Cultural Androgyny and Gendered Authorship in Don’t Look Now

by Coral Houtman

March 25, 2009


This article will examine gender identification and authorship in the film adaptation of Don’t Look Now. The short story and film adaptation question the nature of gender, positing a bisexuality where male and female co-exist within individuals, where sexual relationships are unfathomable, and where the world in which the characters exist is “mixed up”. I will argue that Don’t Look Now dramatises sexual difference as a dangerous division, pervasive both within nature and within the psyche, inherent in both men and women. However, I will also demonstrate that the act of adaptation by a male director within a patriarchal film industry, subtly alters the performance of sexual difference in the text. Whilst du Maurier’s novel embraces femininity as a positive quality, embracing instinct and common sense, the film figures it as negative and hostile, instead celebrating masculinity as rational and femininity as chaos.


And then the boy realised he had to grow up and not be a boy any longer, so he turned into a girl, and not an unattractive one at that, and the boy was locked in a box forever. D. du M. wrote her books, and had young men, and later a husband, and children, and a lover, and life was sometimes lovely and sometimes rather sad, but when she found Menabilly and lived in it alone, she opened up the box sometimes and let the phantom, who was neither girl nor boy but disembodied spirit, dance in the evening when there was no one to see..
Daphne Du Maurier (Forster 222)

While I was shooting Bad Timing, Art Garfunkel came up to me and said he realized he was really playing me. But I told him that was only part of it. I challenged him to decipher when I was wearing the trousers and when I was wearing the dress.
Nicholas Roeg (Lanza 131)

This article will examine how the ambiguity in relation to gender expressed above by Du Maurier and Roeg is manifest in Don’t Look Now. The short story and film adaptation question the nature of gender, positing a world where male and female co-exist within individuals in a bisexuality full of internal conflict, where sexual relationships are unfathomable, and where the world in which the characters exist is “mixed up”, a danger which both texts characterise as a mixture of male rationality and the female irrational. I will argue that Don’t Look Now dramatises sexual difference as a dangerous division, pervasive both within nature and within the psyche, inherent in both men and women. However, I will also demonstrate that the act of adaptation by a male director within a patriarchal film industry, subtly alters the performance of sexual difference and as a woman, Du Maurier actually dramatises story and characters differently from Roeg. By closely analysing the adaptation of  Don’t Look Now, I will show that Daphne du Maurier and Nicholas Roeg envisage their imagination as writers as being bisexual and able to inhabit both their female and male characters and Don’t Look Now (F & SS) demonstrates this imaginative inhabiting of the characters to a remarkable degree. Nevertheless, whilst du Maurier’s novel sees femininity as a positive quality, the film sees it as negative and hostile. Thus there is a correlation between the female gender of the novel’s author and the performance of sexual difference in the novel, and equally a correlation between the male director and predominantly male crew of the film and the film’s own performance of sexual difference which celebrates masculinity as rational and femininity as chaos.

In Don’t Look Now, both texts are united in their concern to portray the profound sense of loss which is produced upon the death of a child. In Don’t Look Now (F) the loss is expressed explicitly. The opening montage sequence where John and Laura lose their daughter shows John’s grief as time and space shattering: he cradles the small form of his drowned little girl in his arms over and over again in slow motion, as he brings her out of the water. As he stumbles and shouts in agony on the banks of the pond and tries in vain to resuscitate her, we see Laura emerging from behind French windows in order to witness the scene. The association of glass with Laura is pertinent. Her tight short scream of shock and grief is terminated by a cut to a power drill in Venice (a time cut to John and Laura’s Venice visit), explicitly directed by Roeg in order to show how Laura’s emotions are literally “cut off” by the death. In a slightly later scene, Laura is shown recovering in hospital with a glass screen between her and happy children playing in the ward next door, emphasising the inseparable barrier between Laura and her daughter, and perhaps also by association a glass barrier between Laura and John. However, the effect on John is even more devastating. His whole world is deformed, for him (as for his son riding his bike) glass has been shattered, blood which can’t be his but might be his son’s, mysteriously appears taking his daughter’s shape on a slide, his world is one of a frozen pond, where “nothing is what it seems”. The scene where John and Laura make love, intercut with them dressing afterwards, is suffused with the sadness of the afterwards moment, as if sex must by necessity lead to a moment of small death and a falling off of the union of two people into their intrinsic separateness. We even see their vulnerability - John’s nakedness beforehand when he is working, and Laura’s openness waiting for him whilst lying on the bed: their willingness to open up to each other, which fails when they clothe themselves. And yet, this intercutting of time, which is mirrored elsewhere in the film, is at its most condensed here, the time space is only a few minutes/hours, rather than days or months elsewhere, thus conveying the centrality of Laura and John’s relationship within the film, and to the theme of loss. The music (a variation of the child’s music at the beginning) plays through this scene, bleeding its sadness into the characters. When Laura leaves on the barge to visit her son, the filmed separation, at first through the glass windows of the barge and then slow matching tracking shots showing John and Laura getting progressively smaller, farther apart, and blocked by passing boats, seems almost caused by the music, echoing the child’s death, and the adults’ separation in their grief. Furthermore these two scenes are not shot from John’s point of view but are equally distributed in shot size and in power of gaze between John and Laura: in fact the parting scene finishes on a mid-shot of Laura, so we have access to her feelings in a story predominantly about John. We sense the loss of Christine, an equal loss for both John and Laura and one which threatens to come between them.

In the short story the sense of loss is diffused throughout the narrative. Because the story is primarily internally focalized through John (a type of narration which sees through the eyes of only one character and can express only their feelings)(Genette 189 - 211), we only get John’s opinion on Laura’s feelings about Christine, their daughter.

