The Voyeurs, R18+. 118 minutes. Two stars.
The opening montage of this good-looking erotic thriller, streaming on Amazon Prime, features the human eye in all its abstract beauty. Sometimes fringed with lashes, sometimes bathed in coloured lights. From looking inside a lingerie shop to watching intimate couples through the window, there's not much doubt about what we're up to here.
What's more, the main character, Pippa (Sydney Sweeney), is a trainee optometrist, pushing the eye motif even further. One moment she is peering into a client's dilated pupils, the next she is chopping a soft-boiled egg in half before adding it to her salad lunch.
Everyone familiar with the movie classics will immediately recognise the sliced eye and other homages to the greats. There's Un Chien Andalou, Peeping Tom, Rear Window, Blow-Up, The Conversation, and there are many more. The Voyeurs, written and directed by Michael Mohan, makes many cinema references, and it wants us in on the joke.
That's okay, it's just so laboured. A lighter touch with a witty script would have done wonders for this glamorous style vehicle.
The Voyeurs is set in Montreal. The filmmakers were considering New York, but a city in Francophone Canada with photogenic architecture and streetscapes is a good choice.
Pippa and her partner, Thomas (Justice Smith), are signing a lease for their new loft apartment.
The moment they've settled in, a couple in the apartment opposite start making out on the kitchen counter, in full view of their sweet new neighbours, who we imagine are too well-mannered - inhibited? - to dream of doing such a thing themselves, even though their living room is just as open to the world.
Pippa and Thomas make a half-hearted attempt to ignore the free porn show on offer, but by the time they've bought a pair of binoculars and by surreptitious means set up a laser pointer to record sound too, it has come to dominate their lives.
If the film is trying to make the point that we have all become participant-observers, then that's nothing new. Anyone who watches film/TV/vision online is in some sense a voyeur and we agreed this was the case long ago.
The argument that The Voyeurs proposes, or rather the posture that it adopts, is about pornography, which is potentially a more interesting and contentious point now we hear that the porn industry has apparently overtaken the mainstream screen industry itself.
The argument for porn is spelt out by Seb (Ben Hardy), defending how he conducts the studio photography business that brings a stream of beautiful women into his home.
From the moment Pippa saw the firm abs and cute features of her hunky neighbour over-the-way, Seb, she was clearly hooked too. Though when Seb contends that watching pornography is mainstream, Pippa begs to differ. Of course she can't, really, because she watches it too.
Thomas falls by the wayside at some point, probably when he goes to sleep before Pippa comes to bed in her sexy new lingerie. Perhaps he forgot to drink his eau de vie during the evening. There are a number of broad hints that Pippa and Thomas are not quite sexually compatible, and she emerges as the main character.
Pippa is a bit shy but she is curious, like all the female protagonists in this kind of movie and Sweeney is very good in the role.
The level of effort that went into making The Voyeurs look good also seems to have gone into the script, but as the narrative develops the plot twists become silly, with the film losing cred at every new turn.
Erotic thrillers have a bit of latitude for going over the top. This can include a rabbit stew (Fatal Attraction) or an ice pick parked under the bed (Basic Instinct), but for thrillers to get you really hooked, a heady dose of psychological contradiction seems to be necessary. The Voyeurs gestures in that direction but goes for a ludicrous, labyrinthine plot instead.
Light on the psychological and heavy on the erotic, The Voyeurs is just a shallow exercise in that grey space between mainstream cinema and the porn industry that competes with it.