An American in Paris...
As a follow-up to Afterschool, his controversial look at online hijinks at a tony prep school, stylish New York director Antonio Campos has crafted a sinister, evasive mood piece whose protagonist ranks with Travis Bickle or Julian Kay as one of the seminal urban neurotic anti-heroes in cinematic history, though I hesitate to attach the term “hero” to this individual, as it places an undeserved halo above his head. Simon Killer, which screened last winter at Sundance, draws you in with an eerie, subtle inevitability, taking its time to deliver a frightening coup-de-grace.
The titular character, Simon, or “Si” to unseen persons he communicates with online, is played by the innocuously handsome Brady Corbet, whom I recall fondly from Greg Araki’s Mysterious Skin. Indeed, “innocuous” is the word that comes to mind when we first meet Simon, lodging temporarily in an acquaintance’s Parisian flat.
Initially, he comes across as a harmless semi-hip cypher, recovering from a difficult breakup by escaping to a foreign environment full of diversions. He chain smokes, enjoys impassioned cybersex, and references a recently-completed postgraduate degree, in a fashionably complex subject, which he explains to any attractive female he chats up. In fact, his field of study offers some clues to Simon’s mindset, and Campos doesn’t wait long to reveal the cracks in his leading man’s boy-next-door armor.
Simon denounces his ex Michelle as “a whore” in conversation with the Paris apartment’s owner, and a bit later, we see him walking across a thin pane of glass, the floor of a structure looming over the city. Clearly, we’re meant to think that he’s on thin ice, emotionally speaking.
We study Simon through stationary, voyeuristic shots, which sometimes carry an air of Kubrickian chill. Curiously, and Campos himself discusses this in the DVD’s featurette, “Antonio Campos and the Case of the Conscious Camera”—no that’s not the latest J.K. Rowling novel – the camera tends to look away from whatever we, as the audience, wish to see. Campos describes this as “obscuring ‘X’”, and I’m reminded of that creepy shot in Rosemary’s Baby when Ruth Gordon speaks on the bedroom telephone while a wall blocks most of her from our sight. Polanksi knew that would create tension, and Campos has taken a page from the old master’s book, indeed, throughout much of the film.
Ultimately, this becomes a metaphor for Simon’s perpetual search for what he can’t have. And maybe Michelle is at the top of that list.
However, Michelle is only one of several women Simon craves, including the comely prostitute Victoria (Mati Diop) and the willowy Sophie (Constance Rossseau) whom he encounters on the Metro, who has little more clue about Simon’s thought processes than we do. That’s because information on Simon’s past arrives very gradually. He claims, “I don’t really talk to my parents anymore,” yet later writes to his mom, announcing that he’s “feeling better”. Was he ill? Was it a physical ailment or something Dr. Phil would handle? We don’t truly know.
Simon does seem sexually compulsive, and needy of female attention. He may still pine for Michelle, but he won’t sit by the Seine twiddling his thumbs without her. And whatever his insecurities, he revels in the vigorous sex both women grant him, and in one sequence set in a crowded disco, Simon is suddenly transformed into a cocksure, pimpish lothario, clutching his female acquaintances possessively, while flashing a devilish grin and pulling bro-ish, frat boy dance moves. Paradoxically, Victoria pleasures Simon in a decidedly unconventional manner, at least one few ladykilling studs would admit to liking.
On numerous levels, Simon is a little boy lost. His ineptness fumbles a blackmail scheme he concocts with Victoria, and he becomes increasingly desperate as the euros begin to dwindle. Most troubling, though, is his inability to forge mature, meaningful relationships with women. Are they merely objets in his eyes? Is there a thin line between love and hate when he thinks of them, perhaps a feeling that predates his relationship with the mysterious Michelle, whom we only “know” via Simon’s opinions, at least before the climax? If Simon is little more than a misogynist underneath his brooding but amiable facade, it’s richly ironic when he makes a heartbreaking, incoherent plea to the mother allegedly absent from his life.
The extras in this package are both copious and the most imaginative I’ve yet seen on a DVD. The aforementioned featurette is a superlative primer for cinema students, featuring a shaggy-bearded Campos himself in a lengthy discussion about directorial intent, whether the camera or lead actor motivates the action, and Campos’ own detailed analysis of various shots from the film. In an amusing twist, the interviewer also challenges Campos to frame the interview itself.
In “Behind The Scenes”, we’re presented with editor David Formentin’s experimental melange of assorted footage and music – some of which was left out of the finished product – that’s as creepily enigmatic as the film, though far more opaque, like an artsy long-form music video. You can imagine this playing on a large screen at some hip discotheque or on TBS’ Night Flight, were that program still airing today.
Comedian Chris Gethard hosts “Conversations With Moms”, in which we meet the mothers of both Corbet and Campos. The director’s mother, the vivacious Rose Ganguzza, herself a filmmaker, reminisces about taking Antonio to see darker-themed movies during childhood, including Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, and embarrasses her son with a comment about the fluidity of sexual predilections.
Finally, there’s the inevitable trailer, a poster gallery – and most of those featured are more eye-catching than that on the DVD cover, and a printout of Karina Longworth’s erudite, socially-aware crtique of the film from the LA Weekly.
Despite a Grand Jury Prize nomination at Sundance, the hot ticket of US film expositions, Simon Killer hasn’t garnered the attention it deserves, and surely Campos desires a larger audience than his work has yet attracted. If you can find Afterschool, his debut, let me know, ‘cause I’m still on its trail.
Meanwhile, Simon Killer presents an allegorical cautionary tale of a drifting Millennial generation, many of whom are moribund in America’s current job market, which may be the case with Simon. Or perhaps he’s just lazy, bored, and immature, all of which can be kindling for pre-existing psychopathy. Simon’s motives are inscrutable, and that only makes this arresting film more potent.