'Voir' TV Review: Mixed Bag Of Film Essays Blends Anecdote With Analysis

Netflix’s new short-form experiment “Voir” (French for “See”) aims to distill our relationship to cinema by examining what it stirs inside us based on how and what artists put in front of us, what they conceal, and who they choose to point the camera at. This series of short film essays pairs images with the anecdotes and personal observations of individuals who write about the medium in some way.  In line with what other creators already do on platforms like YouTube, but here with a larger budget, the anthology features an uneven myriad of ideas and sentiments. 

But the AFI Fest screening of three of the six episodes (presumably the ones connected to Southern California) featured a written statement from executive producer David Fincher. In his message projected on the screen, the famed director expressed he prefers advocacy over criticism, which might explain the selection of some of the questionable participants, noting that he enjoys hearing people speak on the cinema they love. Though that sounds like a dismissal of dissent or negative opinions, fortunately, there’s more critical depth in some of the episodes.

READ MORE: Director David Prior Talks ‘The Empty Man,’ ‘Voir’ & Netflix Becoming “Custodians To The Cinematic Experience” [Interview]

Going for slow-motion nostalgia, Chapter 1, “The Summer of the Shark,” tells of the Topanga childhood of controversial film blogger Sasha Stone who wrote and narrates the piece. Comprised of clips from Steven Spielberg’sJaws” and her fictionalized memories of growing up in the 1970s, this auspiciously crafted entry, directed by David Prior, exudes her fascination with the way a single film captured the country’s collective imagination. A shot at the beach, which seamlessly transitions into a drive-in theater experience, exudes whimsy and hammers in her fondness of repeated viewings to continuously rediscover the scenes. Making a grand declaration, the figure describes the allure of “Jaws” as a time and a place, not just a movie, fully understood only by those who lived through it.

“Summer” takes a turn for navel-gazing claims as Stone ponders whether the prime blockbuster could survive the scrutiny of the “the hive mind of Twitter,” a supposedly nefarious entity with which she’s had more than a hefty share of conflict. Less intellectual than the other episodes shown, the opener ventures into unnecessarily intimate territory more than once.

The second installment, “The Ethics of Revenge” by Taylor Ramos (who narrates) and Tony Zhou uses Park Chanwook’s brilliantly unsettling “Lady Vengeance” as a launchpad to engage with how film has addressed the human desire for retribution. As Ramos grapples with his viewing experience of the morally ambivalent South Korean flick, what transpires is a self-analysis that invites us to investigate our individual concepts of justice. In cinematic fiction, rectifying the grievances that institutions can’t or won’t alleviate often comes from a visceral and violent catharsis. What’s fascinating is how much we, as audiences, are willing to condone as a justified response that matches the gravity of the offense.

By far, this chapter presents one of the broadest pool of examples to flesh out its thesis, including American classics such as “Unforgiven” and “Goodfellas,” as well as international standouts the likes of the Argentine satire on ire “Wild Tales.” Aesthetically, the piece stays faithful to the video essay style, comprised entirely of film clips, the duo has been making for quite a while as part of their “Every Frame a Painting” project.

With commentary sequences shot at the Orpheum Theater in Downtown Los Angeles, Drew McWeeny’s “But I Don’t Like Him” makes a case for the unlikeable, even despicable protagonists whose dubious or self-serving acts make for riveting drama. He argues that storytellers needn’t write people viewers can root for, so long as their arc elucidates something compelling about existence.

Also directed by Prior, this episode utilizes “Lawrence of Arabia,” and specifically T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole), as an entry point into the subject. His thirst for glory, at any cost, is a pursuit that demands disregard for whether he is perceived positively or not. Men like him abound in movie history. Focused strictly on male characters from Hollywood classics with an emphasis on “The Godfather” trilogy and Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre in general (“Taxi Driver” is, of course, featured), the take at times feels narrow. However, it’s what McWeeny can speak on with more authority, as opposed to trying to dissect the role of the femme fatale or the lack of underrepresented communities on screen from his perspective.

From this sampler, “Voir” comes across as a bit of a discombobulated collection that should be considered on a case-by-case basis rather than as a cohesive, or even aesthetically comparable, whole. [C+]

“Voir” is available now on Netflix.