Observance – VIFF 2015 Review


“Just watch and report back, it’s that simple,” intones the rather tenebrous and passive voice of Parker’s employer over the telephone. Parker (Lindsay Farris) is a rather plebeian private investigator who is a bit of a wreck as of late, owing to the death of his young son and the failed marriage that accrued after that tragedy.

Hunkered down in a creaky, broken-up apartment on a surveillance stint is where Aussie filmmaker Joseph Sims-Dennett commences Observance, a psychological thriller steeped in equal parts atmosphere and ennui.

Parker is spying on Tenneal (Stephanie King), the pretty yet perturbed young woman across the way. Sims-Dennett dives right into voyeuristic cinema, at first offering only a few clues as to why we’re watching Parker watch Tenneal, and his fondness for handheld tracking shots, creepy Dutch tilts, lens flares, and mercurial shadows makes for a noble narrative hook, at least at first.

As Parker’s emotional state, which is fragile at best, starts to untangle, complete with nightmare flashes of hallucinatory stupor, the story lurches forward, stopping here and there for the odd unsettling figment of the imagination.

It’s hard not to draw the comparison to Roman Polanski’s anxiety-addled classic Repulsion, only Lindsay Farris is no Catherine Deneuve, and the sexual strain and nascent nail-biting of that film is forced here, effective at times (a shower scene with a blonde vision unsettles), and unable at others (an internet porn masturbation sequence stumbles).

What works well with Observance is the detached and cool emotional tone that Sims-Dennett and cinematographer Rodrigo Vidal-Dawson build, combined with an over-saturated color palette. This rather analytic exploit further serves the viewer as it makes one feel implicit, like we’re also wiretapping and watching these characters.

In the third act there’s a narrative shift to Tenneal’s frame of reference, but it slows the momentum of what’s gone on before, and as a result the finish languishes considerably. That said, there are a fair number of jump scares and sable-suffused vomitous, a definite draw for the midnight movie crowd.

Observance remit and makes good on a palpable fear, and Parker’s tormented visions posses a methodical composition not always present in the spaces in between. In fits and starts Observance goes upside-down in a visual-aural dribble that could have been a deluge, and it’s hard to just turn away.

Taste of Cinema Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)