At the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), the wheel-chair bound James Stewart finds himself confronted by the man he has been spying on all Summer long. Briefly lit by flashbulbs, the murderer advances upon Stewart from out of the shadows before lunging at him. In this scene, the voyeur gets his comeuppance. Once so powerful in his capacity to observe his neighbours without being seen, Stewart is impotent to prevent one of them attacking him. As an audience, our pulses race. Not only because of the technical perfection of the scene, or because Stewart’s character is sympathetic, but because we are complicit in the character’s voyeurism. The murderer is not just lunging at Stewart. He is lunging at us.
Hitchcock’s teasing analogy between the cinema audience member and the voyeur is one that has continued to inspire film-makers. However, while Rear Window was recently remade in the shape of Disturbia (2007) – a teen thriller starring Shia LeBoeuf – it is in its more oblique descendants that we find this central analogy best explored. Indeed, many of the films of Michael Haneke express furious moral outrage at his audience’s passivity and prurience. In Benny’s Video (1992) he suggests that watching violent films desensitises the audience. In Funny Games (1997) he has his characters break the fourth wall in order to make the audience complicit in their crimes. In Hidden (2005) and The White Ribbon (2009) he follows genre guidelines in order to build tension but pointedly denies his audience the cathartic release of an answer to their questions or an unambiguous resolution. Haneke and, to a certain extent, Lars von Trier are animated by a deep sense of suspicion about the power of the audience. We sit in front of our TVs or our local cinema screens and we watch moments of heart-break, happiness, death and redemption. We vicariously experience these emotions and yet we are safe. We have risked nothing except boredom. What have we done to earn these emotional experiences?
Some of the more intriguing attempts to answer the question posed by Hitchcock, Haneke and von Trier are found in the works of Charlie Kaufman. In Being John Malkovitch (1999), Kaufman presented one of his characters with the opportunity to stop being a voyeur and to actually participate in the life of the character he was surreptitiously observing. This allows the character to experience love and career success that would have been impossible to achieve on his own but the success ultimately turns to ashes as real love eludes the character who eventually winds up trapped inside someone else experiencing the love that he craves but will never receive. Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, New York (2008) further explores the emotional hollowness of the voyeur as the film’s central character, a stage director, attempts to adapt his life for the stage only to realise that, no matter how lavish the production and how much authorial control you have, real life is always outside of your control and always capable of messing you up.
Andrea Arnold’s debut film Red Road returns to Hitchcock’s original set up but expands upon it not with Hitchcock’s amusement or Haneke’s anger, but rather Kaufman’s sense of sadness at the ultimate impotence voyeur.
Jackie (Kate Dickie) works for a CCTV company. She spends her days sat in front of a vast bank of screens and technology, standing watch over her city and reporting any problems to the police. From the very start, we see that this is a role that Jackie happily abuses. Far from limiting her attentions to crimes and disturbances, Jackie passes her time by getting to know the people who live near her cameras. She watches them as they go about their business and worries about their ailing pets. Jackie also uses her camera to watch the drunken revellers who nip into the shadows for a quick knee-trembler on the way back from the pub.
This role of unseen watcher seems to suit Jackie quite nicely as her life is lived at arm’s reach. She is having an affair with a married man but their sex is filled with euphemisms and elliptical language. “Did you…” Jackie’s lover trails off as the camera films the couple from behind someheadrests. Even when Jackie is lured to moments of real emotion such as weddings, she is strangely aloof. In one brilliant scene, an old woman chides Jackie for not dancing. Jackie protests that she is rubbish at dancing. Minutes later we see the old lady, – osteoporosis and all – happily dancing away while Jackie looks on through a window.
Jackie’s distance from real life is soon explained when she decides that she recognises one of the people she has been spying on. Clyde (Tony Curran) was sent to prison for killing someone close to Jackie but now he is out and living his life. Aware that should Clyde commit a crime he will be sent back to jail, Jackie uses her position as a CCTV operator to try and gather some dirt about Clyde. She crawls inside his life. She gets to know who he works for, where he lives and who he is friends with. But it just is not enough. Hoping to learn more, Jackie is lured out of her comfy office and into the real world. Clyde lives on the Red Road estate and Arnold makes it appear like a terrifying place made of brutalist architecture, abandoned shops, graffiti and stray dogs. Arnold uses her audience’s fear of these settings to ramp up the tension… Jackie is in a dangerous place, following a dangerous man. Her attempts to find out more about Clyde’s activities come to a head when she bluffs her way into a party held at Clyde’s flat. Arnold presents the flat as an eerie combination of strangely angled corridors and weird lighting effects but she also draws again upon the fears of her audience when she has the partygoers drunkenly sing along to an Oasis song. For anyone who has seen footage of Football-related violence or of Britain’s late-night high streets, the scene will prove terrifying : A British male who is drunk enough to sing in public is only a few swigs away from being drunk enough to explode into violence and Jackie is at the party stalking a man who has killed before.
But then something changes.
Clyde spies Jackie and starts to dance with her. The pair, already tipsy, dance closer and closer and before long they are grabbing at each other hungrily. A woman who once had the power to watch without being seen and to call the police down upon anyone she disapproves of has made two large steps into the real world. The first step, like that of James Stewart, has placed her in danger as the observed can now strike at her. But the second step, the one that ultimately makes this film so fascinating, sees her relating to her observed specimens as fellow humans. Humans who can illicit in her a real emotional reaction. The kind of reaction that she had ruthlessly excised from her aloof and controlled existence. Horrified at the way Clyde made her feel, Jackie vomits in the lift. Her sense of displacement at having all of her power and protection stripped away is visceral.
At this point, the film cuts the umbilical chord that ties it to the thriller genre and it becomes a drama, examining life on a council estate with the same even-handedness as Arnold displays in her second film Fish Tank (2009). Jackie is confronted again and again to the reality of life around her and the knowledge that the priapic but yet strangely likeable Clyde and his flatmates Stevie (Martin Compston) and April (Natalie Press) are experiencing something that Jackie has long denied herself : A real life. Suddenly Jackie has to deal with the feelings she buried following the death of her child. How does she feel about Clyde? How does she feel about her husband’s parents? Will she now allow the remains to be buried or will she continue to hoard the ashes? Can she forgive? Can she move on?
While the front half of Red Road proudly follows in the foot-steps of Rear Window, the back end of the film is reminiscent of such French tales of emotional constipation as Sautet’s A Heart In Winter (1992) and Claudel’s I’ve Loved You so Long (2008). The combination of these two types of film is as unexpected as it is satisfying, the thriller trappings become infused with the traditional dramatic elements. This produces a film that turns on its audience and asks it why it is sitting there watching the pre-packaged emotions of a film instead of being out in the world living. Is the fear we share with Jackie in the party scene a fear of violence or a fear of the real world?