Alfred Hitchcock, the master of the thriller film, once commented on the idea of voyeurism in a conversation with Francois Truffaut. He said, “I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room… They could pull down their blinds, but they never do; they stand there and look out.” It’s this primal allure that forms the basis for thriller Observance, but director Joseph Sims-Dennett takes the notion further to create an unsettling atmosphere under the ambiguity of who is watching who.
Taking an unsubtle cue from Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Observance follows private eye Parker (Lindsay Farris), on his first job since a family trauma buried in his hazy past. Parker’s boss gives him clear instructions to spy on a woman (Stephanie King) for a client. After relocating to a dilapidated old flat, Parker has a direct view of the certified Hitchcock blonde living across the street. The client’s motives are mysteriously undisclosed but the pay is good and that’s all that matters to Parker. Of course, nothing is quite as it seems.
Parker soon begins to notice items moving around of their own volition in his apartment. A tub of black gunk sits peculiarly in the corner of one room while Parker’s nights are plagued by horrific nightmares. Across the street, a darker conspiracy brews. A haunting, claustrophobic atmosphere (reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s superb Apartment Trilogy) fills Observance’s small confines and makes us question the very nature of the increasing oddities.
On the surface Observance sounds like a routine reworking of Rear Window in the mould of a Disturbia or Body Double. Yet rather than focus on solving a mystery from a fractured distance, director Sims-Dennett cultivates an aura of helplessness, anguish and paranoia up close. The flat that Parker’s holed up in soon becomes a physical manifestation of his own mind. Each unsolicited thud, dream or apparition seems to have crawled out of Parker’s troubled mental state. The subtle delivery of these anomalies makes us wonder if any of it is really happening, or if it’s all merely sciamachy.
Rather than lapse into explicit horror, Observance triumphs in projecting utter vulnerability. Within the apartment there’s a malevolent presence playing with Parker. The manifestation is sly and unrelenting. The protagonist questions his own sanity—did he turn the shower heat up? Was that plate always there? Is that jar of mysterious black gunk getting fuller?
With the audience’s perspective almost always locked with Parker’s, we’re complicit in the confusion. The brooding sense of ominousness is magnified by a classic rumbling horror soundtrack. Initially we the audience are the voyeur, observing Parker from the comfort of our seats, but by manipulating the concept of continuity our plight and dread merges into that of Parker’s. We’re no longer in the cinema, we’re trapped in the apartment questioning our own memory and sanity, too.
The obfuscation of Observance’s world continues across the street. Parker’s routine camera spying means he, and the audience as a result, are never witness to a clear picture. The mystery blonde is only ever seen through two or three windows meaning everything in-between is guess work, further loosening our grip on the story. Observance’s great strength is showing terror in its subtlest form—that disquieting lack of control and foreboding sense we’re not masters of our own destiny. Just as Parker is subservient to a greater force, we, the audience, are completely at the mercy of the filmmakers whims and desires.
Observance’s crescendo of dread builds without ever hinting at a certain climax. Ultimately ambiguity reigns supreme which. There’s plenty of loft space left for interpretation but that comes at the expense of a rounded narrative that acquiesces with the preceding events. Observance isn’t going to be remembered for its storytelling—but when a film is so stylistically and atmospherically rich, that’s fine with me.
Those with an eagle eye will see the likes of Lynch, Bergman, Cronenberg, Hitchcock and Polanski present in Observance, but director Sims-Dennett and cinematographer Rodrigo Vidal-Dawson are more than just cinematic appropriators. Observance skirts starry eyed homages and slack shock horror with thrilling results. We all love voyeurism but Observance makes us acutely aware that the experience is not so enjoyable when the binocular sights are swung round on us. Sims-Dennett plays with our perceptions, continuity and memory, making the audience, rather than Parker, the real victims of Observance’s mind games.
Movie Verdict: Win
This review is part of Jonny’s ongoing coverage of the 2015 London Film Festival. For more reviews, click here.