The complete title of Antonio Campos’s second full-length feature film – “Simon Killer” -- sets up certain expectations about the likely content of it that force its viewers to examine, observe and question everything the film presents us with much more acutely than we would if the word ‘killer’ hadn’t predisposed us to think in terms of it being intended as a chronicle of the development of a serial killer, along the lines of, say, John McNaughton’s “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”. The title colours our attitude to the actual content of the film, which in actuality seems to be a character study of a rather introverted and harmless individual at first, creating a sense of tension in the viewer, as we begin to try and second guess where what we see transpiring on screen is heading. Those already aware of Campos’s 2008 debut “Afterschool” will also find this follow-up’s nervy but measured depiction of an isolated and emotionally dislocated individual (whose neurosis is at least partially nurtured and facilitated by interactions conducted almost wholly through a virtual medium realised by common modes of communications technology) echoed in initial scenes which also duplicate that film’s penchant for awkward camera placing: characters are often confined to the edges of, or drift in and out of, the corners of the film’s 2.40:1 aspect ratio for instance, or become partially obscured by half-open doors. Long, static, single shot scenes in which at least one character usually has their back to the camera altogether, soon establish a similarly troubling, distancing sense of detached ennui.
We’re told in the opening sequence that Simon (Brady Corbet, “Martha Marcy May Marlene”), a wan-faced, diffident-seeming American graduate in neuroscience (although, like everything we think we know about him, this too might in fact also be a lie), is taking a year out from the upper-middle-class grind of job hunting in academia, to travel across Europe, starting with a week in Paris where he will be staying in the vacated city apartment of a friend of his mother’s family during the time they’re away on holiday. Simon has recently split from his former girlfriend of five years and now intends to use this period alone to put the hurt behind him and 'find someone new'. Isolated in a foreign city and apparently unable to speak French all that well (his fluency in the language does seem to vary, though, according to who he happens to be conversing with at any one time), Simon drifts aimlessly through crowded tourist spots and imposingly grandiose art galleries and museums, further segregated from his surroundings by the film’s retro soundtrack of ‘80s-style electronica (a trope that is rapidly becoming a tiresome cliché of contemporary dramas about detached male sociopathy) that’s perpetually to be found blaring from his iPod in diegetic sympathy. A shot of Simon, framed as he observes Éduoard Manet’s painting of Olympia at the Musée d’ Orsay, harkens back to the themes of “Afterschool” when the camera pulls back to reveal that a sizable portion of the crowd Simon is among here, prefer to experience the splendour of this piece of physically present art through the interfaces of the miniature illuminated screens on their smartphones.
Manet’s observations on the social character of prostitution on the streets of mid-nineteenth century Paris are mirrored by the film’s own modern take on the subject in its seedy depiction of a milieu composed of neon-lit hostess bars lining the down-at-heel Pigalle district of the French capital, images of which are caught in passing when, after several futile attempts to pick up girls on the metro come to nought, Simon is tempted inside one of the sleazy clip joints by a street hustler and meets Victoria (Mati Diop) there -- a willowy lap dancer and prostitute who spots in Simon’s nervous demeanour a likely easy mark who can be tapped for more money through private meet ups outside the club.
In this first act, we’re encouraged to identify –at a distance, of course -- with Simon’s apparent little boy lost naivety and dislocation: the distancing effects engendered by reliance on technology crops up again as a theme when cinematographer Joe Anderson’s digital photography (which uses natural light throughout the picture) provides an unforgiving portrait of this central character and focuses unsparingly on Simon’s shallow sexual mediocrity, lost in habit-forming consumption of live sex web cams on his laptop. It tracks him in the evenings through cold, drizzly Parisian streets in search of girls to talk to and follows his embroilment with Victoria in grim, dimly shot and hurriedly snatched sexual assignations that are anything but erotic. It initially appears to be Victoria who is in command of the exploitative relationship steadily developing between the two lost souls, the use of her sexual allure hooking the boy in and keeping him coming back for more; but as the film progresses certain disparities and inconsistencies begin to build up in this picture of a hapless, likable but lost young man whose biographical sketch of himself we’ve tentatively accepted thus far (always with the title of the film borne in mind, admittedly) on the basis of what little information we had to go off.
Simon uses his boy-next-door demeanour and charm to gradually manipulate and worm his way into the life and affections of Victoria, to the extent that she reveals to him her real name, Noura. He purposely gets himself beaten up in a fight with a gang of yobs in order to better elicit her sympathies, and an emotional bond with the seemingly savvy young woman is meticulously sought to help him guilt-trip her into allowing him to stay at her own apartment when his week in the borrowed Parisian apartment is finally up; we more and more start to realise that not a word he utters can be taken at face value, as emails from his former girlfriend suggest a radically different story from the one he’s previously told about the break-up, and his own emails to his parents (whom he’s previously claimed to be estranged from) are full of lies about his continued movements around Europe when in reality he is staying put in Paris, nurturing a dysfunctional sexual relationship with Noura in which his own dependency becomes disguised by an ability to deceive and to manipulate the prostitute into revealing her true self as opposed to her professional persona, and into believing that Simon is capable of rescuing her from this dead end lifestyle with a series of small-time scams in which Noura’s richest clients are to be blackmailed using a concealed smartphone to tape their encounters with her.
