In many films, music provides an escape. We’re talking about that wedding party scene in End of Watch, or Pulp Fiction’s Travolta-Thurman dance-off, both of which offered a reprieve from the darkness festering elsewhere in the narrative. Not so in Simon Killer. Despite its throbbing, indie-cool soundtrack, music in this Sundance hit is used to keep us continually off-balance, uneasy, trapped. There’s no escaping the darkness in Simon (Brady Corbet).
As abrasive and frustrating as the music cues are in Simon Killer – electro-pop tracks build to a crescendo before being abruptly silenced – it’s entirely fitting for Simon’s story. He’s a young man doing the tourist thing in Paris. Except he’s finding it a lonely experience, roaming the streets and bars in search of a connection and, in one moment of spot on comic tragedy, even has an awkward webcam rendezvous.
Things seem to pick up when Simon meets prostitute Victoria (Mati Diop), a fragile young woman who takes pity on him and lets him crash at her flat. It’s this relationship that begins to unravel Simon’s personality, and in the harshest, cruellest of situations, he’s revealed to be a little more than the naïve, backpacker boy-next-door we’ve been led to believe he is. Like the music, he’s fractured and conflicted.
An ambitious second feature from Afterschool director Antonio Campos, Simon Killer marks a definite evolution for the filmmaker. Stylistically, there are a lot of similar visual cues – elegant, slow pans, restrained framing – but Campos attempts to fuse his keen eye with an exploration of what is, essentially, a potentially dangerous sociopath.
Mati Diop and Brady Corbet.
Far from putting Simon under a microscope and dissecting him, though, Campos sets up a series of mysteries that may or may not hold the clues to his warped mind. Presented in snippets of dialogue, visual motifs and encounters with other characters, we’re left to come up with our own answers. Is Simon a predator? Or just slightly messed up? Most importantly, does he have the capacity to murder?
This emphasis on set-up with few answers is both Simon Killer’s biggest strength and its greatest weakness. It’s a beautifully-realised enigma, aesthetically faultless (the film was shot entirely on location in Paris using only natural light) and unashamedly provocative. Even the title is a puzzle, inviting certain expectations but then not entirely delivering on them.
“Can I just look at you?” breathes Simon whenever he gets within a few feet of a naked woman. Simon Killer invites us to do the same. It’s obsessed with perception, the power of looking (Laura Mulvey would have a field day), what it means to objectify and be objectified.
It should come as no surprise that Martha Marcy May Marlene director Sean Durkin produced Killer (Campos himself produced MMMM). The two films are like twin sides of the same scuzzed coin – one a portrait of a victim, the other of a victimiser. Both are haunting cinematic experiences and, at Killer’s centre, Corbet plays a wily game, slowly chipping away Simon’s veneer until we’re left with something genuinely disturbing.
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