A friend of mine told me I might like this, and he was right! This is a film that's hard to describe-it's not really a ghost story, there's no murder or crime-it's just kind of a macabre supernatural mystery. It leaves you with a lot of questions, and at the same time makes a kind of psychological and symbolic sense, if not literal sense.
The movie starts with John and Laura Baxter [Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie] inside as their daughter [in a bright red raincoat] plays outside. The tone of the film is off-kilter from the first frame, and the symbolic imagery piles up quickly. It goes over the top early and often, but I much prefer that to being too literal and staid. So as the daughter in the red slicker falls in the pond, Sutherland spills a drink on a picture of the red slicker in a church, and the red color runs. and he psychically knows that something bad has happened to his daughter. He runs outside while his wife just sits around lazily doing nothing. which will be interesting later, as we learn that Laura secretly blames John for the death. Sutherland does some incredibly hammy work in this first scene, and the tone of the film is with him all the way. This is a film that does not know the meaning of "over the top." And that is just fine with me.
Anyway, so the two of them go to Venice, where John seems to have a job restoring churches. They soon run into two women, one of whom is psychic, who gets Laura alone and tells her she has "seen" her daughter. Laura believes them, which John is none too pleased about, but soon it's he who is beginning to believe that the daughter is trying to contact them in some way. I'm not going to tell you more, because it's really better not to know. And also-I really can't make enough sense out of this movie to really describe what happens anyway. I seriously lay in bed last night trying to figure it out, and could not. I'm not sure it makes sense in a, you know, sense-making way, but it does hang together symbolically, so that things seem "right" at the end, even though there may be no logical reason for them.
The main story here is Roeg's style. I was not surprised to find that this is the man who went on to direct The Man Who Fell To Earth! The film is very expressionistic, using color a great deal to draw connections [especially that red], as well as very creative editing to throw things off balance and make associations. For example, the infamous sex scene, which features porno-style copulation [without any visible genitalia], is intercut with Laura getting dressed by herself, and John making himself a drink and laying down in bed by himself, expressing the isolation they feel, even as they are closest together. I love that sort of thing, but after a while I began to wonder how well controlled the effects really were-witness the ending, in which just about everyone seems to be receiving psychic jolts-and how much was just winging it to make everything seem mysterious. It works, but it also gets wearisome.
This movie is based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier, who also wrote the stories that became Rebecca and The Birds, and is also scheduled to be remade for release in 2007. Tonally, this movie reminded me, oddly enough, of Ken Russell's Women in Love, mostly for its expressionistic use of color, symbolism, and editing. This movie is also remarkably similar to another movie, The Comfort of Strangers, based on a novel by Ian McEwan. So similar, in fact, that I would be quite sure that the Du Maurier story is a major influence on the McEwan novel. That movie also features a couple in a mysterious Venice [where they frequently get lost, as in this movie], simmering marital tensions, the intrusion of a stranger, and a shocking and very similar ending. They really are two bookend movies. They also both feature beautiful and lush scores, in this case by Pino Donaggio, who I love from Carrie, and in The Comfort of Strangers a gorgeous score by Angelo Badalementi. Hmmm. I'm going to have to watch Comfort of Strangers again now.
Anyway, even though this film flies way over the top and may not hold together as much as I would like, it is still fascinating viewing, truly suspenseful, and just all-round riveting. If you like your horror with more mystery, menace and atmosphere than the typical hatchet-to-the-face fare, then this is for you. It features fully fleshed-out characters, an intriguing directoral style, and lots of symbolism and associations for you to chew on. And all of that beats a sensible but routine film in my book any day.
THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH is Roeg's next movie after this, features his bizarrely associative directoral style, and wonderful performances by David Bowie [as an alien] and Rip Torn.
THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS is based on a novel that was obviously heavily based on either this novel [and or film, who knows]. If you love this movie, you should definitely check that one out.