The protagonist of Simon Killer wanders the streets of Paris alone, often shot from the back so we see what he sees, the City of Lights never having looked this seedy and dangerous and menacing. Simon (Brady Corbet) has just graduated from college and broken up with his longtime girlfriend, so he decides to take a European vacation and clear his head. France is his first stop. He’ll stay there a lot longer than he anticipated.
We know from his e-mails to his ex (“I know you told me you never wanted to speak to me again, but …”) that things ended badly between them. We just don’t know how badly. And Simon, who seems to be a friendly, ordinary guy, has trouble meeting girls. Walking down the street, he makes small talk with two pretty roomates (Constance Rousseau and Lila Salet) who may be interested in him, but an ominous encounter gets in the way, as if Paris itself was maneuvering against him.
Simon Killer is the second movie from writer-director Antonio Campos, whose first film, Afterschool, was a rigorous and disquieting study of the growing disconnect in the YouTube generation between the real world and the Internet. In Simon Killer, too, a computer plays a supporting role (alone in his room, Simon resorts to online pornography and sex chatrooms), but the film’s overall meaning is far more elusive: This one is a sensory and emotional experience instead of an intellectual one. As played by Corbet (Funny Games, Martha Marcy May Marlene), in a performance that is simultaneously magnetic and troubling, Simon obviously harbors some kind of darkness beneath his pleasant demeanor. You can’t quite trust his smile. But why? The film’s title alone doesn’t really describe his wrongness.
Campos periodically fills the screen with strobing lights and wavelength patterns, as if he were trying to hypnotize you into Simon’s state of mind. He often shoots scenes from strange angles, cutting off the heads of people so all we see is their waists. When Simon befriends Victoria (Mati Diop), a French prostitute who takes a shine to him, their sex scenes are graphic enough to warrant an NC-17 rating (the prudish should take note). But is Simon just using the woman for a blackmailing scheme? And how long does he plan to stay in Paris, anyway?
Simon likes to tell everyone that in college, he majored in the connection between our eyes and how our brain processes the information. Campos, too, gives us several sequences designed to transport us to an altered state, such as a long, uninterrupted shot of Simon and another girl dancing to LCD Soundsystem’s Dance Yrself Clean — a visual and aural wonder that could have gone on for another five minutes. The movie fares less well when the plot and Simon’s neuroses come to the surface, but there is some tremendous suspense in the movie’s final scene. And even there, Campos proves you shouldn’t always believe what you see. Simon Killer is a sensory, experiential film — more of a state of mind than a straightforward story — and it continues to mark Campos, who is only 30, as a talent to watch.
Cast: Brady Corbet, Mati Diop, Constance Rousseau, Lila Salet.
Writer-director: Antonio Campos.
Producers: Josh Mond, Sean Durkin, Matt Palmieri.
An IFC Films release. Running time: 101 minutes. In English and French with English subtitles. Vulgar language, considerable nudity, graphic sex. Not suitable for children under 17. Opens Friday May 17 in Miami-Dade only: Cosford Cinema, Miami Beach Cinematheque.