Naturally, the foolhardy plan doesn’t run smoothly and Simon’s essential inability to view others as anything other than tools to be manipulated into providing what he wants from them -- whether it be sex, food or shelter -- soon starts to become apparent to Noura too, as the web of lies built around Simon's constructed self start to unravel and the illusion holding the relationship together disintegrates.
“Simon Killer” continues the exploration of modern male emotional dysfunction embarked upon in “Afterschool”, but this is a much more organic feeling project than Campos’s first film, which often came off seeming like an overly self-conscious arthouse affectation, with its webcam-like visual stylisation taken at times to such extremes that the film ended up approaching a certain level of parody. The digital aesthetic and street-level mise-en-scène of this movie adhere to a no less formalised and intellectually consistent set of visual tropes collected around the concept of the idea of a possible disconnect between the eye and the brain (which was Simon’s alleged University thesis before his graduation) – a disparity that creates a gap between the physical act of seeing itself and the actual contents of perception. But here the measured camerawork, slow pans and off-centre compositional framing, while still always lending the film a certain self-aware quality, do start to blend in with the general atmosphere of the piece and become less distracting and more invisible to conscious perception as time goes on, adding to the unsettling tonality of the film in general in a way that is completely in keeping with the principle theme.
The careful, methodical movement and considered placement of Campos’s camera make one think of robotic pre-programmed surveillance cams blindly tracking across a scene without awareness of what is actually being viewed; but there are other times when the camera seems to embody a living consciousness of its surroundings, anticipating where the actors are going to end up and arriving there at just the right moment to create a certain effect within the framing. Both Victoria/Noura and Marianne (Constance Rousseau), a second French girl with whom Simon forms a similar attachment through use of the same emotionally manipulative techniques, each have various different sorts of impairments of the eyes which affect their vision in differing ways – a thematic metaphor for their initial inability to ‘see’ Simon for what he truly is. Joe Anderson’s camera is an invisible but increasingly active presence which provides mediation between the viewer and the characters. A striking effect, whereby the digital camera is exposed to coloured lights, engenders flickering abstract magenta patterns which act as transition points between certain scenes that are meant to conjure the idea of an eye shutting on an event and of light being filtered through a closed eyelid.
As effective as all this careful, formalised thinking by the filmmakers behind the camera may be on the subject of the presentation of their material, it’s the central performances of Brady Corbet and Mati Diop which furnish the movie with its greatest asset -- so much so that they each receive a co-writing credit for the screenplay, since the development of the characters and their interactions were part of a collaborative process that incorporates semi-improvisational techniques and careful preparation beforehand. Corbet, Diop and Campos visited real-life hostess bars and filmed in real brothel establishments in the Pigalle area of Paris. The results are certainly memorable, often striking and visually stimulating, but this is a film that’s ultimately quite hard to like though, precisely because of its success at being just a little bit too good at creating an atmosphere of alienation and urban loneliness in the big city; cynicism and cold exploitation may not be an fair description of the film itself, but it certainly sums up the feeling one is left with at the end of it, along with the thought that Simon is only just beginning on a journey that might well be taking him much farther down the road to depravity if he continues along the violent track we see him committed to throughout this bleak, excellently acted but emotionally sterile drama.
The film is presented on Blu-ray (also available in standard definition DVD format) in an excellent 1080p HD transfer that makes the most of the crystal clear digital format used to shoot the movie. The extras package is very strong too, consisting of one of Campos’s early short films from 2007, the Palme d’Or nominated “The Last 15” -- yet another tale of disaffected middle-class alienation in which a debt-ridden family prepare for a meal as their expensive apartment literally begins to collapse around them. In addition “The Case of the Conscious Camera” is an engrossing 29 minute interview with Antonio Campos about his method of deciding on shots and building his scenes, conducted by Zachary Wigon; “Sundance Alumini Interview” features Campos and producers and fellow filmmakers Josh Mond and Sean Durkin in conversation; “Behind-the-Scenes” takes the form of a 20 minute experimental film collage that echoes the structure, atmosphere and aesthetics of the feature itself for a piece put together by filmmaker David Formentin on the sets and locations used for the film; “Conversations with Mom” is a light-hearted interview with actor Brady Corbet and director Antonio Campos with both of their mothers in attendance; plus the original theatrical trailer is included to round off the disc extras. The Masters of Cinema presentation from Eureka Entertainment includes a handsome full-colour 28 page booklet with an insightful and informative article by critic Karen Longworth; a revealing interview with Campos; and a visual primer on the development of the distinctive poster art used for the movie which was designed by Brandon Schaefer.
“Simon Killer” is a film to admire for its formal cleverness and the craft involved in its design but it’s curiously hard to love, the Campos cinematic world is filled with over-privileged American sociopaths drowning in the distancing interactions created by social media but ultimately empathising with nothing and nobody except their own deluded, narcissistic fantasy constructions of themselves. The predominant feeling one is left with after viewing his work is one of an overwhelming existential emptiness frozen in ice. This film is as perfectly constructed an encapsulation of that world-view as one could imagine, but it’s not a sensibility one might wish to revisit in cinematic form very frequently. Campos’s work pokes into the hidden corners of the collective modern psyche and finds little to recommend the inauthentic selves it finds endlessly reconfigured in a virtually mediated world that seems to provide the ideal conditions for people like Simon Killer to flourish, as their opportunities to construct an image thought up in order to achieve specific self-centred goals, multiply until the concept of truth becomes as obscure to our eyes as the origin of the sociopathic drives that lead Simon to behave as he does.
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