Her voice, for the first time since they had come away, took on the old bubbling quality he loved, and the worried frown between her brows had vanished. At last, he thought, at last she’s beginning to get over it. If I can keep this going, if we can pick up the familiar routine of jokes shared on holiday and the home, the ridiculous fantasies about people at other tables, or staying in the hotel, or wandering in art galleries and churches, then everything will fall into place, life will become as it was before, the wound will heal, she will forget. (du Maurier 20)

So, at the start of the story, Laura seems to be the one suffering from terrible grief. The narrator does not tell us anything about John’s feelings about Christine’s death, and this paralipsis - knowledge the narrator should deliver, but deliberately hides from the reader (Genette 195) - is a significant omission, where we can read more than one possibility. When John witnesses the small girl running along the canals in Venice, he is glad that Laura did not see the girl and projects on to Laura feelings of grief and helplessness. We could believe these are feelings he feels but is trying to disavow.

She had seen none of it, for which he felt unspeakably thankful. The sight of a child, a little girl, in what must have been near danger, her fear that the scene he had just witnessed was in some way a sequel to the alarming cry, might have had a disastrous effect on her overwrought nerves. (du Maurier 54)

How can Laura have come to the conclusion that the girl running was “in some way a sequel to the alarming cry” when she was not a witness to this moment? Also his action on following the “little girl” through sympathy, even at risk of the unknown, implies he had feelings for his daughter, which he is now projecting onto this “little girl”, a fear which is felt even in the tone of voice, the hesitancy of the narrator.

It could be coincidence, a child running from a drunken relative, and yet, and yet...His heart began thumping in his chest, instinct warning him to run himself, now, at once, back along the alley the way he had come - but what about the child? What was going to happen to the child? (du Maurier 54)

However, because John’s feelings for his child are not expressed directly, other clues show his attitude to the dead daughter to be somewhat conflicted and ambiguous. When his son, Johnny succumbs to what might be a life threatening illness, John’s immediate reaction is casual, he argues against returning home immediately, and his protestation that ‘he was as worried about Johnny as she was, though he wasn’t going to say so’ (du Maurier 29) reads like petulance. His lack of awareness of Johnny’s danger may be a replay of his reaction towards his daughter’s earlier illness, a sign of coldness. Or it may be disavowal, an inability to confront his overwhelming grief and fear at losing yet another child. However, what we do know about John’s feelings relate to his mortifying grief and loss when Laura leaves to look after Johnny at prep school.

...Laura had climbed down the steps into the launch and was standing amongst the crowd of passengers, waving her hand, her scarlet coat a gay patch of colour amongst the more sober suiting of her companions. The launch tooted again and moved away from the landing-stage, and he stood there watching it, a sense of immense loss filling his heart (my italics). Then he turned and walked away, back to the hotel, back to the hotel, the bright day all about him desolate, unseen. (du Maurier 29)

Note that Laura here is wearing the red coat. This means that the pixie coat of the dwarf is associated with Laura and therefore the dwarf in the short story is linked with both Laura and Christine, whereas in the film, the dwarf is connected only to John’s daughter. John’s overwhelming, unrequited love is for Laura. It could be that for John, Laura’s relationship with their daughter, both dead and alive is excluding and leaves no place for his love for Laura. When the doctor tells John that Laura will get over her loss, his reaction is one of exclusion, that Laura was never able to include Johnny and himself in her relationship with Christine, and in fact could narcissistically only love a helpless child who had not yet developed any individuality.

...‘I know’ John had said, ‘but the girl meant everything. She always did, right from the start, I don’t know why. I suppose it was the difference in age. A boy of school age, and a tough one at that, is someone in his own right. Not a baby of five. Laura literally adored her. Johnny and I were nowhere (my italics) (du Maurier 10).

Laura’s belief in Christine’s presence in the afterworld is necessarily irritating to John because as John cannot believe, he has no faith, he is excluded from a relationship of Laura and Christine even through death. Thus, John’s feelings towards Christine include the pangs of jealousy; Christine, not even seen yet as a person ‘in her own right’ comes between himself and Laura, taking Laura’s love.

In the film John does not appear to be jealous of Laura’s relationship with Christine (why should he be, he’s the one with the visible relationship with Christine: we have seen him trying desperately to revive her), although he is made to feel guilty about her death. Laura reproaches John

You were the one to say ‘Let the children play if they want to’. You were the one who let her go near the pond.

However, her belief that Christine is still alive mocks John’s sense of grief, so that John has to constantly remind her of the finality of Christine’s death, ‘Laura, your daughter is dead, dead, dead, dead, dead’ and in his tone of voice, and use of repetition, he expresses feelings which are left absent in the short story. However, the film’s dramatisation of John as guilty rather than jealous creates a blocked element in the narrative which then loses its significance. Laura’s relationship with her son seems now a meaningless left over from the short story. She rushes urgently to him, but when he appears to be better, she does not even say goodbye, or embrace him in order to return to John. The film needs Laura to return to Venice both to provide suspense for the last scenes - will she get to John in time, and also because the film, unlike the short story, is not totally focalized through John; we need to care about what happens to Laura both before and after John is killed. However, her failure to reach John, to embrace him whilst he is dying is the last of a series of failed embraces; she does not embrace the dying Christine, she does not embrace Johnny and now, she does not embrace John, demonstrating how far like the frozen pond she has become, and how much that embrace is needed by John, who dies a terrible and lonely death, and by Johnny, the next in the male line, who stands at the funeral with the same look of stiff-upper lipped repression that was responsible for John’s downfall.

Psychopathology in Don’t Look Now

Laura and John react in very different ways to their loss, both in the short story and in the film. In Don’t Look Now(SS) we can know nothing about Laura’s true feelings as her grief is filtered through John’s point of view. We nevertheless learn that John’s reactions throughout the story are those of paranoia and projection. In Don’t Look Now(F) Laura becomes an independent character; embodied by an actress - Julie Christie, and a character with an existence outside John’s focalization of her. The film portrays her response to her grieving as irrational, hysterical and repressed - she wishes to deny her daughter’s death and therefore chooses to belief Christine is alive as a ghost. This belief is dangerous and leads John to his death. John, however, is portrayed by the film’s narration as well-balanced, out of his depth, but nevertheless a victim of the irrational and the supernatural which kills him. The paranoia of the story is displaced in the film from John onto the body on the film, which I will argue, can be seen as displaying the symptoms of what I shall call ‘conversion hysteria’. John and Laura’s grief becomes manifest in the supernatural to which Laura looks for reassurance, but which dupes John, invading his body as his own dangerous and misleading hysteria. If John’s extra-sensory perception can thus be seen as a “symptom” of his grief, then his character, his psychopathology, has changed in the transition from short story to film, as has Laura’s. I will attempt to show how these changes might relate to sexual difference and the ways in which the texts portray men and women.

