The Voyeurs wastes no time implicating us, as viewers, as being at least partially amongst the titular group. As the camera affects a lazy zoom toward the window of a lingerie shop, we realize we are watching a woman, our lead Pippa (Sydney Sweeney), try on the store’s wares. Her dressing room curtain hasn’t properly closed, exposing her to the lens’s (and our) prying gaze. After a moment, she realizes and hastens to the curtain with a disappointed glance at “us.” It is a moment that both acknowledges its Brian DePalma roots and immediately contrasts itself.
The Seedy Delight of Being Amongst The Voyeurs
As the film will prove, it isn’t an assertion of a more prudish bearing but one that suggests more agency. Compare, for instance, this scene with the first voyeur scene in Body Double. There the object of the gaze is unaware of being watched by the protagonist and the audience. In Voyeurs, Pippa is immediately aware of us and is more than able to reassert her boundaries.
From there, we travel through the sky above Montreal as the credits roll. One doesn’t typically spend much time on the credits. However, as with Stranger Things, The Voyeurs’ credits seem specifically selected to evoke paperbacks of a bygone era. Things specifically was aping Stephen King’s mass-market offerings, but the intent was clearly to draw parallels to the paperback horror market of the late 80s in general.
The Voyeurs is less concerned about grounding their film in a past error—it is quickly apparent we are in modern times—so much as it is chasing a vibe. The font, the emptiness of the letters’ interior, the use of pastel colors all suggest the early to mid-’90s women-oriented thriller market. If you need an author to understand what I mean, compare a V.C. Andrews book cover the time with the credits.
The opening scene and credits of The Voyeurs promise a cheekier, more lighthearted film than the one we end up getting. This is not a film that will inspire 7th graders to speak of it in hushed terms under their locker the way Andrews’s novels did. While those novels were plenty dark and taboo in their way, their breathless prose often diluted the darkness of those worlds. The Voyeurs embraces a more explicit (visual and otherwise) language that does little to undercut its sexy and tragic content.
Our accidental exhibitionist from the film’s opening is moving in with her boyfriend Thomas (Justice Smith) for the first time. Both in the last mid-20s, they’ve arrived at this moment in very different ways. Pippa spent years studying while striving to become an optometrist. Finally, she’s ready to make some bad choices and wrack up some hangovers. On the other hand, Thomas is a former punk band member turned commercial music writer (a strangely popular on-screen occupation this year as it is how Sebastian Stan’s character in Monday made his living after, you guessed it, giving up on his band). He had his wild times, sowed his proverbial oats, and now fantasizes about taking up the accordion.
Almost immediately after introducing this relationship hurdle, Pippa and Thomas realize they can see into their very attractive across-the-way neighbors. As they watch, Seb (Ben Hardy)—a photographer who’s every bit as sleazy as the fashion photographer cliché—and Julia (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) quickly transition from kissing to stripping to sex. It’s all very Rear Window—the film the aforementioned Body Double was also inspired by—but with nudity instead of murder.
Thomas cracks jokes and seems largely nonplussed. On the other hand, Pippa seems put off by it, immediately distances herself from the window, and admonishes Thomas to do the same. It soon becomes apparent why.
Thomas’s curiosity about his new neighbors is benign and slight. He thinks they seem cool, they both have objectively great bodies, and it’s sometimes fun to catch a glimpse at what you shouldn’t. Pippa, on the other hand, is too drawn to it, to them. While never explicitly stated, it feels like another form of the above divide between them. Thomas has been inoculated by his wild early 20s, while Pippa is more susceptible to the temptation.
Before long, she’s watching them with nearly every spare moment she has. She uses them as an aphrodisiac to spice up a sex life she harbors vague discontent for in a way she never expresses to Thomas or us. She feels motivated to help Julia, whom Seb seems to be cheating on with terrible but impressive regularity. Once she makes that choice, things derail rapidly. Significant interest becomes obsession. Overreach has tragic consequences. The forbidden becomes too much to resist.
The Voyeurs is not a perfect movie by any stretch. For one, the typically excellent Justice Smith chooses to try and drop his voice down an octave in the early going. The result is obvious and undeniably ridiculous. It became smoother as the film went on, but that honestly might just be getting used to it.
For another, Voyeurs sometimes is a little too text when subtext would’ve done better. Its final shot, for instance, hammers home with great force the idea that we are voyeurs too. Except, the opening scene already did that with far more grace and fun. It can be that thuddingly obvious with plot points only to go vague at other moments where clarity would’ve proved a far better choice.
Nonetheless, the movie also is surprisingly well-constructed by writer-director Michael Mohan. When we first meet Julia, for example, she is almost immediately naked on-screen. As the film progresses, the audience sees less and less of her. Pippa, by contrast, is first seen stopping “us” from peeping on her. Yet, as the film goes, she is increasingly exposed—literally and figuratively—until we see far more of her and at far closer range than we ever did of Julia. I’d stop far short of declaring nudity intrinsic to the plot, but it is an intelligent way to utilize the amount of exposed skin to do more than titillate.
Voyeurs show similar cleverness with their depiction of sex. Despite plentiful nudity, the sex we see is either at a significant physical distance or between two mostly dressed people. It isn’t until the final sex scene where we are both “in the room” with the two naked participants. By framing the sex scenes and sequencing themselves in this way, the film manages to be both immediately erotically charged and still able to, if not shock us, certainly make us sit in a far more visceral sexual encounter.
Unfortunately, it spins out a bit at the end. Plot twists begin to pile up, each interesting, but none are given enough time to explore with any depth fully. While the leisurely pace of the beginning was delightful, Voyeurs easily could’ve peeled off ten minutes from it and given that over to the climaxes so they could build in intensity rather than all collide in the last 10 minutes.
Ultimately, though, The Voyeurs feels like a worthy heir to the erotic thrillers of the ’90s. It isn’t quite as clever or humanistic as Adrian Lyne’s film, but it certainly entertains more than the increasingly ugly mean entries in the subgenre such as Sliver.
Again, I have to call out the film as a sort of next-gen DePalma attempt. In addition to sharing that director’s both obsession with and wariness of voyeurism, The Voyeurs cribs from his visual language in ways subtle and less so. The film never steals his diopter, but the camera does share his early films’ hungry perversity. And it isn’t just the sexual material either. Late in the movie, there’s a chase scene that evokes DePalma, too, in its use of reflection, layered geography, and mix of chaotically populated and utterly empty spaces to create tension.
One of the few “things were better back in the day” perspectives I’ll indulge from time to time is mourning the loss of erotic heat on-screen. Obviously, not every movie should have sexual content in them. In fact, many shouldn’t. But some should. Many films, at their core, are about the great and terrible things people do, and sex is one of those things—one that can be great or terrible and sometimes is a bit of both at once. By making it so scarce on the cinematic landscape, we do ourselves a disservice.
Whatever its flaws, the fact that The Voyeurs embraces nudity, sexuality, and sex with an unapologetic zeal is a delight and a thrill. The fact that it has moments of strong style and some fascinating structural choices is an extra scoop of toppings on a decadent sundae.