A woman abroad feels an unwelcome gaze in new film ‘Watcher’

In the haunting and sophisticated new thriller “ Watcher, ” Maika Monroe plays an American woman who is feeling uneasy in her new hometown of Bucharest.

Her character, Julia, sees a man in a high rise across the street who appears to be looking at her in her apartment. At the market, she senses she’s being followed. And moments after she sits down in the middle of an empty movie theater, she hears and feels the breath of someone directly behind her.

But no crime has been committed. Julia has not been assaulted or threatened. She’s not even sure it’s the same man. Nothing has technically happened at all. And yet, she feels a crushing, escalating dread.

Like Alex Garland’s recent thriller “ Men,” “Watcher” helps illuminate the hard-to-describe unease that women can feel by simply existing in the world. IFC acquired the film after it debuted to glowing reviews earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, and it’s currently playing in 750 theaters nationwide.

“Watcher” is also the feature debut of an exciting new voice: Director Chloe Okuno, who rewrote the New York-based script to take place in Romania and reworked the character of Julia to make her truer to her own experiences as a woman.

“I think a lot of what I was trying to do was show moments where, as a woman, we sort of have a very different experience in the world than a man. And it’s really hard to communicate why that experience can occasionally be really scary,” Okuno said. “It’s things that are as simple as walking down the street alone at night or sitting in a movie theater when a creepy guy comes and sits down next to you — things that aren’t necessarily large, flashy set pieces.”

In other words, Julia might not be able to satisfyingly explain why she’s on edge, but Okuno’s lens can make us feel those emotions along with her.

Karl Glusman was cast to play the part of Julia’s husband, Francis, who is off working most of the day, leaving her to wander the city alone. He tries to be sympathetic at first, but his patience wanes. Julia, to him, seems increasingly hysterical and paranoid — words that are often used to dismiss the concerns of women.

“I actually kind of have a hard time with Francis because he frustrates me so much now,” Glusman said. “I’ve made the same sort of mistakes. It definitely conjured up some memories from my own past relationships where I tried to de-escalate things rather than just listen and really take in all my partner was going through.”

Monroe, a mainstay of the independent horror scene since she broke out in “It Follows,” actually knew about Okuno long before “Watcher” came her way. She’d seen her American Film Institute thesis film “ Slut,” an edgy and atmospheric 20-minute horror about an awkward teenage girl and the seemingly nice guy who chats her up at a roller rink, and knew she was one to watch.

“I was a massive fan of Chloe before meeting her. I was obsessed with her short film, way before ever hearing about this script,” Monroe said. “She has such a style.”

Reading the script, Monroe found she could also relate to Julia. She’d moved to the Dominican Republic when she was younger and knew how alienating and hard it could be in a new country where you don’t yet speak the language. She was so inspired by the script, she even made her own look book with photos and style references for Julia, drawing on 1960s New Wave icons like Anna Karina and Catherine Deneuve.

“I just had this vision in my head of what this character looked like,” Monroe said. “I was like, ‘I’m just going to see if Chloe connects with this.’”

In the end, Monroe ended up having a profound impact on Julia’s wardrobe, which is classic and subtly feminine and stands out among Bucharest’s imposing architecture. She even brought some of her personal clothes to wear.

“She took something that wasn’t actually that specific and made it so specific to her and so stylish,” Okuno said. “It ends up being a really big part of the movie.”

Okuno had many cinematic reference points of her own too. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors: Blue,” about a woman attempting to live in isolation after a tragedy, was a big one narratively, tonally and visually. She looked to the films of David Fincher to inspire the color palette and mood, Roman Polanski’s apartment trilogy (“The Tenant,” “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby”) and Satoshi Kon’s “Perfect Blue,” about a Japanese pop star who is being stalked by a fan, as well. Sofia Coppola’s films were also influential, “Especially ‘Lost in Translation.’”

As if making your first feature wasn’t nerve-wracking enough on its own, “Watcher” was shot during the COVID-19 pandemic before vaccines were readily available. But her cast has nothing but good things to say about her and the experience.

“She just has this vision and it’s not just the acting or the cinematography or the sets, it’s putting all those pieces together and making this really beautiful, elegant genre film, which is what I love in the genre space. And she just nails it,” Monroe said. “I keep texting. I’m like, ‘Let’s do this again. We’re going to do this again.’”

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Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr

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