Observance (2015)

Longer version of piece published by Sight & Sound as part of coverage of the Cult programme at the London Film Festival 2015

“Just watch and report back. That simple.”

Still grieving the death of his son after a prolonged illness, and the dissolution of his marriage in the aftermath, Parker (Lindsay Farris) takes on a job that requires him to stay hidden in a dilapidated apartment and observe the woman (Stephanie King) living across the street. Emotionally at sea and unsure about the motives or purpose of his unseen paymaster, Parker becomes increasingly anxious, as his fears and fantasies wash over his reality in waves.

observanceMy favourite film in this year’s cult line-up, Observance opens with images of waves buffeting and eroding a sandstone coastline. Whether this is a metaphor for grief and madness, or for a life on the rocks, those dark waters (as well as the phrase “gone fishing”) will recur at significant moments in this locked-room mystery, as black bile (a literal translation of the word ‘melancholy’) is seen seeping down the walls of No. 128 Overlook Street, collecting in a jar in Parker’s temporary bedroom, being vomited copiously from Parker’s mouth, or even, in a nightmare vision, pouring from the eyes, nose, mouth and ears of Parker’s dead son.

Observance is both an occult ghost story and a psychodrama in which we are never quite sure which past haunting Parker is the more toxic: his own personal tragedy or his employer’s dark history. Expertly reconjuring and reconfiguring the paranoid spirits of Rear Window (1954), The Shining (1980), The Conversation (1974), Un Chien Andalou (1929) and especially Roman Polanski’s ‘apartment trilogy’, director and co-writer (with Josh Zammit) Joseph Sims-Dennett has crafted a claustrophobic, conspiratorial observation on observing, preoccupied with the act of watching, with the eye (and the mind’s eye), and with the errant trajectory of the male gaze. Observance is an intriguing, elliptical enigma that confronts us with our own complicit voyeurism, even as it leaves us unsure what exactly we have seen – or overlooked. There is nothing simple about it.

Anton Bitel