Suspenseful voyeurism, and fashionable voyeurism

Published May 14, 2021, 1:00 PM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

Three shows on Netflix this mid-May should whet the appetite of a broad range of viewers. One is the long-delayed adaptation of a best-selling Suspense novel from 2018; while the second is a Limited Series on the life of American fashion luminary, Halston. A third entry from France is voyeuristic in a suspenseful and claustrophobic way! Halston and The Woman in the Window drop on May 14.

The Woman In the Window (Netflix USA) – Based on a best selling suspense novel from 2018, with a cast that boasts of Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Anthony Mackie, and veteran British director Joe Wright (Atonement, Hanna, Darkest Hour) at the helm – you’d think all the stars are aligned, and a surefire box office success would be guaranteed. The novel of AJ Finn was basically a rehash of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but instead of male photographer on crutches, think of an agoraphobic female psychiatrist, living vicariously by just looking out the windows of her New York brownstone, and getting involved in the lives of her neighbors. And yet, Netflix acquired this from Disney, which basically gave up on releasing it on their own streaming platform.

Test audiences were often left confused and disinterested, so Wright has been interviewed discussing how they had to re-edit the film, having to better explain things without spoon-feeding the audience and eliminating all suspense. Well, all I can say is that the recalibrating has still left much of the first half of the film rather ponderous; and the Amy Adams portrayal isn’t overly sympathetic. The last half-hour genuinely works, so it’s a shame we had to endure to reach that point. Think more of films such as Wait Until Dark, which starred Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman, for the home stretch of this film. While I know Joe Wright has proven himself time and time again, I’m just left wondering where is Hitchcock now that we need him.

Halston (Netflix USA) – Roy H. Frowick is undoubtedly one of the icons of American Fashion; and if the name doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps it’s because he used his middle name Halston when he launched his career. A milliner first, he designed the pillbox hat that Jackie K. Onassis wore as wife of JFK in his 1961 inauguration. Seeking to pivot and expand, he was at first unsuccessful in apparel. So the series chronicles the ups and downs of Halston’s career with a lot of attention devoted to his Studio 54 days, friendship with Liza Minnelli, his gay relationships, his corporate and licensing naïveté, and interspersed, are his childhood and relationship with his abused mother. There obviously is a lot of ‘meat’ to chew on, as Halston was fashion genius, mercurial, a right bitch, and insecure to a fault.

Ewan McGregor portrays Halston wonderfully, and you’ll love the ebullience of Krysta Rodriguez as Liza with a Z. Other real life figures include master fashion illustrator Joe Eula (David Pittu) and model/Tiffany jewelry designer Elsa Peretti (Rebecca Dayan), and Victor Huge-O. It’s all done in a serious manner, with touches of camp, but with a restraint that sometimes you’ll think feels too much like awe? One blessing is that while produced by Ryan Murphy, he doesn’t direct this one. If you are fascinated by this series and want to know more about the man, there’s a truly illuminating 2019 documentary – where you’ll see why the real Halston was even more beautiful a man than McGegor could ever make him. His struggles during the Wall Street era are faithfully reported on, abridged as they are in the Netflix series. I can imagine the fashion community is chomping at the bit to watch this, amidst all the ongoing Miss Universe hoopla.

Oxygen (Netflix France) – After the opening scene of a white mouse in a maze, we’re there as a cocooned figure abruptly awakens, and finds herself strapped within a tight, claustrophobic chamber. We are made to believe it has to do with cryogenics, and the only one this woman (Mélanie Laurent) can communicate with is M.I.L.O, the computer (voiced by Mathieu Amalric). Directed by Alexandre Aja, these are big name stars from France, and the dubbed English version takes away a lot from hearing the original voices of Laurent and Amalric. So if you’re not intimidated by sub-titles, would suggest you watch this in its original French. It’s hard to explain exactly why, but the choice of voices for the dubbing in English detracts from this film being effective.

Set primarily in this one location, except for the flashbacks in the woman’s mind, this film at first reminded me of Ryan Reynolds in Buried. But it’s in fact an evolving journey, quickly moving into corporate espionage and science-fiction territory. There’s some plausibility issues in the narrative; but by and large, Director Aja knows how to take us on a ride. As each revelation, each twist and turn in the plot is revealed, we appreciate just how much thought has been inserted into the plot. And just like the cocoon that acted as our first image of our female protagonist, we’re being treated to a slow and deliberate unveiling, with close attention to the film being a prerequisite for our enjoying this ‘playing with our minds’.