2019 Film Essays

A Bright Shadow: The Color Red in Nicolas Roeg’s ‘Don’t Look Now’

The use of color for symbolic or emotional reasons can be a powerful narrative device in cinema. Contemporary film artists like Todd Haynes, Jane Campion, M. Night Shyamalan and Wes Anderson, and television storytellers like Alan Ball and Matthew Weiner, among others, are particularly known for their sophisticated use of color to denote mood, plot points, character motivation or other meanings. But one contemporary master who set the ball rolling, so to speak, was Nicolas Roeg with his stunning use of the color red in Don’t Look Now. In this visually gorgeous film — shot on location in Hertfordshire, England and Venice, Italy — the color red is a recurring visual motif. Red as warning, as love, as danger, as violence, as prophecy, as passion, as occult mystery: all of these and more are conveyed in the director’s use of the color throughout this story of loss, grief and obsession.

Before delving into the color’s presence in Roeg’s film, it’s worth noting its significance in films made before 1973. The Golden Age of Hollywood lives on as a halcyon period of achievement in part because of what color technology made possible. Technicolor eventually became the keystone, making bright color a standard feature in costume, set and lighting design. Some of the most thrilling American films feature the color red prominently: Gone with the Wind, The Red Shoes, The Wizard of Oz (those ruby slippers were symbolic of feminine power), An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain and many others. European directors began emulating the Hollywood love affair with color in films like Belle du Jour, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Fellini Satyricon, Blow Up, etc. These opulent films eventually gave way to more realistic looking films in the 1970s, but color grandiosity lived on in experimental films, too. 

Roeg’s experimental spirit was both narrative and visual, with story elements conveyed by gestures, landmarks, objects, facial expressions: think of Walkabout and the spare verbal content within its spacious story. Set in the Australian outback, the film nonetheless has a very English feel, with two proper English schoolchildren at its center. With Don’t Look Now, Roeg’s second feature, he again sets English characters in a vivid, unfamiliar location: Venice. This sense of dislocation contributes greatly to the haunted, ethereal sensation that permeates both films. Where Walkabout’s use of color is naturalistic, Don’t Look Now’s color structure is intentional and intrinsic, using red as a powerful emblem of foreshadowing, linked to two sudden deaths that bookend the story.

Red signifies a number of meanings in cinema, often connected with sexuality, strong emotions such as love or anger, and danger. Roeg’s use of the color is consistently a beacon of warning, and a constant reminder of the main character’s fate. The first scene, set in the English countryside, shows Christine, a young girl playing outside in the rain with her young brother. Christine wears a shiny red plastic raincoat, and she plays with a red ball with white stripes. Inside the house, John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) are in their sitting room with a fire going. Laura looks through books trying to find the answer to a question her daughter had asked, and John works on preparations for an architectural restoration of a church in Venice. As John look at the slides of the church’s interior, a figure in a red hood appears in the pew, seen from behind. He spills his drink on the slides, and the water causes a red splotch to spread over the image. This is intercut with shots of Christine throwing her ball and watching as it lands in a small pond. Her brother fixes his bike and does not see his sister stumble into the deep water. John feels a sudden urge to go outside, and — when he does — he sees his son running towards the house and hears him crying out. John rushes to the pond and jumps in to save his daughter, but he is too late. He cradles her limp body in his arms, tries to resuscitate her, but ends up crying and moaning, captured by Roeg in slow motion so that John’s face is contorted, his voice a low, booming sound.

These two spots of red in the film’s opening sequence link two key events and two locations: Christine’s death by drowning in England, and John’s death by murder in Venice. The presence of water is also a powerful visual link: it’s a rainy day when Christine drowns, and one of the earliest shots is of a sheet of rain falling over a green meadow. And Venice is, of course, a city built on the water’s edge, traversed by canals. If one considers water as an elemental symbol, its presence in cinema can refer to a myriad things, including emotions, sex, death, the flow of time and detachment from worldly matters. Just as the pond is a locus of death in England, the canals in Venice are where the unapprehended murderer’s victims are found. The color red is present in both places, as if Christine’s ball floated there (indeed, in one scene, a young boy in a Venice hospital where Laura recovers from a fainting spell plays with an almost identical ball except that the red and white pattern is inverted).

But the connection of the color red to the events, characters and locations is not something that’s glaringly obvious as the film unfolds; it’s something an attentive viewer might catch on a second viewing, which is, of course, precisely how foreshadowing in cinematic storytelling is meant to work. Repeated viewings of Don’t Look Now show precisely how important this color is to the narrative as a whole, leading up to its gruesome and bloody finale. But interestingly, despite the intentionality of this design element, the color’s appearance seems to be natural and haphazard for much of the film. It is seen, for example, on walls and doors, in the clothing of passersby, or in the red glass candle holders in churches. The sight of the color red serves as a periodic warning to John that only reveals its full meaning in the final sequence: of the killer dressed in a red hooded coat, and of the violent demise that awaits him, if he doesn’t heed this warning. Heather, the psychic who sees Christine and believes she is warning John that he’s in danger while he stays in Venice, at one point wears a bright red dress, connecting her to the fateful trajectory of events as well.

In the chaotic final sequence, when Laura arrives back in Venice and looks for John (who had to vacate their hotel for the winter holiday), there is a sense of urgency and danger as they both run through the foggy streets at night. At one point, the scene cuts to the local bishop, who has met with John to discuss the church restoration, sitting bolt upright in his bed, as if awakened by a loud noise or a nightmare. His eye is drawn to the bright red glass candleholder on his nightstand, as if anyone in Venice connected to John is receiving the warning he is meant to heed. John sees the small hooded figure in red running through the streets also, recalling the image in the slides of the church pews, as well as a fleeting sighting at one of the murder scenes where police and residents were gathered. The movement of the figure is intercut with an upside-down shot of Christine’s red mackintosh reflected in water, suggesting that John mistakes the person for a child.

Laura arrives at the iron gate that John latched shut; unable to unlock it, she desperately reaches through and says “Darlings,” knowing unconsciously that John’s fate is connected to Christine’s just as Heather foresaw. When John meets his demise at the hands of the figure clad in red (not a child but a sinister-looking dwarf), his last moments of struggle are accompanied by a rapid sequence of shots from earlier in the film, an almost literal expression of his life flashing before his eyes. Red is seen throughout these images: Christine’s mackintosh, the ball, the splotch of red covering the slide that now looks like a bloodstain spreading and John’s lifeblood pouring from his slit throat. He seems to understand that the vision he had of his wife and the two sisters in a boat was his own funeral procession on the Grand Canal. Roeg shows the two barges coming to a stop — one with John’s coffin laden with red and pink roses — as Laura, her son Johnny (wearing a bright red cap) disembark and walk towards the church. Wendy and her sister Heather follow, and in a remarkable moment, Heather, who is blind, navigates the stone steps without aid of a railing or use of a cane, almost as if she has walked this way before. It’s a powerful image at the conclusion of this story, whose title and imagery have so much to do with seeing, and with timing, and with paying close attention.

Peg Aloi (@themediawitch) is a freelance film and TV critic, and teaches media studies in upstate NY. She’s written about film for Broadly, Film School Rejects, Polygon, the Orlando Weekly and the Arts Fuse, and was a longtime critic for the Boston Phoenix. She likes high quality horror, dreamy cinematography and characters who don’t know what the hell they’re doing.