If we assume that John is stuck in his moment of loss, his Lacanian “mirror phase”, he is stuck in a recognition and mis-recognition of himself .

This [mirror] image is a fiction because it conceals, or freezes, the infant’s lack of motor co-ordination and the fragmentation of its drives. But it is salutary for the child, since it gives it the first sense of a coherent identity in which it can recognise itself. For Lacan, however, this is already a fantasy - the very image which places the child divides its identity into two. Furthermore, that moment only has meaning in relation to the presence and look of the mother who guarantees its reality for the child...she grants an image to the child, which her presence instantly deflects. Holding the child is, therefore, to be understood not only as a containing, but as a process of referring, which fractures the unity it seems to offer (Rose, 30).

In Don’t Look Now (SS) John’s imaginary identifications and fantasies centre around Laura, upon whom John depends to prop up his unstable ego. His paranoia and his projection are symptoms of a dependence on Laura in a dyad which excludes the rest of the world. He veers between his imaginary ability to be everything for Laura - to be able to rescue her from her grief at the beginning of the story when he tries to joke her out of her loss - and the sense of helplessness and despair he feels alone in Venice when he walks away from the departing Laura ‘back to the Hotel, the bright day all about him, desolate, unseen’(du Maurier 30). He thus mirrors the pre-Oedipal child who similarly veers between feelings of omnipotence and impotence.
In Don’t Look Now (SS) John’s grief, the loss of his daughter, is repressed. He doesn’t own up to his grief or his loss, and instead projects it outside himself, in paranoid fantasies, that lead to his death. The opening titles take on meaning in reflecting John’s paranoia.

Don’t Look Now,’ John said to his wife, ‘but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.’(du Maurier 7).

Don’t Look Now” means “don’t look, in case you get caught looking” and also “someone is looking at you intending harm”. Laura and John then play their game of guessing the secret lives of the “old girls” (related both to projection and also to creative writing - it would be interesting to speculate how far, for Du Maurier, creative writing was an act of alienation). However, John seems to take this game far more seriously than Laura, and continues it. When Laura seems to have disappeared to talk to the girls for a long time, John begins fantasising about them in a way that is both disturbed, and an odd reversal of what the true situation might be.

Laura, he thought, glancing at his watch, is being a hell of a time. Ten minutes at least. Something to tease her about, anyway. He began the plan to form the joke would take. How the old dolly had stripped to her smalls, suggesting that Laura should do likewise. And then the manager had burst in upon them both, exclaiming in horror, the reputation of the restaurant damaged, the hint that unpleasant consequences might follow unless...The whole exercise turning out to be a plant, and exercise in blackmail. He and Laura and the twins taken in a police launch back to Venice for questioning.’ (du Maurier 11)

But the arrest, the trip to the police station, all this happens to the twins because John makes it happen, when he reports the disappearance of his wife. Thus, the fears and projections of paranoia are visited on the paranoid: John wishes someone is out to get him, and they are (in the shape of the dwarf) but not in the way he thinks. The game, and John’s paranoid fantasies keep returning in a more horrifying form. After a moment in a church where John is unable to feel the comfort of faith that Laura feels when looking at an image of the Virgin Mary, John again has a paranoid moment, and projects his bad feelings onto the twins.

The twins were standing there, the blind one still holding on to her sister’s arm, her sightless eyes fixed firmly upon him. He felt himself held, unable to move, and an impending sense of doom, of tragedy, came upon him. His whole being sagged, as it were, in apathy, and he thought, ‘This is the end, there is no escape, no future.’ (du Maurier 11)

John later half believes that Laura has arranged to meet the sisters at a restaurant when this is plainly a coincidence, and it would be possible to see the vision of Laura on the Vaporetto as John’s descent from a neurotic paranoid disorder to full scale psychosis. (Unlike the film, where the vision of Laura on the funeral barge, although from John’s POV, is one we don’t question, in the short story we don’t share John’s vision and are able to question whether he really sees Laura at his funeral, or is hallucinating). His thoughts at this moment provoke even his realisation that he might be becoming paranoid.

A terrible foreboding nagged at him that somehow this was prearranged, that Laura had never intended to catch the aircraft, that last night in the restaurant she had made an assignation with the sisters. Oh God , he thought, that’s impossible, I’m going paranoiac....Yet why, why? No more likely the encounter at the airport was fortuitous, and for some incredible reason they had persuaded Laura not to board the aircraft, even prevented her from doing so, trotting out one of their psychic visions, that the aircraft would crash, that she must return with them to Venice.’ (du Maurier 36).

However, John’s paranoia and his projections are also tied to his “instinct”. He instinctively knows his way around Venice and relies on his “instinct” to find his way. At the end, John mistakes his powers of projection, completely unreliable and ultimately fatal, for his “intuition”, when he mistakenly believes that “the little girl” is in danger.

This is it, he thought, the fellow’s after her again, and with a flash of intuition he connected the two events, the child’s terror then and now, and the murders reported in the newspapers, supposedly the work of some madman (du Maurier 54).

