Home Entertainment: Don’t Look Now & Satyricon on Criterion

Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973) Sometimes a peculiar filmmaker stumbles onto subject matter so perfect for his or her specific gifts that they make a movie that towers above the rest of their career. Such is the case of Nicolas Roeg and his masterpiece Don’t Look Now. That’s not to say that every other title in the director’s filmography is garbage. Far from it, Roeg is quite possibly the most fascinating British filmmaker of his generation. However, most of Roeg’s feature length film experiments tend to be episodic and inconsistent by design, as if the director was trying to stretch himself to find his film until seconds before it ran through a projector for the first time and never quite got there.  That’s part of his appeal. However, in Don’t Look Now Roeg seemed to find a story that allowed him to simultaneously deliver a viscerally thrilling work of entertainment and a maddeningly complex stylistic experiment. It’s one of the great horror movies (even if it only qualifies as “horror” for lack of another appropriate genre classification) and one of the most influentially experimental movies of the 1970s. In fact, Don’t Look Now seems like a perfect entry for the Criterion Collection and look at that, it’s finally happened. Thank god.

Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie star as a happily married, successful, and intelligent couple (at least until the end of the startling first scene anyways). Tragedy strikes, a daughter is lost, a marriage falls into turmoil, and it seems as though Sutherland might have seen it all before it happened (or maybe it’s just one of Roeg’s beloved elliptical editing tricks, that’s the charm of the film). Cut to many months later when Sutherland and Christie have run off to Venice both to work on the restoration of a church and to try to rebuild their lives. Shortly after the movie picks up with this Venice adventure, Christie runs into a delightfully creepy pair of possibly psychic sisters who claim to see her dead daughter. Sutherland doesn’t care for such silliness, but Christie can’t help but follow her curiosity. Oh and there’s also a series of unsolved murders piling up around the city and Sutherland keeps seeing a mysterious tiny figure who looks just like his dead daughter running around alleys at night. Creepiness boils up from there, confusion mounts, and just when you think you know where it’s all heading, you find out that you’re wrong in one of the most brilliant jaw-drop twist endings in the history of that Shyamalanian device. 

The story comes from a short by Daphne Du Maurier, whose work also served as source material for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and The Birds, which should give you an idea of the kind of mysterious gothic shenanigans to expect. It’s a vaguely supernatural experience and also a tragically truthful portrayal of a damaged couple in turmoil. Sutherland and Christie have never been better, lending an air of heartbreaking naturalism to a film that easily could have been a genre goof. Much of that comes down to the film’s true star Nicolas Roeg, who is in command of every frame. He needles his leads to intensely vulnerable performances (especially during the infamous scene of sensuous rumpy-pumpy). Behind the camera, Roeg fills the film with his patented frantically moving camera and jittery editing. Here, those techniques mix with purpose, at times representing a subjectively fractured psyche and at other times being used to heighten set pieces into exquisite horror. Don’t Look Now is richly atmospheric and terrifying, all building to a finale as tragic as it is horrific. It’s a movie that worms its way under your skin to terrify you, while also forming a pretty profound portrait of grief and mature love. The film is a masterpiece, genre or otherwise. A text deserving of endless viewings and deep reading that also serves up a wild ride of entertainment. 

Don’t Look Now hits Blu-ray from Criterion in an absolute stunner of a disc. The film had previously been available on a British export Blu-ray, but this new transfer puts it to shame. Colors are rich, details are crisp, and the streets of Venice are evocatively terrifying. Yet, unlike the previous disc, Roeg’s distinctly soft brand of cinematography is also represented without detracting from the digitally enhanced details. The movie has never looked better and likely never will. The special feature section is also robust, porting over two excellent featurettes from previous discs and providing all new material as well. The big new edition is a fresh doc featuring Sutherland, Christie, screenwriter Allan Scott, and cinematographer Anthony Richmond in which the collaborators fondly recall all the familiar stories about the film’s production as well as surprising number of fresh insights. Even better is a forty minute chat with editor Graeme Clifford about the highly experimental work he did with Roeg piecing the feature together and revealing all sorts of tricks and techniques I’d never noticed before. Next up comes a 50-minute Q&A with Roeg following a 2003 screening of Don’t Look Now that surprisingly doesn’t repeat any of the material from the other features. Finally, a loveletter to the film appears via a pair of archival interviews with Steven Soderbergh and Danny Boyle discussing their love of the film that’s absolutely infectious. In short, this is one hell of a disc from Criterion for one hell of a film that couldn’t deserve it more. The company will release many more Blu-rays this year, but it’s hard to imagine there will be one better or more important than Don’t Look Now. Buy it immediately, even if you hate the movie. Perhaps you’ll finally see the truth.

