John and Laura are in Venice a city they’ve visited before to try and escape the pain of their young daughters death. One lunchtime they become aware of a couple of elderly women watching them intently. They find out that one of the women has second sight and can see their daughter. As Laura becomes increasingly friendly with the sisters, John becomes increasingly worried.
When a telephone call comes through from their son’s school in England saying that he is ill, Laura takes the first flight to be with him leaving John to follow with the car the next day. But going along the Grand Canal he notices a vaporetto going back to Venice and on board are the elderly sisters and Laura.
He returns to Venice, but Laura is nowhere to be found and John finds himself getting caught up in a train of strange and violent events.
Published in 1971 a film version followed quickly in 1973, directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. At only 50 pages the short story is characteristically ambiguous, we drop in on the couple in mid conversation at a cafe and never really find out very much about them, we’re just with them for this time in Venice. The film fills in the gaps giving them surnames and John a profession as an art historian, which gives them a reason to be living (not just visiting) Venice. Thus they know the city well and are known in the city. It also begins in England with the death of their daughter by drowning (rather than meningitis in the story), which means we see John and Laura living as an ordinary family.
I thought this worked really well, the happy family setting gives a sense of normal, peaceful life but by introducing flashbacks and flashforwards and the recurring motifs of water and the colour red right from the start, the sense of danger is immediate and constant.
Venice is shown as shadows and darkness, lots of eerie alleyways and waterways. The sisters Wendy and Heather, played by Clelia Matania and Hilary Mason are wonderfully creepy as they embed themselves in Laura’s life. As premonitions merge with the present John’s increasing confusion is exploited by the omission of subtitles, so that we (at least those of us who don’t speak Italian) feel as confused as he does.
As an exploration of grief and the psychological effects of grief I was perhaps more involved in the short story, but with its fractured style the film captured the gothic ghost story and how it played with the already disturbed minds of Laura and John brilliantly.