The paranoid-schizoid position is described psychoanalytically as a failure of “the third term”,. i.e. a failure in the Oedipus complex and in the symbolic. Lacan is not exactly clear about what it is about the Oedipal crisis that fails in the case of paranoia - the Other/the “third term” becomes threatening, not as a structure but an imaginary and malevolent presence. What is a failure in the symbolic to accept castration and loss as part of oneself is also the failure to recognise failure and loss in the Other. The loss of a loved one, in John’s case, Christine, is however enough to precipitate a failure in the symbolic. If one’s loved ones and carers fail in their duty of care by dying, by leaving the bereaved abruptly and without consolation, then the symbolic ceases to become a defence against death, against the real. In the short story of Don’t Look Now, John’s projection onto the outside world of the hostility which he himself feels, demonstrates that the symbolic castration of the Oedipal moment carries an additional charge for him in the terror he feels around him when Christine dies.

In Don’t Look Now(F), the style of the film itself suggests the image of the “mirror phase” and the imaginary. The style “mirrors” John’s fragmentation and lack of focus, by representing the symptoms of John’s dis-ease in the mise en scène, whilst portraying John’s behaviour as free from the paranoia and dependence on Laura dramatised in the short story. In the short story the lacuna, John’s inability to understand his feelings leads to his death. His last words “Oh God, what a bloody silly way to die” implies a self-irony, and yet still a lack of knowledge, because it is John’s actions and thoughts that have led him to follow the dwarf, and put himself in jeopardy. In the film, this lack of knowledge, John’s imaginary set of identifications and fantasies is displaced onto the world of the film itself, where ‘nothing is what it seems’- where space and time are presented as fragmentary. Geoffey Nowell Smith argues that melodrama is like ‘conversion hysteria’ and that films display hysterical symptoms displaced from the plot or the characters onto the mise en scène.

The ‘return of the repressed’ takes place, not in conscious discourse, but displaced onto the body of the patient. In the melodrama, where there is always material which cannot be expressed in discourse or in the actions of the characters furthering the designs of the plot, a conversion can take place into the body of the text (Nowell-Smith, 70).

This hysterical mirroring of John’s fragmentations occurs not only in the rhyming opening montage scene (the book John has written and which Laura is reading is called “Towards a Fragmentation of Space”), but also in the bizarre framing: including the strange figure of the lavatory attendant when this person never figures in the narrative, framing and foregrounding the brooch of one of the sisters when we cannot make out what it is (it later turns out to be a mermaid, a potent symbol of a creature in love with death and lost to her earthly husband) and in moments of John’s greatest danger, montage which creates spatial confusion, with rapid shots of Venice, birds flying, flashes of running, of red, of shutters closing against him (note, loss again).

In 1954, when Lacan first turns to the Freudian concept of Verwerfung (translated as ‘repudiation’ in the Standard Edition) in his search for a specific mechanism for psychosis, it is not clear exactly what is repudiated; it can be castration that is repudiated, or speech itself (S1,53) or ‘the genital plane’ (S1,58). Lacan finds a solution to the problem at the end of 1957, when he proposes the idea that is the NAME-OF-THE-FATHER (a fundamental signifier) that is the object of foreclosure. (Evans 65)

That John cannot get past his loss and find a meaningful way of dealing with his grief places the world of language, of rationality (the language of the father) in jeopardy for him. In the short story, this grief is manifest in his imaginary, in his paranoid fantasies and his identifications. His hallucination - his sight of Laura on the Vaporetto can be seen as the return of his repressed grief in the real, but this single episode of John’s vision is ambiguous; the film marks it as uncanny, neither definitively supernatural nor natural. In the film, John’s “foreclosure” of the symbolic returns in the real of his symptoms of true second sight. He has second sight as his daughter dies; he spills his glass, sees the stain on the slide, and rushes out, but not in time to save her. He thus has second sight even at the beginning of the film but as an audience we are not sure whether this second sight is instituted by the death of his daughter, or whether the death merely brings a latent hysteria to expression. In either case, the trauma of Christine’s death can be seen to precipitate John’s hysterical symptoms as narratively significant to his behaviour. John’s hysteria may be part of his developmental psychic structure but it becomes foregrounded and active with the death of Christine.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, when Freud described the child’s game with the cotton reel, what he identified in that game was a process of pure repetition which revolved around the object as lost. Freud termed this the death drive (Evans 65).

If the imaginary response to trauma, to the real, is fantasy and identification, then the symbolic response to trauma is the death drive, which structures anxiety into repetition, a play of absence and presence. It is this symbolic response which is foregrounded in the film of Don’t Look Now. John’s game of “fort da” is very clear. Not only is the scene with the dwarf a replay of the death of Christine (including not only the red coat but also the way that the dwarf’s thrusts with the knife mirror Christine’s game of “fort da” with her ball) but throughout the film narrates John re-enacting this moment. He tries to find Laura when she is at the seance with the mysterious twins, but gets lost, knocks on the wrong door and is pursued in a threatening manner by a man in a red dressing gown. Similarly, John returns from having seen the image of a mourning Laura on the Vaporetto, and confronts the hotel manager, who waves a cut-throat razor at him, in exactly the way that Christine throws the ball, and the dwarf stabs him. John simply cannot recover from his moment of loss and the film is constantly replaying it.

Demand always ‘bears on something other than the satisfaction which it calls for’ (MP, p 80), and each time the demand of the child is answered by the satisfaction of its needs, so this ‘something other’ is relegated to the place of its original impossibility. Lacan terms this ‘desire’ (Evans 32).

In seeking the dwarf, John’s “desire” is seeking for the union with his daughter we have seen when he cradles the drowned girl in his arms at the beginning, in the shape of his daughter, outlined in blood on the slide, in the same shape inscribed on the map of Venice behind the Police Inspector’s desk. Since desire is impossible, perhaps it is in death that it can be satisfied (and indeed we do get a visual hint of this in the film, which at the moment of John’s death, flashes back through his life, and includes images of Christine both alive and dead).

