wizened female-dwarf serial killer who has been terrorising Venice with a string of murders.
She claims her final victim, slashing him with a kitchen knife, having first shaken her head enigmatically at him, and us — no, she is saying, you have misunderstood. The red coat symbolises the tonal ambiguity, or superimposition of the erotic and the uncanny. Pathos and grief become fear and horror, overlaid with an insistent sensual charge.
The figure in the red coat is both agonisingly vulnerable and menacing, and only in the final moments do we understand that combination. The death of John and Laura's daughter is the climax of one of the most disturbing sequences in British cinema. After a leisurely weekend lunch, we see uncollected crockery, cutlery and a wisp of cigarette smoke from an ashtray. The little girl is outside, messing around, playing with a toy soldier, a sort of Action Man with a recorded voice; but for some reason, the recorded voice is not a macho male warrior's but a woman's.
Her brother is riding his bicycle. Christine is also playing with a ball, white with a red pattern in the style of Escher, which makes the ball's shape appear to undulate as it rolls along — another touch that subliminally discombobulates the viewer. Then there is that red mac. Why on earth is this girl wearing a rainproof mac on a fine, warm summer afternoon? Evidently, she is very attached to it, though a waterproof garment is the most ironically wrong thing to be wearing.
Roeg once told me that he had extensively rehearsed this scene with the girl's father present, but with her wearing a swimming costume. When the time came, however, to shoot the scene for real, and the child was fully clothed in the famous mac, the parent simply couldn't stop himself rushing forward and trying to grab his daughter out of the water. Wearing clothes was what made this moment so painful, so transgressive. And how exactly does she drown? Common sense would suggest face down, grabbing for the lost ball, attempting to swim, scrabbling, desperately floundering.
In a later image we see Christine sinking face up, like Millais's portrait of Ophelia, her face receding like a memory in the depths. Shakespeare's Ophelia is committing a sort of semi-intentional suicide, while Christine's death is a terrible accident, and yet the staging here implies something willed — a grotesque, parodic christening ceremony which is a sinister symbol or prophecy of another death still to come.
Christine's mother and father are played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, and their relationship is the most authentic portrait of a marriage that I think I have ever seen in any film. Watching the movie it is easy to believe that the actors are in fact married, and Roeg's portrait of Venice, with its intelligent, non-tourist locations, is a real vision of a real, working city. And, of course, it is in Venice that John and Laura have sex for the first time since their daughter's death, perhaps the best, tenderest, if not precisely the most real sex scene in cinema history.
Famously, Roeg constructs a sequence in which their love-making is interspersed with their getting dressed again and preparing to go out to dinner.
Generally, sex scenes in the movies are between couples who are having sex for the first time. This shows a couple having sex for the nth time — having married sex in fact. And it is the disappearance and reappearance of clothing that is so startling: Roeg even shows the man post-coitally zipping himself up: Don't Look Now is drenched with sex and displaced sexual longing, given a dark eroticism by the shadow of death. Roeg and his screenwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant made important changes to the original short story: When John sees a vision of Laura in his own future funeral procession in Venice, after she has left for England, it is this red coat that stands out.
Sex and fear are embedded deeply within the film's DNA in ways that even the movie's biggest fans perhaps might not quite grasp. For Daphne du Maurier, "Venetian" was her private word for lesbian, and she herself had a lifelong struggle to come to terms with her own homosexuality, never far from the surface.
Furthermore, "going to Venice" was her private code for having a lesbian sexual adventure. Crucially, Du Maurier herself, long before this story was written, went to Venice to get over the death of someone dear to her — her lover Gertrude Lawrence — and it may have been on this visit although she made a number of literal visits to Venice that she herself mistook a dwarf for a child.
Denial and fear and excitement are transformed, in this story, into a tale of supernatural longing and horror. The movie shimmers with Du Maurier's ghost, and the ghosts of other stories and other connections: In Don't Look Now, Roeg is careful to exclude, as much as possible, the colour red from his screen, so that Christine's red mac becomes even more starkly visible.
In fact, there is one important moment where he permits another red garment to be visible: It is the cardinal who oversees John's restoration work on the church, an apparently kindly, worldly, enigmatic man who senses some unnamable catastrophe is approaching but can do nothing but pray. The church, like the police, are ambiguous figures of authority, at best watchfully neutral in the calamity that John is facing.
The colour red has its own history in Venice. In the 16th century, Jews were forced to wear red as a distinguishing mark, a law changed to yellow when it became clear that it made them too much like cardinals. John's agonised glimpses of Christine's red coat has another literary echo: Director Roeg, his writers Scott and Bryant and, perhaps most importantly, his costume designer, Marit Allen — who went on to work on Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut and Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain — created a shape-shifting garment in that sinister red item.
In its two guises, the child's mac and the serial killer's coat, it exemplifies Joyce's two faces of tragedy, pity and terror, the one showing us the effects of our unhappy condition, the other showing its source. The child has died, but the horror of the situation isn't that we are left grievingly alive but that we must join her, and sooner than we think. The red coat conceals someone terrible, a non-child, an anti-cherub of mortality, grinningly shaking her head as she slashes our throat.
The awful truth about what's in store for all of us is stripped naked at last.