It’s one of the most famous sex scenes in a mainstream film of its time, explicit enough to raise the possibility of an X-rating, and realistic enough to spark shocked whispers that the participants – two A-grade actors – might really have “done it”. In Nicolas Roeg’s eerie 1973 masterwork Don’t Look Now, Laura (Julie Christie) and John (Donald Sutherland) are in Venice, a few months after the tragic death of their little daughter. Understandably, their relationship has been frayed by grief, and now, finally, it looks like things may be coming back together. As they loll in bed, she tells him he has toothpaste on his mouth; she wipes it off, they move into tentative foreplay.
Then, in a montage lasting approximately four minutes, they have sex. But it isn’t anything like a glamorous, Vaseline-on-lens scene. It feels gritty, lived in. Christie and Sutherland are attractive people, but the bodies we see are imperfect (“Those lumps are coming back on the side of your waist,” she had told him when they were in the bathroom together a while earlier; he promptly went and stood on the weighing scale). As they writhe about in awkward positions, sucking on each other’s fingers and toes, their gestures and movements suggest both familiarity (they have been married many years) and trepidation (they are doing this after a long time, and the very act – however pleasurable – must carry a reminder of pain; this is also how the now-dead daughter was conceived). But the sense of renewal, and the hunger on display, are unquestionably erotic.
Though I first watched the film long ago, it was only recently that I read the Daphne Du Maurier short story it was (very faithfully) adapted from. It’s a fine, suspenseful, well-paced tale of grief and the supernatural, but see how fleeting the equivalent passage is: “Now, he thought afterwards, now at last is the moment to make love, and he went back into the bedroom, and she understood, and opened her arms and smiled. Such blessed relief after all those weeks of restraint.”
While the point being made is the same – two people picking up the pieces, rekindling intimacy – the effect is very different. On the face of it, the screen version is more elaborate (and explicit) than the page version. (Du Maurier was not the sort of author who would give her readers a long, graphic sex scene anyway.) But it’s equally true that what is clearly spelt out in those sentences – John’s yearning – has to be conjectured in the film through the traces of wary hopefulness in Sutherland’s eyes, and the subtle ways in which Christie responds.
Those who deem literature innately superior to cinema often cite the advantages the former has over the latter: while reading a book, you can exercise your imagination (or “direct” your own story) in a way that a movie, by showing you a specific version, won’t allow. There are many obvious responses to this, one of them being that the printed text, no matter how evocative, can’t show you a great actor giving a great performance, or a skilled cinematographer or editor using light and time, respectively, in ways that heighten a narrative’s emotional effect. RK Narayan may tell us, in his spare and elegant prose, that Raju was besotted by Rosie’s snake dance (“She stretched out her arm slightly and swayed it in imitation of the [cobra’s] movement; she swayed her whole body to the rhythm”), but he can’t convey everything that Waheeda Rehman’s performance or SD Burman’s music can. Which is simply a way of saying: these are two very different mediums and direct comparisons are silly.
Don’t Look Now does many notable things with its visual scheme. Take its vivid use of red as a marker (the daughter was wearing a bright red raincoat when she drowned), with the viewer’s eye always drawn straight to the colour. I was reminded of this again while watching Anurag Kashyap’s short film in the new anthology Ghost Stories. Such cinematic choices have no equivalent on paper – unless you count a graphic novel such as Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, which does something similar.
But returning to the sex scene, there is also the way in which it is rapidly cut with shots of Laura and John getting ready for dinner (something that happens after they have made love). This toying with chronology isn’t gimmickry for its own sake, it is thematically relevant to the central mystery of the film – which is encapsulated in a key image (a shot of Laura on a boat) that we see twice, at two separate points in time. The love scene is essential not just to our understanding of the characters and their emotions, but also as a suggestion of how the past, present and future are always informing each other.
[Earlier “Moments” columns are here]