Is it John’s hysteria or the film’s which is enacted in this repetition, this textual fort-da? John is certainly not aware of his repetitive behaviour, it is only the narration which emphasises repetition and death. The film enacts John’s repetition in another example of its stylistic hysteria, and by displacing it, depicts John as well-balanced, stable, the victim of forces outside himself. The short story dramatises John’s paranoia as responsible for his death, his projection of his feelings onto others, his instinct for danger disavowed and projected onto the dwarf he mistakes for a little girl. However, in the film, John is not psychopathologised. Instead the film narrates John as both innocent and psychologically well balanced: there is no critique of his behaviour, but he is shown to be deceived by the duplicity of his second sight, by the mistaken simple mindedness of Laura and by the blind woman. My understanding of the film in portraying John as suffering from hysteria is based on a psychoanalytic reading which the film itself does not make. The transformation of John’s paranoia in the short story to hysteria in the film is one which the film can be said to perform “unconsciously”.

The “difference” between John and Laura

Language and language difficulties are foregrounded in Don’t Look Now. Not only is there a difficulty for John and Laura of speaking emotionally, and finding words to speak their loss, but there is the literal difficulty of them finding their way around Venice, and around the alien language of Italian. Laura does not speak Italian at all, and John’s Italian completely lets him down when he has lost Laura. (The audience are alienated too, there are no subtitles). The Oedipal moment is thought to be where we first learn language and when we are in a situation where language fails us, perhaps we are thrown back into pre-Oedipal struggles in the real or the imaginary. It is in the struggle for language, that Laura reacts quite differently from John and where she finds some comfort that enables her to deal with her grief over Christine. Laura’s loss is as great as John’s if not greater. However, she accepts symbolic castration, her death instinct and learns to deal with her grief: she ‘becomes whole again’ by an act akin to that of the infant gaining language; she uses what she knows at some level is an illusion, to believe that Christine is happy in the afterlife. In the film, she even acknowledges that her belief that Christine is alive but elsewhere is not a true belief but a useful fiction.

Laura Christine is still with us.

John Christine is dead, Laura

Laura I know, I know that. I mean...those two old sisters, the reason they kept staring at us is they could see Christine. And she was laughing.

Nevertheless, it could well be asked, what is the difference between Laura’s substitution above, and John’s substitution of the dwarf for his child, except that John’s is more dangerous? Is she not as caught in the imaginary, an illusory world, as John? However, although Laura’s belief in Christine’s survival is strictly speaking an illusion, “imaginary” in the commonsense terminology of the word, her reaction is mature and accepting. Laura’s substitution is a tacit acknowledgment that Christine is no longer alive, whereas John’s refusal of grief and loss is a foreclosure. Unlike John, who unconsciously goes on looking for Christine, until he finds her, in death, Laura’s disavowal satisfies her, she can displace her desire. The symbolic nature of her belief is akin to language, and language is the tool with which we both express our needs, and enter a social world. Like a child who gives up their demand and learns to express desire through language, Laura gives up her unconscious demand for Christine so that she can desire her symbolically, as a desire she can displace. In his interpersonal relationships, John is autonomous and self-enclosed whilst Laura creates connections, shows her interdependence on other human beings. She, at least, makes contact with the twins and has some kind of two way relationship with them, whereas John seems totally isolated (the predominance of shots of him sitting in cafés drinking whisky). Thus, in Lacanian terms, Laura (at least in the short story) could be described as belonging in the symbolic - ‘the order of language’ whereas John is stuck in the imaginary - the state ‘of the ego and its identifications’.

In order to achieve symbolic relations the individual has to, according to Lacan, encounter and accept, the “third term” of the Oedipal drama, ‘The imaginary economy only has a meaning and we only have a relation to it in so far as it is inscribed in a symbolic order which imposes a ternary relation’(Lacan qtd. in Rose 38), which means that the subject has to recognise that the desire of the mother lies elsewhere, not only in love for the father (and vice-versa), but outside the mother/child dyad. It is in the resolution of the Oedipus complex that sexual difference becomes instituted, and for woman this is a more difficult process. Lacan says ‘In the psyche there is nothing by which the subject may situate himself as a male or female being’(Lacan qtd. in Evans 179). Gender is a symbolic function, not a biologically essential distinction between male and female. However, the satisfactory resolution of the Oedipus complex for a woman is very different from that of a man, because as she becomes instituted into the symbolic, the woman becomes defined only by negative terms, she becomes not a woman, but a “not-man”, an object of exchange for men, not a subject in her own right, the heroine of her own story.

How does the successful resolution of the Oedipus complex produce symbolic castration in both sexes, and yet a different subject/object position in relationship to language and culture by men and women? Lacan, in an extremely difficult argument, theorises the “phallus” in the three orders - real, imaginary, and symbolic, and argues that all three are implicated in the adoption of sexual difference and the establishment of the symbolic. The child at first imagines the mother, the site of plenitude as having an elusive something, the imaginary phallus the child desires. With the introduction of the “third term” (the father), the child sees that the mother does not give her full attention to them, but desires the father. The child seeks to ‘satisfy his/her desire by identifying with the phallus or the phallic mother’ (Evans 141). The introduction of the “third term”, i.e. the father, or other adults in the mother’s life, forces the child to give up the imaginary phallus.

What we meet as an accident in the child’s development is alone linked to the fact that the child does not find himself or herself alone in front of the mother, and that the phallus forbids the child the satisfaction of his or her own desire, which is the desire to be the exclusive desire of the mother (Lacan quoted in  Rose 38).

Children of both sexes thus have to give up the imaginary phallus, to become symbolically castrated. Thus the parents’ relationship is vital to the child to show that both parents are also symbolically castrated, that is they reciprocate their desire for each other - they show their vulnerability. However, this symbolic exchange is overlayed by the infant’s recognition of sexual difference. The child notices in the father his different genital organisation, his penis in the real, and through the Oedipus complex, recognises the phallus as symbolized by the penis. Since the mother does not have an equivalent symbol of femininity she is therefore “lacking”. As Lacan says, ‘strictly speaking there is no symbolization of woman’s sex as such...the phallus is a symbol to which there is no correspondent, no equivalent. It’s a matter of dissymmetry in the signifier’ (Evans 179). The boy child has a “phallus” and can thus enter the symbolic a speaking subject. However, the girl child, does not have a “phallus”, and if she enters the symbolic, it is either then in a position of symbolising that “lack” or by taking on a male position, entering language as a speaking male.

