Don’t Look Now / Performance

Performance: Dir: Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg; Cast: James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, Michèle Breton, Laraine Wickens; 1969; 105 mins
Don’t Look Now: Dir: Nicolas Roeg; based on story by Daphne du Maurier; Cast: Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania, Adelina Poerio; 1973; 110 mins

The Watershed was showing these two Nicolas Roeg films in a double bill as part of its retrospective season of classics, curated by Mark Cosgrove. My friend Helen Taylor, who was introducing Don’t Look Now, invited me to see both of them with her.

First up on the double bill was Performance: neither Helen nor I could remember when we had first seen it, but thought it was probably soon after its release in 1969, in other words a fair old time ago. I had forgotten the violence in it, or perhaps I should say the violence of James Fox and his pals in the London criminal underworld. Fox gunMy memories of the scenes, those dreamy, druggy, sexy scenes, in the Notting Hill house where Mick Jagger hangs out with Anita Pallenberg and the child/ woman Michèle Breton are more vivid. Perhaps back then I half-recognised the late 60s counter-cultural mise-en-scène (not that my experience of it was half as glamorous) whereas the casual brutality of London gangland could have been fiction for all I knew.

This time round I snoozed a bit during the dreamy scenes. They are actually quite boring. The whole film feels dated. It’s very blokey, both in that counter-cultural blokey way of the period, and also in its focus on Chas, the James Fox character, first in his – swiftly deteriorating – relationships with the petty criminals he hangs out with, and then in his relationship with Turner (Mick Jagger) in his basement pad.

michel B in bathThe two women fulfil a narrative function as primarily sexual beings. Indeed a large part of the Q&A after the screening was taken up by the retelling of the Mick-and-Anita did they/ didn’t they really do it? story, with added details of Keith Richards, then Anita Pallenberg’s boyfriend, waiting in a car outside the shoot, seething with jealous rage. Yet, despite that, I thought that both women exerted a commanding screen presence. Perhaps that comes from Roeg’s skill as a cinematographer/ director (on this film he is co-director with Donald Cammell). He coaxes from his performers performances that surprise us, and perhaps surprise them too. He also gets a great performance from Laraine Wickens, who plays the landlady’s small daughter Lorraine, a sturdy and sceptical inhabitant of the real world that Roeg gives us glimpses of on the screen: the squares and streets of 1960s Notting Hill in all their urban seediness.

My verdict: I can’t say I’d go out of my way to watch Performance another time.

 

daughterreflectBut Don’t Look Now: what a terrific film, endlessly watchable. Perhaps part of its success – the extraordinary atmosphere of dread it evokes, the melancholy beauty of the decaying city built on water – comes from Roeg’s affinity or sympathy with the atmosphere of the original Daphne du Maurier story. In her introduction Helen spoke of the close parallels between story and film, and suggested some of the things to look out for, such as the many ways in which Roeg draws our attention, with the camera lingering on windows, mirrors, watery reflections, on blooms of bright red against the grey, to what it might mean to look, to watch, to see. sisters mirrorThe title of both film and story, Helen reminded us, is taken from du Maurier’s opening line: ‘ “Don’t look now,’ John said to his wife, “but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.” ’ With its crumbling edifices, drip drip drip of water, and sudden surprising cul-de-sacs, end-of-season Venice is a sinister site of decay and death, a place of ‘polymorphous perversity’ as Helen put it, where things are not what they seem and anything can – and does – happen.on boat 2

Daphne du Maurier wrote the story, Helen told us, while she herself was suffering from troubled vision. When she saw Roeg’s finished film she loved it.

This time I found it as powerful as I ever did: moving and mysterious, with wonderful performances from Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie and from Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania as the sinister sisters. It was wonderful to see it again in the cinema.

We didn’t get out until 11 pm. I was a little nervous, but felt I must turn down Helen’s kind offer to come with me to where I’d left the car in an underground car park on the far side of Millennium Square. Millennium Square on a Friday night: the last place on earth, I realized, that a red-caped child-sized murderer would hang out. The chances are a drunk woman in a tight dress and high heels would fall on top of them and squash them flat, while screaming with laughter. But I know that I’ll continue to be haunted by many of the images in the film, just as I have been for the last forty-five years.

3 thoughts on “Don’t Look Now / Performance

  1. I also rewatched Performance once & thought what a load of tosh – was not in a cinema so never even got to the end. This makes me want to re-look at don’t look now , now

    Like

  2. Sarah’s analysis is spot on. Performance feels dated, self-regarding, horribly blokeish – and reminded me of how vulnerable and self-conscious I always felt as a very young woman around men of that kind (albeit in my case not film or rock stars). The women, as she says, were wonderful – but so marginalised or trivialised by the main male characters. What a disappointment. Interesting Jagger has done so little film work ever since. He looks great on screen, has such charisma, and surely could find scripts and directors to bring out the best in him.
    Don’t Look Now feels like the product of a completely different director (though it’s much more Roeg’s own, and Cammell perhaps dominated Performance?) What brilliant cinematography, subtle visual motifs, dramatic power, and fantastic performances. I think it’s interesting that critics and audiences have speculated ever since about whether Jagger and Pallenberg, Christie and Sutherland actually got it on onscreen in the two films. I believe Mark Sanderson, in his book about Don’t Look Now, thought such hints gave great publicity – as indeed they did, since people are still talking… A film-maker told me that Christie was at the time involved with Warren Beatty, who objected to his lover’s nude body being displayed. That sex scene, so cleverly intercut with dressing for dinner, is a reminder of the contexts within which sex happens, and how fleeting the act really is. In film it’s often seen as transcendent and out of time. Not here. Great film everyone should see, even if it makes you worried about dark car parks afterwards. It certainly affects everyone who visits Venice – impossible not to have those images in your head when you turn a dark corner and realise there’s nothing but water – and possibly something else – at the dead end…

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s