“Simon Killer” marks the second feature by Antonio Campos, who previously wrote and directed the Cannes Un Certain Regard selection “Afterschool” (2008). “Simon Killer” is an icy exercise in troubled masculinity, and a bold pronouncement of cinematic style that’s as strong an American indie as any in recent memory. (See IFC’s Kubrickian poster below.)
After “Simon Killer’ debuted against rapturous reviews of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” at Sundance, IFC Films held back the Campos film until the fall, where it’s being reintroduced in advance of its April day-and-date opening. “Simon Killer” marks a very different post-grad coming-of-age story about wanderlust and malaise than we usually see at the movies. Gone here is the fashionable existential crises of the twentysomething; in its wake is the existential nausea of someone like Henry Miller.
Like some midcentury outlaw poet, Simon (Brady Corbet) arrives in Paris after the end of a long-term relationship. The circumstances of this break-up, which overshadows the entire film, we are never told. But we do know that Simon, sulky and prone to fits of rage, is to blame.
While staying at a family friend’s flat, Simon meets Victoria (Mati Diop), a prostitute immediately enamored of his boy-like bashfulness — which before long, uncoils into darkness and anger. The red flag is Simon’s bizarre sexual behavior. He does not know how to act around women. We don’t yet know precisely what kind of predator Simon is capable of being.
Campos shares the predilection of such contemporaries as Sean Durkin, whose 2011 film “Martha Marcy May Marlene” Campos co-produced, for ambiguity and murky narrative. Equally elliptical is the haunted performance of Brady Corbet, who is at once at the heart of this film while also providing its dark energy, an unshakeable nihilism that never puts the audience at ease. Both Campos and Corbet avoid sentiment at all turns.
As frustated as I was by some of Campos’ aesthetic choices–he likes to shoot his actors at waist-level, denying us any traditional, cathartic close-up– I was fascinated by how this formal opacity played on the expectations of the viewer. (And it was so apropos of Simon, who studied neuroscience and “the relationship between the eye and the brain.”) Campos truncates bodies the way he does his narrative, producing in us a visceral reaction as “Simon Killer” denies us what we want to see and, what’s more, to know.
The long, long takes of “Afterschool” are still here. In that film, its clinical style put a wall between audience and image, leaving us to feel estranged yet also suspicious that Campos was just as estranged from his own actors. But the long take is “Simon Killer”‘s hallmark, racking up tension as the camera remains inert or occasionally does a slow-pan revealing something new at the other side of the frame.
During a Q & A following an AFI FEST screening last fall, Campos spoke about his tendency to “decapitate” characters and focus on other parts of the bodies:
“You can get so much out of a character without a traditional close-up. You can reinvent the close-up. When you finally get the close-up in this film, it really means something to see Simon’s face. So much of the film is about what you don’t know, and what’s happening off-camera, but this comes from a realization I had as a kid [while making a short film] that focusing on different parts of the body can actually reveal more about the character.”
Campos’ desire to play tricks with not only the mind but also the eye is apparent from the film’s first shot, as an unsettling strobe effect overlaps a panoramic view of Paris. And this is not a romantic Paris. This is seedy, gritty Paris, whose sinuous streets acquire the disturbing urban rhythms of New York in 70s cinema as Simon bed-hops and manipulates with little conscience. Almost immediately “Simon Killer” dares us to look away.
But one thing we can’t look away from is the performance of Brady Corbet, who showed early promise as another kind of victim of abuse in Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin” (2004). Corbet plays Simon like a black hole, burying himself in the role with no reservations. Equally impressive is the sublime Mati Diop, the seductive prostitute who becomes, for Simon, more of a mother than a girlfriend.
Together Corbet and Diop engage in some squirmy sex scenes, but the ordinariness of Corbet’s physique coupled with Diop’s emotional nakedness (she gets battered and bruised in this movie more than once) makes for some of the film’s best scenes.
One audience member asked about the physical challenges for Corbet in playing Simon. “The challenges were not so much in regards to my body which I’m not so precious about,” Corbet said, “but in focusing on an incredibly deplorable character that has a pretty misogynistic worldview, I would only make a film like this with people I trust as much as [Campos].”