That the woman should be inscribed in an order of exchange of which she is the object, is what makes for the fundamentally conflictual, and, I would say, insoluble, character of her position: the symbolic order literally submits her, it transcends her....There is for her something insurmountable, something unacceptable, in the fact of being placed as an object in a symbolic order to which, at the same time, she is subjected just as much as the man (Lacan qtd. in Evans 179).

Lacan argues that as the result of the intolerable position of women in the symbolic, women partially refuse the entry into the symbolic.. Women do not completely submit to the Oedipus complex, they are “not-all”, and they have access to a specifically feminine jouissance which goes ‘beyond the phallus’. This jouissance - libidinal enjoyment - is a mystical quality, beyond sexuality, about which they know nothing. Thus, Lacan postulates that qualities which have been culturally coded as female - female intuition, empathy, instinct - are just this jouissance. These qualities cannot be rationalised in the world of the symbolic and are thus part of the beyond of the phallus to which women have access, because of their necessary partial disavowal of castration. Thus, Lacan, theorises a place for the real in the “instinct” of the woman. He thereby psychoanalytically locates the historically pervasive association of women with both instinct and madness/otherness, and shows how this jouissance beyond the symbolisable, is nevertheless culturally valorised as either feminine intuition, or demonised as feminine danger.

In Don’t Look Now, this jouissance - the real - is differently characterised in the film and the short story; in the short story as potentially benign feminine instinct, and in the film as extra-sensory perception which is definitely attributed to a feminine treachery. In the short story, it is valorised as Laura’s instinct, a feminine quality that John possesses as his possible second sight, but which he ignores or disavows to uphold a false rationality, a masculine paranoia. Thus, in the short story Laura, in accepting the vision of Christine in the afterlife, takes up the position of the symbolic, and is the character who accepts the loss of her daughter as an adult. Nevertheless, as a woman, Laura cannot completely accept Oedipal castration and completely adopt the position of object in the symbolic. Her instinct can be seen psychoanalytically as her partial disavowal of castration, her feminine jouissance, her “not-all” which is much truer than John’s rationality; she can’t find her way through Venice - the sense of direction which John claims for himself is traditionally coded as male, and yet he still gets lost - but she knows that the twins are fundamentally benign, and if John were to trust Laura and the twins, he would have put himself out of danger. John, instead, refuses his loss of his daughter, and refuses his instincts, which repressed, return as his dependence upon on Laura as guarantor of his survival, his paranoid ‘imaginary’ projections, which leads to death. The danger and treachery of John’s position is due to his over rationalist disavowal of Laura’s instincts, figured as feminine within the story, and to his disregard for his E.S.P which is figured as a feminine quality both within himself and without, in the world of the short story, which he ignores at his peril.

The film, however, reverses John and Laura’s reaction to the death of Christine. Laura’s belief in the existence of Christine is marked in the film, not as an act of symbolic acceptance, albeit one marked by disavowal (Laura knows very well that Christine is dead, as well as dreaming she is alive). Instead, Laura is caught in what the film characterises as an imaginary, illusory, and dangerous belief in Christine’s survival. It is Laura who is instituted in front of a mirror where she confronts an alienated image of herself, shown literally, when Laura is first talking to the twins in the Gents lavatory; the images of her are fractured, she is splintered into several images, creating incomplete eyelines between herself and the other characters, thus showing the difficulty of human contact. She no longer has what Lacan characterised as supplementary jouissance, she does not have the correct instincts to protect John or herself, but leads him into danger. Instead she manifests symptoms of hysteria herself as a refusal of castration and the symbolic - ‘Normal sexuality is, therefore strictly an ordering, one which the hysteric refuses (falls ill)’(Rose 28). The characterisation of Laura as hysterical does stem from the short story, but only as John’s rationalising and reductive opinion. In Don’t Look Now (SS) Â Laura is repeatedly described in relation to hysteria:- hysterically suppressing giggles, having “overwrought nerves”, or not having hysteria when John would expect her to (returning from first seeing the twins). However, what we know about Laura herself, does not indicate this. In a moment of “narrative paralepsis” (Genette 97) where the narrator gives us more information about Laura, and her feelings, than John can possibly know, even to the point of changing focalization to be momentarily in Laura’s point of view, we learn nothing more about Laura. She seems to be the archetypal non-speaking woman, the object of sexual difference. When John suggests that that the danger warning of the two women, and the arrival of the telegram telling of Johnny’s sickness is coincidence ‘Laura was convinced otherwise, but intuitively she knew it was best to keep her feelings to herself’. Laura’s belief system may be bizarre, but in terms of the story itself, it is her beliefs that turn out to be true; she sees danger for John in Venice, and she is right. In Don’t Look Now (F) however, Nicholas Roeg and his collaborators, in their attempt to adapt from the short story’s focalization - through John and the paralepsis of Laura - to the film - externally focalized both through John and through Laura - realise her hysteria as an attribute of her own character and not a projection of John’s. When she is shown on her own or with the women, she is depicted as predominantly sane, but when she is with John she is portrayed as slightly hysterical. When Laura meets the women outside the church John is renovating, she and the blind woman (Heather) are framed on two sides of an iron grill. This grill separates Laura from the possible weirdness of the women. However, she continues a very normal conversation with them, shot in simple reverses, and significantly, she is much more of a listener than a talker. She continues to talk to them on a park bench, and her emotional honesty is expressed in the directness with which she answers their questions, her equality with them in terms of shot size, and also the stability of the three shot which frames them (she is sitting with her arm on the back of the park bench), and her simple and touching acting. When she finds John, she completely changes. The pair walk across a vulnerably wide expanse of space in a panning long shot. John walks much more quickly than Laura, and therefore she has to skip and run in order to catch him up, whilst also talking to him in a rather rushed and frantic manner. She improvises her dialogue which, although true to her feelings, comes across as slightly maudlin partly because she’s trying to catch up, and partly because she is speaking the “sub-text”, i.e. the true emotions and desires of the character, in what would usually have been conveyed through more oblique dialogue.

