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‘Voyeur’ Review: Netflix’s Deviant Gay Talese Doc Can’t Decide What it Wants to Look At

A perverted look at the desire to watch and the need to be seen, "Voyeur" is so eager to tell a good story that it tells the wrong one.

Voyeur

“Voyeur”

Cris Moris/Netflix

Once upon a time, somewhere in the span between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hunter S. Thompson, a dapper posse of aristocrat journalists thrived by combining pre-war sophistication with post-war sexuality. Belonging neither to the old world or the new, they were prophets of their present moment, a transitional group that helped lay the foundation for a culture that wouldn’t be able to accommodate them.

Gay Talese was perhaps the most notable of the group. The godfather of indulgent celebrity profiles, Talese elevated an entire medium by fleshing a routine portrait into a genuine piece of literature; published in the April 1966 issue of Esquire, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” might well outlive the magazine that paid for it. Talese became almost as famous as the people featured in his work, and his reputation protected him from the rest of the 20th century; it seemed unthinkable that someone who could write several thousand words about a sore throat would ever run out of things to say.

But now it’s 2017, Talese is 85, and a new documentary about the greatest disaster of his career discretely suggests that he’s grown irrelevant, and that he’s not handling it well. Lucky for Talese, “Voyeur” appears largely oblivious to the fact that it’s painting him in that light. Directed by Myles Kane and Josh Koury, the Netflix Original film seems to have been conceived as a kinky meta-commentary on the desire to watch and the need to be seen, but it never seems to know what it’s looking for.

And even that might be a generous interpretation, given how easily the movie can be seen as something of a botched advertisement for the Talese book that inspired it. But before there was a book, there was an article in The New Yorker, and before there was an article in The New Yorker, there was a strange friendship between two horny old men. One is Talese, whose first-hand writing about sexuality in America made him an obvious target for deviants in search of validation. The second is Gerald Foos, a degenerate bearded teddy bear of a guy who contacted Talese in 1980 with a salacious story for him to cover. Foos said that he had built a roadside motel in Aurora, Colorado for the explicit purpose of spying on his guests, and that — for a period of at least 15 years — he had watched them through the vents every night, masturbating with one hand and meticulously noting their behavior with the other. Foos likes to think of himself as a DIY Alfred Kinsey, but he seems more like a guy who just didn’t have the patience to wait for Pornhub.

Talese first flew out to the Manor House in 1980; a few decades later, Foos’ lust for attention finally got the better of his self-preservation (“I had to tell somebody — I didn’t want to die and have it be lost forever”), and he gave permission for the writer to use his name in print. For most of its running time, “Voyeur” appears to share Talese’s enthusiasm, digging into Foos’ demented experiments like his journals are the Pentagon Papers. In fact, the first hour feels like the movie that Foos spent his whole life praying that somebody might make about him.

He’s front and center, an affable self-aggrandizer whose childhood obsession with his aunt Catherine spurred an insatiable lust to look at forbidden things. At some point along the way, that perversion dovetailed with a desire to play God. Foos awes at the power to manipulate oblivious people; when he wasn’t getting off by watching his guests, he was getting off on messing with them. His attic panopticon was behind a tiny door that evokes the seven-and-a-half floor from “Being John Malkovich.” Kane and Koury indulge this grandiose self-analysis, creating an intricate miniature model of the Manor House and using it as a clever way of working around dramatizations.

“Voyeur”

Even at its most sympathetic, however, this look at Foos’ compulsive behavior remains fraught enough to be fascinating. There’s something hypnotic about staring at someone who loves to watch, just as there’s something intrinsically spellbinding about watching someone who knows that they’re being seen. But Kane and Koury can’t quite figure out how to mine real substance from artificial self-reflexivity; Abbas Kiarostami just made it look so easy. “Voyeur” keeps Foos at a frustrating distance, limiting us to Talese’s read on him. Meanwhile, the film obscures our read of Talese. Still dressed to the nines and riding the fumes of his former glory, he often comes across as a big city con man who can’t afford to let his last mark fall out of his clutches, but Kane and Koury give the legend every chance to save face. They respect his wishes to be the star, but not quite the story.

Alas, any performative flourishes are purely incidental, and a number of potentially interesting elements — Foos’ complicit wives, for example — are left to wither on the vine. The film never challenges Foos, because Talese never challenges him. The film doesn’t want Foos to be creepy or dull, because Talese doesn’t want him to be creepy or dull. If Kane and Koury don’t hone in on Talese’s palpable desperation for a good story, it’s because they’re just as hungry as he is.

In that light, it’s no wonder that the documentary short circuits when Talese starts running his copy by the fact-checkers, and that it completely fails to navigate the controversy that later subsumed the publication of his book. “Voyeur” is framed as the story of one observer trying to clarify another, but Kane and Koury lose sight of their own film, which is really a story about two men so desperate to hear the sound of their own voices that they deluded themselves into thinking they had something to say. “Voyeur” falls right into their trap. Ostensibly a portrait of looking, the movie only sees its own reflection.

Grade: C

“Voyeur” will be available to stream on Netflix starting on December 1.

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