Hitchcock? Not …. But Teen Disturbia Has Voyeuristic Success

041607 article sarris Hitchcock? Not .... But Teen Disturbia Has Voyeuristic SuccessD.J. Caruso’s Disturbia, from a screenplay by Christopher Landon and Carl Ellswoth, based on a short story by Mr. Landon, was described to me by a colleague (before I caught a studio screening) as a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) for today’s teenage audiences. About all I can say after one viewing of Disturbia is that 50 years is a long time—though the last thing I want to do is pontificate yet again about the good old days. I must report also that there was some applause as the credits came on, and I suspect that the movie will find its target audience, at least, and perhaps wider age groupings as well.

Voyeurism is a vice to which I cannot even pretend to assume a pose of moral superiority, since most of my life has been one long adventure in the vicarious contemplation of and identification with the luminous phantoms of the silver screen. Besides, the protagonists of both Rear Window and Disturbia drift into becoming Peeping Toms as a result of their being confined within a limited space by events beyond their control.

Privacy issues come to the fore in both films, but the audience, of course, finds itself—in both situations—becoming hypocritically implicated in the high-tech peeking. Otherwise, the two movies diverge wildly from each other after their initially similar premises to become statements of how much life and the movies have changed in half a century. To put a point on it, Rear Window never stooped to become the Grand Guignol of a horror movie that Disturbia has turned into by its climatic final sequence.

Still, as a point of fact, I must add that Mr. Landon, co-screenwriter and story originator of Disturbia, cites other climatic peephole precendents for his inspiration. These include, most notably, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974).

Anyway, unlike Rear Window, Disturbia requires a prologue that serves as the protagonist’s sentimental back story before it can get down to its suburban snooping activities. Kale (Shia Labeouf) is shown on a fly-fishing outing with his dream-like dad, who treats him like a fully grown-up buddy. On their ride home, an elaborately constructed two-stage auto collision kills the father and spares the son. A year later, Kale is still traumatized by the accident, and when his Spanish teacher reprimands him for not doing his homework and asks him, in a face-to-face confrontation, what his father would think, Kale punches him out.

Kale’s mother, Julie (Carrie-Anne Moss), intercedes with the judge to keep her son out of prison after his conviction for assault. Instead, Kale is sentenced to a three-month term of house arrest with a tamper-proof monitoring device attached to his leg. With his mother working day and night to support herself and her son, Kale is left alone most of time. After a few days of compulsive videogame playing to all hours, the 17-year-old shut-in gets bored. He begins looking at the outside world through the various windows of his two-story house with all the surveillance gadgets available to suburban teenagers. He is particularly curious about a neighborhood newcomer named Ashley (Sarah Roemer), especially when she swims in her pool in a bikini. I imagine that the film has a PG-13 rating because Kale never sees Ashley take off her bikini—a visual coup that would have earned Disturbia an automatic R rating.

Kale is joined from time to time in his surveillance by his high-school chum, Ronnie (Aaron Yoo), who also provides the cutesy comic relief. Both voyeurs are panic-stricken when they realize that Ashley is onto their fun-and-games. But not only is she not offended by all the attention from the two boys, she brazenly asks them to let her join in on the spying. It turns out that Ashley, like Kale, is still searching for her identity in a confusing world.

The three mischievous musketeers start getting in over their heads when they zero in on a seemingly harmless neighbor, Mr. Turner (David Morse), whom they begin to suspect is the serial killer responsible for the deaths of several women who have mysteriously gone missing over the last several weeks, and whose faces are splashed all over the television screen. The kids don’t have much to go on at first—certainly not enough to interest the police. But as they get closer and closer to Mr. Turner’s secret, their own lives become increasingly in danger.

Mr. Caruso and his screenwriters have managed to generate some human interest during the hectic proceedings, so that we are at least rooting for the kids to come through their somewhat self-imposed ordeal. The technical challenges of creating surveillance vantage points in a suburban neighborhood composed of several different California locations dwarfs the technical problems that Hitchcock faced with a single studio set representing a courtside view of many Greenwich Village apartments full of colorful but not at all neighborly characters. But then Rear Window had only one murder to solve, not a full chamber of horrors’ worth.

The performances of the small cast are more than adequate for the tasks assigned them, with Mr. Morse and Mr. Labeouf being especially adroit in overcoming the narrative’s more egregious contrivances. The state of public paranoia being what it is, and the ongoing war on terror shredding the last vestiges of the right to privacy, Disturbia is disturbingly contemporary in its celebration of the technology that can make us all potential victims of the full-time snoops among us.

With Friends Like These …

Emmanuel Bourdieu’s Poison Friends (Les Amitiés Maléfiques), from a screenplay by Mr. Bourdieu and Marcia Romano, won the International Critics Week Grand Prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, at which it was the opening-night attraction, and it is nothing if not quintessentially French in its preoccupation with the darker side of intellectual life. The film begins from the point of view of Eloi Duhaut (Malik Zidi), a new student in a Paris university, attending his first class with Professor Mortier (Jacques Bonnaffé), who is teaching a graduate course in the various theories of writing and literature. Eloi appears unsure of himself as he tries to explain why he has arrived a day late for the class. When the professor asks for a volunteer to address the class on the subject of writing, a strikingly self-confident and charismatic student named André Morney (Thibault Vincon) raises his hand, and proceeds to captivate the professor and his classmates with his tone of certitude as he presents his theory that people write only because they are afraid not to write. As André speaks, Eloi notices that everyone in the class seems to be writing something on notepads, as if it were a class of closet diarists.

When André concludes, Professor Mortier praises his contribution and resumes his own lecture. Since André is sitting next to Eloi, he starts up a conversation with the shy newcomer and, in essence, offers him his friendship. Eloi is soon introduced to Alexandre Pariente (Alexandre Steiger) another of André’s protégés, whom André has persuaded to give up his playwriting ambitions to devote himself full time to becoming an actor. Mr. Vincon provides André with a persuasively overpowering presence that makes Eloi and Alexandre willing subjects of his intellectual domination.

When Eloi becomes attracted to the beautiful university librarian, Marguerite (Natacha Régnier), André is strangely amused, because he is already sleeping with her—and yet, even more strangely, he seems to have no objection to Eloi’s courting her. We learn that Eloi’s mother, Florence Duhaut (Dominique Blanc), is a popular novelist, whose work André considers too pitifully vulgar and mainstream for Eloi to emulate. It soon becomes apparent that André is a malignant presence in the lives and careers of all the people who fall under his influence. He is given to lies and deceptions at every opportunity.

But irony of ironies! In spending all his time sabotaging the projects of Eloi, Alexandre and Marguerite, André neglects his own project, to the extent that his own thesis proposal is rejected by Professor Mortier. At this point, André shook my own professional bones to the marrow by slapping the professor around in order to get him to sign off on an intermediate diploma in order to keep him at least marginally employable.

Undaunted by his disastrous academic defeat, André lies to the members of his already restive circle that he has received a scholarship to Berkeley in the United States to complete his studies in American popular literature. Curiously, despite all its improbabilities, Poison Friends succeeds as a suspenseful psychological thriller, mainly because of the complex villain’s extraordinary magnetism. One can thereby believe in the narrative as an allegory of the misuse of power in personal relationships by unscrupulous charmers in every field—and the intellectual malefactors are perhaps the worst of all. Still, André’s character, even in the depths of his humiliation, remains remarkably dignified and non-self-pitying. That gives this academic melodrama an unexpected depth.