“Movies,” wrote Pauline Kael, “have often been most eloquent when writers and directors … used the possibilities of visual and aural stylization … to envision how the world might be perceived by disordered psyches.” Antonio Campos’s Simon Killer - the director’s first feature following the acclaimed Afterschool - works to put the increasingly discomfited viewer into the psyche of its male protagonist, whose “disordered” state is gradually revealed as the picture progresses. Campos’s movie is the latest offering from Borderline Films, the creative collective he formed with fellow NYU alums Sean Durkin and Josh Mond, each of whom take turns directing their projects, while the other two produce. Intense, moody, character-based dramas have proved to be this trio’s speciality thus far. And if a slightly rockier second half means that Simon Killer doesn’t quite match Durkin’s marvellous Martha Marcy May Marlene for sustained impact, it nonetheless proves a compelling experience that confirms that, with these three talented guys on the scene, there’s hope for the future of serious, adventurous American indie film-making, after all.
The film’s focus is a period spent in Paris by Simon (Brady Corbet), a young American graduate travelling in Europe following a messy break-up. Pitching up at the apartment of an absent family friend, the isolated and insecure Simon writes missives to his ex, indulges in a spot of web-cam wanking (in one of the film’s funniest sequences), and ventures out on to the Paris streets where he meets two women: a young literature student and a prostitute, Victoria (Mati Diop, acting in a very different register from her quiet, beautiful turn in Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum). With Victoria's consent, Simon fixes on a way to get more money out of her clients - photographing them in flagrante and then blackmailing them with the images. It’s a scheme that seems doomed to failure from the outset, and as Simon’s lies and evasions mount up we’re slowly tipped to the extent of the character’s psychosis.
Campos has spoken of the movie as being Simenon-inspired, in part, and a move into more generic crime territory renders the second half of Simon Killer a little less satisfying, with some contrived narrative turns slightly diminishing the quietly observant tone that the first half of the movie establishes so beautifully. The film was developed without a script, from improvisations with the actors, and at times one feels Campos straining to force the story into certain directions, almost against its will.
Despite this, Simon Killer still exerts a powerful grip, not least thanks to Corbet and Diop’s daring, committed performances and Campos’s directorial chops. From the inventive sound design (which sometimes switches songs mid-scene to reflect the protagonist’s iPod shuffle) to his idiosyncratic cutting and framing, Campos makes this movie an intensely - and sometimes uncomfortably - physical experience for the viewer. Unlike most young American filmmakers this director treats sex seriously (the comedy of the early masturbation interlude notwithstanding) and the fairly explicit sex scenes between Simon and Victoria are used expressively, to chart the dynamics of the pair’s evolving relationship. And how refreshing it is to see an American movie that not only acknowledges that languages other than English exist, but that actually presents its protagonist trying to speak one.
Communication, indeed, is one of Simon Killer’s major concerns and Campos highlights its complexities throughout: from Simon’s emails - by turns needy and bristling with bravado - to his ex, to an awkward Skype call with his mother to a wince-inducing scene of misunderstanding between him and Victoria. And then there's the viewer’s ever-shifting response to Simon himself. What’s most impressive about the movie, I think, is the way it works to undercut our sense of an epistemological foundation. We start out believing Simon’s statements about himself - why wouldn’t we? - and assuming that we're getting to know him, but by the end almost everything he’s said seems questionable. The very title of Simon Killer indicates, of course, that all will not end well for some of these characters. But it’s the gaps that Campos leaves for us that ensure that his chilling, immersive movie really gets under the skin.