Architecture Gone Awry in the Film “Don’t Look Now”

(First of all, if you haven’t seen this movie yet, you better watch it before reading this or I will ruin it for you.)

Just what is this movie saying about the life of an architect? Architects who are too wrapped up in their work eventually are eaten alive by it. After barely surviving my first semester of school, I can believe it. It is the architecture that entangles Donald Sutherland’s character, John, and brings about his demise in Nicolas Roeg’s film, “Don’t Look Now.”

The story begins with the devastating death of John’s daughter, Christine. John is warned by seeing a blood-like liquid on a slide of a church he plans to restore in Venice (an omen that also foretells his own death).

After Christine’s death, workaholic John and his wife Laura try to get on with their lives and go to Venice so that he can work on the church. The idea of church functions on many levels. John himself is representative of a failed John the Baptist. His daughter Christine is his Christ, only instead of baptizing her, he pulls her out of the water dead. The John the Baptist analogy continues as he travels to Venice, city of water, and ultimately as he is beheaded by the midget murderer, the anti-Christine.

But back to the architecture: John moves from his country house to the narrow, snaking, mysterious streets of Venice—a city that is completely architecture on water, giving him a constant reminder of the drowning death of his daughter. Water is eroding the buildings and the city is sinking, which of course can only get worse with global warming and the melting of the glaciers. Architect Carlo Scarpa worked with the Venice landscape in an interesting way. Instead of taking a defensive approach and building up the structure of the Querini Stampalia Foundation to protect it, he designed water channels into the bottom level so that the water was free to circulate from outside to inside – which still seems like a radical idea in contemporary architecture today. Similar to Sutherland in the movie, Scarpa would also suffer a serious fall, but I digress…

Sutherland’s problem is that he is too wrapped up in his work and the small details of restoration that he ignores the big picture and all the sinister signs. He almost dies once while on scaffolding while he is examining tiny mosaic tiles, trying to piece together a picture of Christ (Christine). He then sees a vision of his wife on a funeral boat—which is destined to happen in a later scene. Time is not fixed and he moves backwards and forwards with no control.

The city was ominous from the start—all the people seem to have a dark side from the witch sisters to the priest with the single leather glove. The labyrinthian streets are dark and deserted and there is a murderer on the loose. The blind soothsayer warns him and he knows himself that Venice will bring about his downfall, but he is too caught up in his work and refuses to accept the world that exists beyond the rational.

Venice seems to be often used as an archetypal city—it is also the setting for “Death in Venice,” another movie in which the hero is also lured to his death by the image of a child. In “Don’t Look Now,” Venice is treated as a city that is unhealthy to architecture because of the acidic air. Whenever air (wind) is represented in the movie, something evil occurs (eg, Christine’s brother loses the air in his bike tire when she dies, and the wind blows something into Wendy’s eye in the restaurant, causing the sisters to meet Laura). 

In the final scene, the winding, empty streets swallow John up. He is engulfed in architecture. He is stuck in the past—which is represented by the restoration work he is doing, by his move to the old city of Venice and by his chase after his dead daughter. In focusing on the past, he ignores the signs of the future. John’s fate is sealed when he closes the gates behind him and corners the anti-Christ(ine) in the dead end of a building.

I wrote most of this article a few years ago, and have since had the chance to make a pilgrimage to Venice and visit a few sites in this movie. This film grew on me over the years, especially with my experience in the architecture industry. I’ll be writing another semi-related blog soon on violence in architecture.

Many of my thoughts grew out of the analysis Professor Carl Ruck did of this film in my mythology and film course as an undergrad. I could never look at films the same way after this class. Anyone who can relate Dirty Harry films to Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung’s theories gets an A+ in my book.

The city was just as haunting, decaying and beautiful as the movie portrayed. I was able to find the hotel and the church that was being restored in the film. I was dying to get a picture inside the church and so we waited outside until a mass was over to be polite. We went in as everyone was going out, but the priest on the altar seriously glared us down, seeming to know our agenda and not liking it. So much so in fact that he seemed evil, very similar to the priest in the movie. We were very intimidated and left. I guess they must get that a lot.

The other interesting story related to this film was that we tried to find the scene where Donald Sutherland got cornered by the midget, but the streets were so winding, confusing and unlabelled that we had to eventually give up. And I’m a pretty tenacious vacationer, but maybe it’s better that we never reached our final destination.


About Meghan Dufresne

Meghan R. Dufresne, LEED AP is an architectural designer and writer based in Boston. Interests include sustainability, gardens, art, sound, touch, experience, and merging buildings with the surrounding landscape.
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