Simon Killer: Sundance World Premiere

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Sundance Film Fest 2012 (Dramatic competition)–The polarizing title of the first weekend of the Sundance competition titles, Antonio Campos’ “Simon Killer” is another brazen and stylistically impressive study of disassociation and encroaching madness. The movie’s deliberately off-putting and abrasive manner is held together by Brady Corbet’s commanding star turn.


Following a couple of highly regarded short films, Campos emerged as a leading American independent filmmaker with his remarkable 2008 feature debut “Afterschool” (notorious for being turned down by Sundance). Told with a hypnotically lyrical precision, the movie was a chilling and exact portrait of social anomie and sexual pathology at a privileged boarding school.



Part of the ambitious and deeply talented triumvirate of filmmakers that make up Borderline Films, Campos produced last year’s finest Sundance competition work, Sean Durkin’s extraordinary “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” In that film Corbett turned in a sinuously controlled performance as a handsome and laconic young man who proved eerily expert at recruiting bright, beautiful young women into a cult.



That interpretation proves a crucial rough draft in his snarling, believably vacant turn as a young American graduate drawn to the shadowy Paris sex underground around the Pigalle neighborhood. Campos said he was inspired by the lean and chiseled crime stories of French writer Georges Simenon. Campos takes a familiar theme, the extreme isolation and cultural dislocation of a foreigner abroad, and layers it with a barely suppressed sexual menace and behavioral oddity that gives it a threatening intensity.



Fleeing from the painful beak up of his five-year relationship and uncertain about his professional prospects, Simon takes advantage of an available flat left to his keep by his French cousin. Possessing only rudimentary grasp of the language, Simon is a prototypical wild child, unable to make connections and drawn to solitary activity (illustrated very early in a darkly funny incident involving his comically inept interaction with some local Internet pornography).



Prowling the nighthawk streets, Simon takes solace in a sex bar notorious in Pigalle’s underground district and is quickly drawn into a complicated relationship with the prostitute Victoria (Mati Diop, the terrific young French actress from Claire Denis’ “35 Shots of Rum”). An essentially straight if awkward young man who falls hard, Simon is turned inside out and is violently withdrawn from any normal outlet for social connection.



After Victoria offers to extend their meetings outside the carefully observed milieu of the bar, Simon further disintegrates, using his peculiar combination of vulnerability and psychological acumen to slowly and imperceptibly take over Victoria’s life. He concocts a series of blackmail schemes against several of her regular customers as a way to finance their lifestyle.



“Afterschool” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” were both photographed by the brilliant Jody Lee Lipes. “Simon Killer” was shot by Joe Anderson’s Lipes’ protégé. Campos is a naturally gifted imagist blessed with a striking sense of composition. The movie’s color schemes, with Paris introduced in a dazzling off-blue, fractured by the hard red interiors of the bar, impose a slightly off-kilter sensibility.



Corbet’s Simon (and several secondary characters) are often captured with the camera trailing behind, the camera close to their bodies, as though attached to the back their heads, a quick and sharp expression of the inner tumult and volatile social surroundings. In the hotel space the two young outlaw lovers share, Campos repeatedly plays with space and movement; there’s a dazzling and ecstatically beautiful moment, where the two, their heads unseen, move and pirouette around each other, the camera still and locked down, the bodies in ecstatic forms of release and surrender.



Corbet and Diop are credited, with Campos, of developing the story and they are both mesmerizing. Pasty, even inchoate, Simon acquires a deeply discomfiting menace that coheres in a way both frightening and wholly believable. Beautiful, tragic and emotionally scared, Diop is sensational as a tragic and broken angel of deliverance.



Perhaps because he is also dealing with a language he is not fully comfortable, Campos is sometimes more effective at tone and feeling than detail or emotional subtlety. “Afterschool” felt more organic and held together as storytelling.



In “Simon Killer,“ the ambiguity of Simon’s character study gives way to a slowly evolving though unmistakable portrait of a psychopath. As such, “Simon Killer” is designed to infuriate and unsettle, capturing through camera movement, editing and texture a dark and brutal descent. This Simon is truly the underground man, frightening and real.