For those of you contemplating a summervacation abroad to the canals, restaurants, and sights of beautiful Venice, let me recommend two terrific films set in the Italian landmark that you’ll want to watch in advance.
One is an acknowledged masterpiece; the other, a minor gem that’s fallen into disregard. Be warned, however: either or both might also make you think about a different locale for summer fun.
Four years ago, Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now was selected by a panel of that country’s industry experts as the single best English movie ever made. (Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) – with Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles – came in second). Just released in a spectacular Blu-ray edition by the Criterion Collection, Roeg’s masterpiece has never looked better.
Based on a tale by Daphne du Maurier (who also wrote the story on which Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds was based), Don’t Look Now is a complex, psychological thriller dealing with grief, love, murder, and clairvoyance. John and Laura (Donald Sutherland, pictured; and Julie Christie), whose young daughter has died in a tragic accident right at the beginning of the film, relocate to Venice, where John is employed restoring one of the city’s many churches.
They cross paths with a pair of middle-aged sisters, one of whom is blind but claims to be gifted with “second sight.” Laura falls under their spell, assured of her dead daughter’s abiding presence, while John remains aloof and skeptical.
Meanwhile, a serial murderer is on the loose, and John is warned by the clairvoyant that his life is in danger. Despite his wife’s fears, he refuses to be cowed by superstition. And then he begins to see in the shadows a small, furtive figure dressed in a red slicker, just like the one his daughter was wearing when she drowned.
Roeg’s films have always been visually stunning, and Don’t Look Now is no exception. Prior to directing, he was a cinematographer responsible for the striking look of such movies as Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death and François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. His subsequent approach to telling a story himself (as in Walkabout and The Man Who Fell to Earth) has almost always been elliptical, relying more on the camera and creative editing than straightforward dialogue and typical plot development.
The color red in Don’t Look Now, for instance, is frequently associated with watery images of various types and becomes one of the film’s dominant motifs. “Seeing is believing,” as John says at one point.
Photography and cinematography play major roles as well in Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers (1990). Based on an early novel by Ian McEwan (Atonement), the story deals with a couple, Colin and Mary (Rupert Everett, Natasha Richardson), who stumble upon the unexpected while on vacation in Venice.
Lost one night, they are rescued and befriended by a strange man (Christopher Walken) and his equally unusual wife (Helen Mirren). As it turns out, the comfort of strangers might be anything but comforting.
Like Schrader’s other films (Hardcore,Auto Focus, and Cat People), The Comfort of Strangers yields an unsettling mix of sex, obsession, and violence, thanks in large part to an incisive and intelligent script by Harold Pinter that’s remarkably faithful to the novel.
As with Don’t Look Now, I doubt you’ll anticipate the ending.