February 13, 2009

Don't Look Now, Donnie Darko, and unconscious symbolism

Symbolism may have the potential to be ultimately more affecting onscreen than in written literature, because visualised it draws closer to the real unconscious. If I write “Emma Bovary walked past a shelf stacked with paint, arsenic, and toothbrushes”, you can be damn sure you know what I’m doing. But if we watch such a detail, even though the filmmaker assuredly knows what he or she is doing, there’s always the element of doubt. Did I see that right? Am I interpreting that correctly?

Don’t Look Now is, as far as I know, alone among films as one which both uses this doubt and possibility of an unconscious thread, and toys with Jungian association.  John Baxter does not really believe that he is chasing his red mac-wearing, drowned daughter through the streets of Venice; he’s chasing the symbol of the mac, and everything it represents to him. He believes, quite instinctively, that he can save his daughter through her image- and one of the many terrifying aspects about the film’s climax is the realisation that most of us would react in the same way.

He did have ample warning; symbols are constantly lifted from the unconscious waters recalling the dead Christine. A murdered girl, pale and in virginal underwear, is lifted from the canal. A naked doll is lying on the dockside; when John lifts it, water streams from its pores and its eyes blink in imitation of life. What John fails to realise, because of, not in spite of, an unconscious belief in the congruity of these symbols, is that none of these images are echoes or reflections of Christine; they are mockeries of her, and pre-echoes of the final, monstrous mockery of the ‘child’ symbol.

The brilliance of the ending lies in the intense primality behind these symbols. (To underlie, also, why Don’t Look Now only suffers from being described as a ‘horror film’: I once asked someone what she thought of the ending; she replied, ‘Well, I knew it was going to be a scary face, so...’). We expect to see a child’s face. Instead...

Tears turn out to have been mocking laughter, and at the centre of his labyrinth John does not transubstantiate; instead, he meets a monster. When the villain shakes her head, we witness perhaps the most horrific moment in film history, because she is not simply, mutely, saying ‘No’ to John, but also to us.

It’s fascinating that audiences of Don’t Look Now have often ended up taking a Freudian reading of the film, suggesting (with the shaky logic that the spirit of Christine is not crying out to warn ‘John’, as she clearly is, but accusing him from beyond the grave) that John had abused his daughter before her death, and that the villain is a physical manifestation of Christine’s revenge. Never mind the fact that Christine, through the medium, screams, “Let him not go!” as John is about to set off on his final, fateful journey. This interpretation is almost a primal need for justice on two counts. Firstly, in a narrative sense, it makes the cruellest ending of almost any film seem fair and satisfying. Secondly, it turns the unfair universe of the film into the universe of John’s own unconscious association: Christine and the red mac figure were connected! There was a greater power at work here! All untrue, unfortunately, and while Christian metaphors abound (Christine, most obviously, the repair of an old church, the CoE psychic) they are all proven to be just another struggling force in the labyrinth. Christine is able to warn her father of danger but unable to prevent the ascendance of the god of this universe, whose name is Cruelty.

It must have been bizarre for the first audiences who watched Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man back to back as a double-bill. Both involve a man moving towards his own fatal, ironic destiny, but we’re always a little removed from Sergeant Neil Howie, a little amused by the pranks the pagan islanders play on him; and the burning wicker man is just the last, climactic prank in a series. But here the trickster is human; in Don’t Look Now, we see the trickster as Fate itself, not anthropomorphised in a cheap Loki-ish kind of way, but faceless, horrifying, and unstoppable.

Compare this to Donnie Darko, a film which clearly follows in Don’t Look Now’s footsteps. In the later film, however, the pattern is reversed into a more conventional effort. The symbols leading Donnie into his own labyrinth are not devils clad in angels’ raiments, but saintly future-beings disguised (for dubious reasons) as monsters. Like G.K. Chesterton’s Sunday, who, seen from behind is an animal, and from in front, a god, Frank the demonic rabbit is just a human being in a Hallowe’en costume, and in dying, Donnie seems to reach the divine. This is a film that believes in a Jungian centre.

In both cases, a shock climax is broken by shots of minor characters waking in horror from bad dreams. (I suspect Richard Kelly’s is a homage to Roeg’s). In the Roegian universe, a bishop wakes in terror, having had a glimpse of the malevolent superstructure John has seen full-face, and glances, as if for comfort’s sake, to a small red candle glowing by his bedside. In the Kellyian universe, the characters are horrified by echoes of their behaviour in the forgotten time strand. “When the Manipulated awaken from their Journey into the Tangent Universe, they are often haunted by the experience in their dreams. Many of them will not remember. Those who do remember the Journey are often overcome with profound remorse for the regretful actions buried within their Dreams”, as the Director’s Cut puts it. In other words, Donnie’s journey into the heart of the labyrinth has not simply saved him, but also the world around him.

Donnie Darko features, explicitly, the deus ex machina; Don’t Look Now a devil from the firmament. Both break down layers of visual symbolism until all that remains is the final great image of cinema: the eye- or, in the case of poor Frank, the eye socket. The play is on a question of visual symbolism and a terrifying existential doubt- what if we do witness these signs but we cannot interpret them correctly?

(Interestingly, both films, each totally inappropriate for the medium, have been made into plays. Donnie Darko is odd mainly for its reliance on CGI and cinematic setpieces- tracking shot, anyone?- and Don’t Look Now for its understanding of the unique relationship between the camera and the crowded space of Venice, a world in which nothing can be seen but a narrow box of space.)


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  1. Donkey Doctor

    I concur, Don’t Look Now is great because it pulls no cheap tricks. I also think that if you let the film take you on the journey intended, one not corrupted by the implications of genre, I happen to believe that at that final moment you don’t know what you expect, anything could happen. Strange as I also think it a film of fate, but maybe that is why it works, it captures the nature of the abstract concept….we know what is going to happen, but do we?

    16 Feb 2009, 20:14


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