Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Grief of Don't Look Now

I finally saw Don’t Look Now recently and while all the expected elements were there—the labyrinthine creepiness of Venice, the explicit sex scene, the arty take on the supernatural, plus the oddest use of a little person since Leprechaun—but what struck me is that the film is essentially about the absolute powerlessness you feel in the face of grief.

Donald Sutherland’s character’s visions of his daughter’s death right before it happens—through the blotch of red that appears on one of his church slides—and his inability to save her speak to the way you feel when you lose a loved one, particularly in an unexpected way. You torture yourself, thinking there must have been something you could have done to stop it, to save him or her. Sutherland’s visions are a metaphorical expression of this blame directed inward. Ultimately, this approach—blame, Sutherland’s visions—are a futile attempt to gain control over death, over tragedy, to believe that we can actually outsmart death. Julie Christie’s character takes another approach. Her acceptance of the blind woman’s claims that her daughter is, for all intents and purposes, in a better place essentially constitutes clinging to (or buying into) the notion that the death of her daughter is in the name of a higher purpose, that there is some sort of spiritual justice in the end (I’m not saying I don’t believe that. I can only say with great certainty and conviction that I don’t know).

Over the course of the film, Sutherland essentially becomes impotent in the face of this tragedy. His near-death experience in the church, his mistaken belief that his wife has been abducted—these are all an expression of the way that tragedy can take hold of you, can make you believe that doom is constantly around the corner. Ultimately, he is overpowered by death; his own death is foretold, but he can’t see it, he can’t do anything to stop it. He chases the mysterious figure in the red coat, believing it is his dead daughter, only to discover that it is a psychopathic little person and realizes the truth only when it is too late, right before she plunges a knife into his throat. His death, grisly and upsetting when taken merely on face value, mirrors the way that grief can seize you. In this way, his death reminds me of the end of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, when George Clooney chooses to remain on the planet with his visions of his dead girlfriend, essentially choosing suicide over letting go of his lost loved one. Both of these characters would rather cling to their pain in order to hold onto the memory of their lost loved ones. As a result, their grief overwhelms them, overpowers them. They choose death over getting on with living.