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satyricon

Satyricon (Federico Fellini, 1969) Satyricon isn’t just a movie that Federico Fellini was destined to make, it’s a movie that he had to made. One of cinema’s purest surrealists, Fellini took an episodic, unfinished Roman novel and transformed it into a grand ode to hedonism caught somewhere between parody and nightmare. It’s not a film for which logic or reason applies. It’s a movie defined and elevated by sensation, a nasty vision intended more for emotional impact that intellectual unpacking. Of course, that hasn’t stopped film scholars and theorists from trying and indeed it’s loaded with more than enough potent images for a thousand doctoral dissertations. Yet above and beyond all of the baggage left to be unpacked, the film succeeds best through sheer style and spectacle. A hash peak into hell from a man with a seemingly limitless visual imagination for film. It’s a movie that demands to be seen by any self-respecting cinephile in the best possible technical presentation. All of which makes it an ideal candidate for Blu-ray treatment and thankfully not only has that finally happened, but the disc came from Criterion ensuring this sumptuous symphony of filth can tickle the eyeballs and brain in the best quality possible.

Describing the plot of the film is a thankless task. Though she meant it in purely negative terms, Pauline Kael probably summed it up best with the description, “For most of the time, one has the feeling of a camera following people walking along walls.” That’s not bad, because these collection of Roman reprobates certainly feel like insects scurrying about their dirty deeds to revel in excess and perversion of any and all forms. There are no stars and there’s not even really a narrative through line. Nine episodes unfold with loose connective tissue. Some faces reappear and some disappear almost instantly. Regardless, every face is evocative and every scene is rivetingly twisted. Sex, violence, and general ill behavior link it all, though rarely for any particular moral purpose. Yet, the movie is somehow never as dreary or punishingly portentous as that sounds. Fellini doesn’t do boring and he certainly doesn’t do pure misery. If anything, there’s too much going on here. A celebration of ancient roman excess and imagery that’s so overwhelmingly stylized and sensationalistic that you can never tear your eyes from the screen.

At the time of Satyricon’s production, Fellini was at the peak of his popularity and powers and it shows. To even mount a film based on this source material is a ludicrous suggestion that only a filmmaker granted absolute freedom would dare attempt. To do so on such a massive and wildly out of control scale takes a blank check and good faith from financers with little concern for the final results. And that, oddly, is perhaps the best reason to watch the film. Don’t go in trying to unpack meaning or expect any sort of conventional film style or structure. Dive in purely for the explosions of images and ideas executed on the grandest possible scale with the most exquisite possible artistry. Viewed through those eyes, Satyricon is a feast of cinematic sensation that can only be watched in slacked jawed awe, inspiring pretty well any emotion imaginable from elation and fascination to confusion, derision, laughter, and fear. It’s certainly a unique and remarkable achievement from the legendary Fellini, regardless of whether or not you even enjoy the final product. 

Unsurprisingly, Criterion pulled out all the stops to ensure the twisted picture has never looked better. Colors have never appeared more vibrant, the sets have never felt so vast or detailed, the graphic imagery has never been more disturbing or visceral, and the movie’s impact has never been stronger. Simply put, if you have even a remote interest in taking a peak at Satyricon, then it would be ludicrous to even consider watching another version of the film. The special feature section is also overflowing, kicking off with a unique audio commentary that’s actually a reading of Eileen Lanouette Hughe’s 1971 diary about the film’s production, providing a unique first hand account of all the madness (including a set visit from Roger Ebert). Next up comes an hour-long documentary about the Fellini that was produced while he was making Satyricon featuring plenty of on-set footage. Firsthand accounts continue with a handful of archival interviews with Fellini and his cinematographer. Freshly produced material pops up with a brand spanking new documentary featuring a pair of classics academics putting the source material into perspective as well as a brief interview with a Look magazine photographer who visited the set (along with her photos of course). Finally, there’s a digital archive of photos, posters, and marketing material from the Fellini vaults and a booklet that folds out into a poster. Whew! That’s one stacked disc filled with plenty of insights into the film and production, but you’ll likely still be scratching your head over Satyricon by the time you’ve finally fished through it all. Thankfully, in this case that’s not a bad thing. Fellini is director who made cinematic enigmas rather than narrative features and Satyricon is certainly one of his most mysterious creations. Definitely worth picking up for anyone with a taste for the beautifully bizarre.  .

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