Laura I’m trying very hard to hang on to myself, and to forget about what happened...get rid of this emptiness...its been with me like some pain, and finally, finally, through these two women I’ve discovered how...they disapprove of mumbo jumbo too, they used those very words.

When she says that the old ladies are going to try and contact Laura, Roeg cuts away, with a very authorial technique (i.e. the cut is not motivated by any of the characters actions or points of view) to show the women cackling in a very witch-like cabal. This immediately undercuts Laura’s validity. John tells her off, and she responds at first in a flippant way to John and then builds up to blame him for Christine’s death. This seems like a hysterical reaction, especially when John then acts in a very reasonable manner, not becoming defensive, not responding, just calling Laura a “crazy woman” in a tolerant way. However, as we have seen from both the story and the film, it is he who suffers from repetition “reminiscences”, from an ability to speak his loss, and therefore he is the “hysteric” in the film, and the “paranoiac” in the short story. John refuses to enter the symbolic and Laura’s hysteria is a displacement from him. As in the excellent essay by Tania Modleski, (Modleski 19-30) where she demonstrates that Stefan, the feminised hero of Letter from an Unknown Woman is the true hysteric of the film, because he lives his life through Lisa, ‘The woman and her emotional life is what Stefan has repressed, and...he is doomed to keep suffering his fate without ever having known it’. Likewise, John allows Laura to do all the feeling for him, and yet refuses to acknowledge her feelings, and his repression and hysteria force him to suffer from repetition.

John’s “second sight” as the real or as a “female imaginary”?

I have postulated that perhaps John’s “second sight” is some leftover of his failed attempt to negotiate his way into the symbolic; it is, perhaps, part of his failure in sexual difference, his failure to become a “proper man”. It exists in the realm of death, of that which cannot be symbolised, or gendered, the real, but is figured, in both short story and film, in different ways, as a ‘feminine’ quality attributable to women and hysterical men. And if we look at the people with whom he shares his gift, Heather and by extension her sister Wendy, they are also “failures” of gender. They are described by Laura in the short story as ‘male twins in drag’ ,(du Maurier 7) and by John as potential lesbians: admittedly focused through John’s warped point of view - but why should he come up with this particular image. In the film the “old girls” go into the Gents by mistake, and during the seance Heather has a moment of shocking auto-eroticism where she fondles her breasts and brings herself to a kind of “orgasm” in trance, in the presence of her sister, and Laura - a female cabal. Like the witches in Macbeth to whom ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair’ these women are hags, because they mix up the world as we understand it, they mix up gender and they mix up the symbolic. John’s visions, whether attributable to a psychotic real in John’s psyche or a psychotic real in the supernatural, are outside gender, in the world of the bisexual or a-sexual hags. The sudden shock where the figure in the red coat reveals itself not to be John’s innocent pre-pubescent daughter, but a libidinously asexual or bisexual hag in the form of the dwarf, reveals the hideous, non-gendered primal sexuality of the real. E.S.P emerges as a failure of gendering which occurs, both inside John, and in the world portrayed by the film, because of a disavowal of castration, and both short story and film demonstrate this through their portrayal of the characters as bisexual, as mixtures of masculine and feminine. However, the film and story differently binarise and value these masculine and feminine qualities, represented both within the characters, and without, as masculine rationality and the feminine supernatural. The disavowal of castration is liberating in the short story, because it is a trope of a ‘feminine’ truth which is repressed and disavowed by the masculinist society represented by John, but in the film, this disavowal is dangerous - its existence within John, Laura and the twins - as hysteria, and as the principle of femininity incarnate, is as a universal violence and force for disintegration and is a trope which “blames” all ills on femininity.

Thus, in the short story, we do not easily know whether John’s “second sight” is narratively benign or demonic. Second sight acts, instead, as a function of the “uncanny”, where the narrative can be interpreted as either supernaturally motivated or by having a rational causation in John’s psychosis. The only second sight that John experiences in the short story is to see Laura on the Vaporetto, but this may be an illusion; it creates a hiatus in the story so that John stays in Venice and is murdered; it cannot be unequivocally attributed to a working of the fantastic, the supernatural. If it is a supernatural vision, and the short story does not rule this out, then even here, it is not figured as totally malevolent. John’s repression of his own feelings, his feeling of loss which Laura’s absence provokes, ‘the ever-nagging pain’(du Maurier 40) his fear of her death which prompts him to despair - ‘Let Venice be engulfed’,(du Maurier 41) are provoked by his belief that Laura and perhaps Johnny are dead, a belief which stems from his “vision”. Nevertheless, the narration has dramatised his paranoia and projection thoughout the story, and it is this projection and identification which is his imaginary response to the real of the hallucination which kills him, and not the hallucination itself. He projects his feelings onto Laura and onto the little girl in the coloured coat, and this projection motivates him to ignore the signs of danger, not the supernatural visions themselves.

The treatment of second sight, and of the real, which is thus manifest in the short story can be seen as a proto-feminist rebellion - an attempt to insert a femininity into a symbolic world which cannot recognise it. Indeed, du Maurier’s text can be seen to ally itself with the aesthetics of recent French feminists critics, such as Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous, who have attempted to create feminine writing - ‘écriture féminine’ - by inserting in what they believe is a male symbolic, the fragmented potential of what they call a “feminine imaginary”. (Cixous and Irigaray) Could the real of John’s E.S.P contain a femininity which the “dissymmetry of the signifier” in the symbolic denies. This concept is actually very questionable - Lacan says there is no way back from the symbolic where only masculinity is represented, into a prediscursive femininity.

How return, other than by means of a special discourse, to a pre-discursive reality?’ [there is no] place prior to the law which is available and can be retrieved. And there is no feminine outside language (qtd. in  Rose 55).

