Watcher (2022)

Watcher opens with the image of its protagonist seen through a taxi’s window, the nocturnal lights of Bucharest reflected in the glass and superimposed over her face as the vehicle moves. Julia (Maika Monroe) has just arrived in the city with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman), an American-born Romanian who has returned to his motherland for a job in marketing. As he chats away with the driver in fluent Romanian – a language that Julia does not understand – Francis indicates that the driver has gone too far. “He said he hates you,” Francis tells Julia in English, with a smile. “No no,” the driver tells the laughing Julia, also in English, “I say you are beautiful.” 

All the themes of Chloe Okuno’s feature debut are laid out programmatically in this opening sequence. For not only is Julia looking out from behind glass in the goldfish bowl of the cab, while herself being watched and admired by a male stranger (via a rearview mirror), but also Francis is already taking advantage of his wife’s linguistic alienation to present her with a censored, even a false, version of their new reality. Once they have moved into their large upstairs apartment, Julia will again be under glass, looking out of the rooms’ huge windows to the similar residential building opposite – and she will also notice, from almost the moment that they have arrived, that there is a silhouetted figure watching her from an apartment there (a creepily ambiguous performance from an actor who will not be named in this review). Meanwhile a serial killer, dubbed ‘the Spider’ by the media, is at large in their neighbourhood, cutting the throats and sometimes removing the heads of his female victims in their own apartments. Francis tries both to conceal from his anxious wife the more grisly details of this unfolding news stories, and to question, minimise and undermine her increasing nervousness about the watcher across the way.

When Julia shows Francis filmed evidence (from a supermarket) of the watcher staring right at her, Francis proposes an alternative explanation: “…or he’s staring at the woman who’s staring at him.” After all, everyone is watching everyone here. Both Julia and the watcher are drawn to the windows of their respective apartments for what Julia calls “people-watching”. The other occupants of the building are all nosy and intrusive. Julia’s next-door neighbour and only friend Irina (Madalina Anea) has a job in a business that exploits ogling males who wish to objectify women for their own viewing pleasure. Meanwhile Julia and the watcher will have their first close encounter as Julia watches Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963) in a cinema (indeed, in a reflexive hall of mirrors). And Julia’s initial evidence that she is being stalked comes from a supermarket’s surveillance footage, that she then photographs in freeze frame using her smart phone. This is, not unlike that opening shot of Julia, framed as an image in an image (in an image). For voyeurism pervades Watcher, even if the director’s female eye subverts the film’s many male gazes, both complementing and foregrounding the perspective of her heroine. 

As we watch too, Watcher demands that we choose between different narrative templates, matching all those different windows that frame the events. There is Julia’s possibly ‘paranoid’ interpretation of what she sees, Francis’ belittling rationalisations and casual gaslighting of his wife, the confusion of the police, and the watcher’s own account of himself. Okuno ultimately suggests – with one final, defiant stare – that women should always be heard and their concerns taken seriously, but the film never stops being a thriller, generating slippery tensions from the apparent equal weight given to all its points of view. Indeed, that clash of views is precisely the problem that the film presents: a world of inequality between men and women. The symmetry that may at first seem to exist between Julia and the other watcher opposite will prove illusory in this asymmetric portrait of the sexes.

Mixing the scopophilia of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) with the edgy neuroticism of Roman Polanski’s ‘apartment trilogy’ (Repulsion, 1965; Rosemary’s Baby, 1968; The Tenant, 1976), Watcher shows a young woman resettled, unsettled and at risk from her alien environment. Wrested from her American home and her acting career, isolated both culturally and linguistically, and left alone most of the time by absent, working Francis, Julia strives to assimilate to her new surroundings and to find a place for herself, even as all at once her unease rises and she starts to see her husband and marriage in a new light. Julia’s watchfulness is also her wide-eyed vigilance – a radar for danger that others do not see, or prefer not to acknowledge. Watch closely, and see the world through her eyes. 

strap: Chloe Okuno’s voyeuristic thriller casts a female eye over the male gaze, observing the asymmetry between gendered perspectives

© Anton Bitel