Antonio Campos’s much-awaited second feature, while less clear-cut than his supremely affectless debut Afterschool, is just about as unsettling. An American-in-Paris story of sorts, it follows a slow but acute mental unraveling of the eponymous character (played by the film’s co-screenwriter, Brady Corbet) as he seeks a post-breakup consolation in the “city of love.” The Paris of the movie, intermittently respectable and seedy, becomes a scene for Simon’s desperate pursuit of affection, which gradually turns more and more insidious and scary.
The opening sections (redolent somehow of Sofia Coppola’s much gentler universe) offer some beautifully rendered stretches of epic ennui, with Simon’s self-avowed pursuit of “doing absolutely nothing” slowly curdling into a disturbing maze of near-psychotic self-delusion. As Campos coolly multiplies discomfiting narrative ripples that make us question Simon’s credibility, then his sanity, Corbet goes from cutely absent-minded to disheveled to plain cuckoo with fearful precision. Given that the whole film plays with the notion of false appearances, it makes perfect, if a tad too symmetrical, sense that Simon’s alleged profession has something to do with studying “the relationship between the eye and the brain.”
The main character’s bipolar personality is literalized by two sexual relationships he develops during his stay—one with a prostitute he first meets as a client and then turns into an accomplice, and another with a perky French literature student (as sweet as she’s cultured). The noose of lies Simon weaves in order to keep various strands of his self-made “reality” going slowly tightens to the point of visceral suffocation.
Save for its awfully ominous title, which keeps hovering over the proceedings from the start, Campos doesn’t point his story in any generic way that would force us to see every single scene as an indicator of underlying threat. In fact, one of Simon Killer’s most admirable achievements lies in the ease with which Campos turns some early scenes of desperate loneliness into nuggets of behavioral comedy, of which a prolonged multitask-masturbation involving a laptop is the most impressive one.
Simon Killer feels both carefully studied and willfully unfocused. Campos opts for showy shock cuts, elaborate wandering-eye pans, and jarring juxtapositions of different kinds of music—much of it courtesy of the main character’s iPod, which at times switches from track to track literally mid-scene). Judging by the relatively high number of walkouts I witnessed during the press screening, the film manages to touch a raw nerve and will undoubtedly be deemed “pretentious” by some. I found it stunningly daring, refreshingly adventurous, and impossible to shake off, firmly establishing Campos as the new master of consciously hyper-crafted, dead-serious cine-angst.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19—29.