[This is a re-post of my review from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Simon Killer opens today in limited release.]
Antonio Campos‘s Simon Killer is an amusing film both unintentionally and unexpectedly. The film is rarely meant to be comedic and it rarely enters into so-bad-it’s-good territory. What makes the film so amusing is how hard Campos is trying to make it exciting. It is the definition of overcompensating as the aggressive direction, bizarre cinematography, and melodramatic performances try to convince the audience that the dull plot and pathetic characters are worth caring about. There’s even a moderately intriguing idea at the center of the protagonist’s motives, but it’s buried under meaningless sex, violence, and introspection.
Campos opens the movie with a strobe-heavy, abstract lightshow that may cause seizures (that’s not an exaggeration; at Sundance screenings there were warnings about the strobe effect). We then meet Simon (Brady Corbet), who has gone to Paris after he broke-up with his girlfriend when he discovered she had been cheating on him. Simon finds his way to a brothel and takes up with a prostitute, Victoria (Mati Diop). He then slowly pulls her into his personal drama by paying for out-call visits and then manipulating her into having sex for free. The two then try to rake in the profits by blackmailing her clients, but this is a cursory plotline that provides the story with the barest amount of momentum. Simon Killer is about a sad, average guy who has a lot of sex with a prostitute.
The movie strongly implies that Simon wasn’t quite right in the head even when he was still together with his girlfriend, but her post-break-up e-mail responses to him are always cordial and along the lines of “We need some time apart and you shouldn’t contact me,” not “Stop trying to talk to me, you freaking psychopath.” With a heavy heart, a mopey cheapskate tries to find love with someone he has to pay, and then the movie gets slightly clever by having their blackmail scheme work as a way for Simon to get back at cheating guys like the one who slept with his girlfriend. That’s about as deep as the movie goes and then it’s back to Simon having more prostitute sex and incompetently doing everything else.
Campos directs as if Simon Killer was a far more interesting movie. For example, he just doesn’t want to show sex. He wants to show sex from the mid-thigh on down. Campos isn’t against showing genitals, but his framing has them hanging over the frame as if to show how sex dominates everything. It would be a subtle idea if every other scene wasn’t people having sex. When Simon isn’t plowing Victoria, the camera stalks behind him and loud music pounds through his headphones until everything cuts off and we’re in a new, non-stalker shot. It adds intensity to a guy walking around and thinking about stuff. Follow someone else around Paris and I’m sure you’ve got the same thing. Brady Corbet’s performance is supposed to expose the core of a complex man, but like the direction, it’s delving into the shallow waters.
Simon Killer isn’t a movie where we’re going inside the protagonist’s mind to see the world as he views it. There’s nothing energetic about shameful and pathetic behavior, and the movie’s non-abrasive scenes play like downtime before Campos can shove abstract visuals into our eyes and pulsating music down our ears. Even Simon doesn’t think he’s interesting since he always excuses the dullness of his college dissertation. The story and characters are a chore, but Campos makes Simon Killer ironically adorable in the same way as someone who decks out and details his Ford Taurus.