However, Luce Irigaray has used the idea of the imaginary to posit a radical intervention into “discursive reality”, a way in which a “potential feminine” can be brought into the symbolic in order to transform gender relations. Her ‘female imaginary’ is a site not where the feminine exists, but at least where what is repressed in the construction of sexual difference has some fragmentary form.

the rejection, the exclusion of a female imaginary certainly puts woman in the position of experiencing herself only fragmentarily, in the little-structured margins of a dominant ideology, as waste, or excess, what is left of a mirror invested by the (masculine) “subject” to reflect himself...But if the female imaginary were to deploy itself, if it could bring itself into play otherwise than scraps, uncollected debris, would it represent itself, even so, in the form of one universe? (Irigaray 30).

Cixous creates further resonances with Don’t Look Now (SS) by her attempt to posit the silenced and repressed ‘feminine’ as enabling women to ‘foresee the unforeseeable’ (Cixous 256). However, if we are to think that the radical imaginary if it can be presented, could change the way we are constructed by sexual difference, our “gender-performance”, it would be absurd to think this can be achieved by “second sight” or “extra-sensory-perception”. The real is psychotic, it is death, and it therefore should not be elided with the imaginary, even if this is a feminine imaginary. “Second sight” is merely a trope, a metaphor for something outside the symbolic, something attached to women, which is not normally allowed to speak. Nevertheless, Irigaray marshals a more convincing argument, more applicable to the treatment of E.S.P. in Don’t Look Now(SS). She argues that what we experience as the symbolic - the world of language and culture, is actually not neutral, but masculine, and the male imaginary of logic and rationality masquerades as a universal. John in repressing his E.S.P., in disregarding it for a false position of logic, is actually repressing the feminine. Margaret Whitford in summarizing Irigaray says

to say that rationality is male is to argue that it has a certain structure, that the subject of enunciation which subtends the rational discourse is constructed in a certain way, through repression of the feminine.

In the short story John’s E.S.P is not made directly responsible for his death. It is his inability to understand it that leads to his death; he fails to see the significance of Laura on the Vaporetto, to read it outside his experience as E.S.P. and take notice of it, and when he sees the little girl in the pixie coat, he does not have an experience of second sight, and does not mistake her for Christine, but empathises with her as if she were his daughter. In perhaps the most important change of the film, John actually believes that the little girl in the red Mac is his daughter, and he therefore believes in his E.S.P, and is therefore led astray by this duplicitous ‘feminine’.

Nevertheless, the film has a great fidelity to the short story. Perhaps in the lacunae and ellipses of Roeg and du Maurier’s collaboration on Don’t Look Now there is a possibility for a place for feminine speaking, or at least a place for identification beyond and outside gender. Daphne du Maurier recognised the quality of the adaptation when she wrote to Nicholas Roeg,

Dear Mr. Roeg, I watched your film of my story and your John and Laura reminded me so much of a young couple I saw in Torcello having lunch together. They looked so handsome and beautiful and yet they seemed to have a terrible problem and I watched them with sadness. The young man tried to cheer his wife up but to no avail and it struck me perhaps that their child had died of meningitis...’

Du Maurier, in her typically elliptical manner is here showing how life feeds into art, and vice-versa in a continuing process. Roeg’s version of her book, can now be used to illuminate observed behaviour back in the social world. Furthermore, du Maurier is recognising and thanking Roeg for preserving something in the film which du Maurier herself recognises as being faithful to her book. This “something” is the joint problem of a couple - their sadness, their love and their loss - and it is this sympathy for human beings, independent of their gender, which, as well as the bisexuality of the characters in Don’t Look Now, which creates the cultural androgyny of the work. In Don’t Look Now, I would suggest that ‘nothing is what it seems’ because gender is a construction, and there is more potential in human beings than ever comes to fruition. And the film and short story of Don’t Look Now creates the potential of thinking about sexual difference in less imprisoning and binary terms through the use of the “imagination” of the people working on it, through Daphne du Maurier, and Nicholas Roeg, and perhaps this is the use we may put to the term “radical imaginary”.


1I shall refer to the film as (F) and the short story as (SS)

That was in the script: ‘short scream’ and the cut to the drill. That’s what I asked Julie for: ’Make it a short scream!’ At the same time she tore a piece of her hair out. This had happened to a friend of mine, a similar shock, and instant shock. I wanted Julie to have that look, to take it in instantly. (Milne and Houston, Sight and Sound 1973-4)

2Interview with Nicholas Roeg by Tom Milne and Penelope Houston, in Sight and Sound Winter 1973-4.

3Conversion hysteria was a nineteenth century diagnosis developed by Freud and Breuer building on the previous work of Jean-Martin Charcot with hysterics at La Salpetrière. The case studies of Dora, of Anna O, were formative in the development of psychoanalysis as a discipline. Disturbances of speech, of breathing, of movement of the limbs which had no clear neurological or physical explanation were attributed to conversion hysteria, where repressed sexual desires were expressed in bodily symbolism which could be traced back to originally censored wishes. (Freud and Breuer, 279-292)

4 I am aware here, that Irigaray feels that Lacan’s concept of the phallus its itself a metaphor which is part of the patriarchal symbolic, because of Lacan’s elision between phallus and penis. She prefers to see the potential of the metonymy in the relationship of women to women, which she tropes in the image of two-lips touching.

But if [women’s] aim were simply to reverse the order of things, even supposing this to be possible, history would repeat itself in the long run, would revert to sameness: to phallocratism. It would leave room neither for women’s sexuality, nor for women’s imaginary, nor for women’s language to take (their) place (Irigaray 33)

5 Quoted in Mark Sanderson’s Don’t Look Now (BFI Modern Classics) 80. Note that one of the aspects of the film which is dramatised more violently than the short story is Christina’s death, which in the book is caused by meningitis, but is made visual and dramatic in the film by being turned into drowning.


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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Coral Houtman "Cultural Androgyny and Gendered Authorship in Don’t Look Now". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available March 4, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2009, Published: March 25, 2009. Copyright © 2009 Coral Houtman