Film Review: The Voyeurs
Written and directed by Michael Mohan. Canada/US, 2021, 116 minutes.
Available on Amazon.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, narrative cinema got softcore. Films like Body Heat (1980), Fatal Attraction (1987), and Basic Instinct (1992) sparked controversy and conversation, and became major box office draws. A subgenre of the thriller, erotic thrillers are films that mingle danger and illicit romance, and feature various degrees of sex and nudity. It might be hard to believe, but at one point the American public actually wanted the sexy people in the films they saw to fuck.
“Actors are [now] more physically perfect than ever: impossibly lean, shockingly muscular, with magnificently coiffed hair, high cheekbones, impeccable surgical enhancements, and flawless skin, all displayed in form-fitting superhero costumes with the obligatory shirtless scene thrown in to show off shredded abs and rippling pecs,” RS Benedict wrote for Blood Knife earlier this year, “and yet, no one is horny.” Because sculpted forms are sterile—Hollywood now crafts bodies for combat, not carnal pleasure. Even non-superhero and franchise films that feature sex scenes are restrained in their depictions of intimacy. People look as gorgeous as ever, but do not touch or perform in a way that conveys true sexual desire. Puritanical culture keeps a tight grip on all but the most independent recesses of the American film industry, the lecherous eroticism of something like Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984) now completely absent.
However director Michael Mohan’s third feature, The Voyeurs, makes a compelling case for the return of highly perverted erotic cinema. Riffing from obvious reference points like Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and that film’s own filthy descendants like Body Double, The Voyeurs wants us to feel aroused once again by the mere act of watching, a simple pleasure that’s been taken from us.
Pippa (Sydney Sweeney), an optometrist at the fictional L’Optique, recently finished medical school and is eager to finally move in and live adventurously with her serious boyfriend Thomas (Justice Smith), a former punk musician who now writes for commercials. They quickly discover that their attractive neighbors across the street—a man they dub “Brent” (Ben Hardy), who appears to be a professional fashion photographer, and his live-in partner (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), who they call “Margot”—keep their expansive windows wide open. Which allows the young couple to look in on their neighbors’ scintillating lives, beginning with a full view of Brent and Margot having vigorous sex. Pippa buys a pair of expensive binoculars, Thomas divulges how a laser pointer can be used to listen in on another room, and they discover that Brent is habitually unfaithful to Margot with the models that he photographs.
Aside from the Basic Instinct-era, erotic American films have been largely relegated to the margins of the industry—direct-to-streaming and/or low-budget drivel that barely makes a cultural peep. Those who paved the path for popular erotic cinema, like Paul Verhoeven and De Palma, have been shooed away from the mainstream, and those who wish to take a crack at it within the system barely scratch the surface. Still, erotic thrillers once thrived in the direct-to-video market just as much as in the mainstream. Conceivably, such a subgenre should still flourish in the easily accessible streaming era: Netflix has released erotic thriller films like Fatal Affair as recently as last year, and The Voyeurs was released directly to Amazon Prime with no theatrical distribution beforehand.
As described by Cristina Cacioppo in Mubi Notebook, erotic thrillers became a way for mainstream American cinema to join in on softcore like their European counterparts while simultaneously vilifying the same practice (“sex can be shown as long as it was presented with a threat, and usually, a punishment,” Cacioppo writes). There was always a lingering sense of shame projected onto American audiences viewing sex on film—even when erotic thrillers were at their height of popularity in the ‘90s. Thus the current progression towards sexless films is disheartening, but not entirely surprising. Our culture has always been hostile towards sexuality, and the current dominance of chaste, family-friendly blockbusters posing as adult cinema is a product of the same overarching cultural celibacy and censorship that’s spreading its poison in everything from the porn industry to social media.
Nevertheless, The Voyeurs manages to shine through its quiet streaming release—one might claim it was “dumped”—on Prime, embracing and paying tribute to a film subgenre that is near-extinct. It is a goofy, ludicrous thriller with sumptuous coital sequences. The dialogue is often awful and the performances are chintzy, and Sweeney and Smith are a chore to endure together (albeit perhaps because their lack of chemistry is narratively relevant). But visually and compositionally, the film is striking. Recurrent chiaroscuro lighting creates brilliant contrast in evening and nighttime scenes, leaning into and playing around with the film’s neo-noir roots. The cinematography by Elisha Christian (whose credits include Columbus, 2017) utilizes rich colors across its palette and avoids the flat, dim, overly mono-filtered look that too frequently befalls contemporary films. The Voyeurs is also populated by more than a handful of cleverly blocked scenes and jarring smash cuts, like an eyeball to a gooey sliced egg, or a broken glass timed to the crash of a cymbal. It keeps the audience from getting too comfortable in their own voyeurism.
Despite her inarguable beauty and sex appeal, Sydney Sweeney lacks the presence of erotic thriller star material, let alone the prowess to carry a film as a lead. Yet her deficit of leading lady magnetism ultimately ties into how the film frames her sexuality. Not until the final act of The Voyeurs does Pippa engage in full-frontal nudity, like most of the other women in the film. Until then Pippa is demure, sexually frustrated and undeniably frumpy for an erotic thriller female lead. Following the character’s failed attempt to tout her body in skimpy lingerie for Thomas (Smith not really fitting as an erotic male co-lead either), Pippa covers up her figure in rompers and business casual outfits under which her unfulfilled lust simmers. And her ultimate fleshy reveal coincides with the flash of a camera, as if her sensuality does not exist until someone is watching her.
But Mohan, who also penned the screenplay, does not vilify the watchers, especially if those being watched have invited you to look in. No, Mohan vilifies those who shame the watchers—those who see themselves above that universal, titillating practice we’re all guilty of. So pull up a chair and pop some popcorn, because movies have always invited us to look in where we shouldn’t, encouraging us to take part in an acceptable form of communal voyeurism that has always been erotic at heart. “Watching them is the polite thing to do, after all,” Pippa’s friend Ari (Katharine King So) relays to Pippa at one point during the film—a comment about the nature of filmgoing as much about the exhibitionists in this particular story. In not just recognizing but luridly exploring these spectatorial dynamics, The Voyeurs becomes a sexually deviant journey through the dark, curious annals that exist in all of our minds, and a confident starting point for the much-needed return of erotic narrative cinema. [★★★]