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The Enigmatic Mermaid Brooch in Don't Look Now
Themes and Patterns
In 1973, film-maker Nicholas Roeg reworked Daphne du Maurier's novella Don't Look Now, into a feature-length movie, transposing the story from the 1930s into the 1970s. Ever since, it has intrigued cinema-goers with its interplay of themes and cross-references. The colour red plays a huge role; Christine's red mac and tights as she drowns and the boots that Laura wears as she walks around Venice. It is the colour of the candle in the bedroom of Bishop Alberto as he wakes from a nightmare while John hunts the red-cloaked figure who finally knives him to death. Red roses are heaped upon the gondola that carries John's coffin to the funeral mass. However, there are many more threads of reference running through this cinematic work of art.
Laura and John Baxter are the archetypal middle-class couple. He is a successful architect and restorer of old buildings; she his omnipresent helpmeet. At the opening of the film, they are living in a country house. One afternoon, John is looking over notes and images in preparation for a forthcoming assignment and Laura is reading a book. Their two children, Johnny and Christine, are playing outside near a pond. Everything is serene until suddenly, John gets up from his desk and rushes outside – and pulls a dead Christine from the water. Quick cut to Venice, where John is restoring the church of St Nicholas. At lunchtime, he goes to a restaurant where Laura is awaiting him. Two elderly ladies at a nearby table stare at them. One lady has a minor accident with her eye. John notices that she is wearing a “mermaid” brooch as she and her sister go into the bathroom. Laura follows to see if she can help.
In the restroom, Wendy – one of the pair – tells Laura that her sister Heather, who is both blind and psychic, has seen her dead daughter seated between herself and John at the table. Later, Laura faints and is taken to hospital. However, she is in high spirits afterwards. She insists on pulling John into a church where she lights a candle. Later, they meet Bishop Alberto who has commissioned the restoration of St Nicholas. He insists that they come and stay with him later that week. In their hotel suite that night, Laura is effervescent as the bubbles in champagne, teasing John about his weight. In one of the most sensual scenes in cinematic history, she and John make love. They go out to dinner and get lost on the way back.
Lost in Venice
“I never mind being lost in Venice,” declares Laura. Her good humour vanishes when she and John encounter a rat. Next day, John’s task is to hoist a restored statue into a niche in the church. The sackcloth he pulls off of it is stained with red paint – a reference to blood? Meanwhile, Laura has met the two ladies again. They have a long conversation where Laura persuades them to hold a séance. John is angry and refuses to go, so Laura goes alone. The séance is interspersed with shots of John looking for Laura. Though he finds the pension the sisters are staying in, he is mistaken for a peeping Tom and hurries away. He is running around, apparently lost, until he bumps into Laura. She accuses him of being drunk.
In their hotel room, Laura tells John that Christine told her through the psychic Heather that his life is in danger, that he must leave Venice - now. John is really angry. He does not believe in the supernatural and practically bullies Laura into taking her pills again – she has been on antidepressants. However, he does agree to take time off work but a nocturnal phone call disrupts their plans. The call is from Johnny’s boarding school headmaster to tell the couple that their son has had a minor accident, a fall. Though it is only four in the morning, Laura insists on leaving for England. She gets into a vaporetto boat and John waves her off.
A Near Fatality
John goes to work in the church where the new mosaic tessarae have arrived to mend the worn friezes. He volunteers to ascend the church wall in a builders' cradle, to compare the old mosaics with the new. Intent on the frieze, he fails to notice a falling beam and narrowly avoids being clobbered. However, the cradle is unbalanced and falls sideways, leaving John hanging on for his life. Eventually, he manages to grasp the rope that the workers swing in his direction.
Later, John and Bishop Alberto walk by the banks of a canal. John tells him of Laura’s premonition and the bishop hints that he, too, has such powers. In a scene of horror, they see the body of a young woman hoisted from the canal. John returns to the hotel where the owner tells him that it has closed for the winter. He packs his possessions, and rescues a battered photo of Laura from the waste bin. He is in a vaporetto on the Grand Canal, when he sees Laura and the two old ladies, dressed in black and in a boat going in the opposite direction.
The Deepening Mystery
John jumps ship and runs back to the hotel, but the owner insists he has not seen Laura. He says that the hotel is “closed”. As John wanders along the canal, he picks up an abandoned plastic doll and watches as water runs out of it. In the next scene, a police detective interviews him. John tells his story, trying to downplay the more “supernatural” instances, but is unable to avoid them completely. The detective persuades John to make another effort to find the pension where the sisters are staying. While speaking, he look questioningly at the battered photo of Laura that John has given him. As he leaves, the detective phones a “watch” and tells the man to follow John. Unaware he is being followed, John trails along the canal banks, following a red-cloaked figure at one instance. Quite suddenly, he happens upon the pension, but the old ladies have gone. The watch then makes himself known, describing himself as from the murder squad, to a horrified John.
A City in Aspic
In Alberto’s palace, John phones the boarding school. The master’s wife tells him that Johnny is fine – and hands him over to Laura. She tells him that she will be back that night. In the police station, John finds Heather, who has been detained. She tells him that Wendy has gone to the British consul to get the confusion sorted out. John apologises profusely and takes her back to her new lodgings. On the way, she tells John that she loves Venice, easy to walk around because the changing echoes inform her where she is going. However, she also tells him that Wendy hates it, describing it as a city in aspic, like a leftover from a dinner party with all the guests dead and gone. At their lodgings, an angry Wendy is awaiting them. John apologises again and Wendy offers him a drink.
While drinking, John takes notice of their collection of photographs. He also picks up and looks at the mermaid brooch he saw Wendy wearing on the day they met in the restaurant. Meanwhile, Laura has landed back in Venice. In her vaporetto, she becomes agitated because the guide isn’t travelling towards Alberto’s palace. The guide tells her that she is being taken to the police station. Naturally, John is gone when she arrives. The chief of police apologises and gives her the new address of the sisters. Filled with joy, she begins running through the streets. However, John is already leaving the pension. As he does so, Heather becomes very agitated and insists that he comes back. Wendy tries to subdue her but she is forced to go running after John. She bumps into Laura. Together, they go running after John, but he is already lost in the maze of streets, chasing after the red-cloaked figure. Meanwhile, Alberto awakes from a nightmare, his attention focussed on the red nightlight near his bedside. John follows the cloaked figure into a church. He hears female sobbing and climbs a spiral staircase, following the sound.
The Mermaid Brooch
“I’m a friend,” he tells the red-cloaked figure. The figure turns around and John can see that it is not the apparition of his daughter, but a middle-aged dwarf. The figure approaches and slashes him with a knife. Red blood flows as he falls to the ground. The final splashes of red are the flowers on the funeral gondola as it arrives at the cathedral. We see Laura and the sisters once more, dressed in black.
The visual texture of the movie is so rich in references that it is impractical to discuss them all in one sitting; stretches of sun-dappled water, rain, broken glass, people falling, suspended bodies, constant identity confusion, lighted candles and the ubiquitous red. In fact, in every watching of the movie, I notice something that I didn’t notice before, some new enigma to grapple with. The latest viewing brought forth the enigma of the “mermaid” brooch that John dangles thoughtfully from his fingers before he leaves Wendy’s apartment – to his death. Heather has already told John that Wendy hates Venice. My surmise is that Wendy is afraid of drowning and wears the brooch as a charm against harm, since she doesn’t have her sister’s psychic powers or compensatory heightened hearing – what do readers think. I know I’ll watch this move again one day, and find another intriguing point of reference.
Don’t Look Now by Nicholas Roeg (1973)