♫ Qu'est-ce que c'est / Meh meh-meh meh meh-meh meh-meh meh meh ♫
The title Simon Killer makes it seem like you'll be watching a slasher movie or a serial killer movie. It recalls Talking Heads song "Psycho Killer," and the lyrics complement the film in an interesting way. On top of that, the description I read for Simon Killer made it sound like this was about the origins of a serial killer, so going in I expected something like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or Man Bites Dog.
But Simon Killer isn't that kind of movie. It's more of a character study about an unwell person and the damage he does to others when he latches onto them. Director/co-writer Antonio Campos was a producer on Martha Marcy May Marlene, and there are shades of that film in Simon Killer, but only shades While Martha Marcy May Marlene held my attention with its exploration of a damaged personality, Simon Killer eventually falls into patterns and repetitions as it loses its way.
Man, I wish this was a serial killer movie.
♫ I'm tense and nervous and I / Can't relax ♫
Simon (Brady Corbet) has come to Paris to get his mind off a bad break up, or so goes the expository conversation that opens the film: he was a student, his girlfriend cheated on him, he wrote a thesis on the way the eyes and the brain are connected. Within the first 10 minutes of Simon Killer we can tell he's distraught. He wanders the city with his earbuds in and the music blaring to distract himself. Without the synth pop and percussive rumbling, he'd have to confront the lonely silence of the city and the slump of his life. He becomes fixated on architecture and old paintings in a way that seems too distracted. Later in the film, a character comments that she doesn't like the way Simon's looking at her. Though he's shot from behind in these early scenes at museums, I picture Simon looking at windows and fine art with the same sort of off-putting male gaze. These moments of isolation are surprisingly compelling since they capture the sense of alienation and restlessness that a bad break up can cause.
Simon knows a little French to get by, but he doesn't really understand the language that well. Campos decides not to include subtitles so the audience gets immersed in Simon's world. If you don't speak French, you're unable to process anything but body language and facial expression; if you speak a little French like me, you catch snippets but remain, like Simon, mostly lost; and if you do speak French, it'd probably amusing just to see how little Simon actually understands. The credit goes to both Campos's direction and Corbet's performance. Even if the film winds up falling far short of its early potential, Corbet is fascinating to watch.
Also fascinating to watch is Victoria (Mati Diop), a French prostitute that Simon meets and tries to start a relationship with. Even if you don't speak French, Victoria's introduction says a lot about her character and what she's been through. The shift in their relationship from hooker & trick to possible lovers works well since Diop and Corbet are fully inhabiting (at least for now) some extremely convincing characters. There's a narrative to their relationship in their sex scenes. Maybe two broken souls can mend each other, somehow.
But Simon Killer isn't that kind of movie either.
♫ You start a conversation you can't even finish it ♫
Simon's thesis about how the eyes and the brain are connected suggests a larger metaphor about what's seen and what's actually true. There's a big difference. People can hide behind veneers of kindness in order to mask their intentions, or build up stories that selectively remove unsavory personal details. Simon Killer is full of repetitions and revisions of the past. As the audience learns more about Simon and as we watch the way he acts around others, there's a sense that he wasn't being entirely honest at the beginning of the film. I wondered what the actual circumstances of the break up were, and what he was leaving out of the story. The lies become more overt in the last third of the film as Simon becomes more comfortable and manipulative. Simon is not a killer, and he may not even be the person he said he was at the beginning, but there's one undeniable fact about him: he's a sociopath.
That's another connection between Simon Killer and Martha Marcy May Marlene. Both films are about how traumas in the past can affect a person in the present. In Martha Marcy May, it's the psychological reprogramming of a cult, while in Simon Killer it's something messy in a major relationship. But with the half-truths and lies of Simon Killer, we have to guess at what this past actually involved. There are no flashbacks in the film, so I found myself reconstructing Simon's last relationship from what I knew and what could be inferred. And since the film is about recurring patterns of behavior and well as stylistic and performative patterns (e.g., Spectral Display's "It Takes a Muscle to Fall in Love" plays at least twice in the film; dancing leads to intimacy; Simon has a distinct groan/whine), I was intrigued by the hints of who Simon was before heading to Paris. He may have even been like this before his last relationship.
As intriguing as that is as an intellectual exercise, Simon Killer falters and never recovers in the second half. Any of the languid narrative momentum of the film dies when Simon comes up with a scheme for Victoria to make more money with her clients: blackmail. Though Victoria is young, she seems far too worldly and too hurt by past experiences to go for Simon's idea. On top of that, she sleeps with clients in her own apartment, so anyone she tries to blackmail has her personal address. I can't picture any half-cautious sex worker doing something so stupid and so reckless. I think she only accepts the idea so new complications can be added to the story, and there's nothing that takes me out of a movie more than characters acting idiotic just to advance the plot.
♫ You're talking a lot, but you're not saying anything ♫
Once Simon comes up with the plan, it was like a balloon suddenly deflating. The way the film unfolds at this point is generally predictable and mostly disengaged. Gone is that intense interest in the lives of Simon and Victoria; lost are the evocative bits of writing and observation about what it means to feel alone and disconnected. It's as if the focus had shifted from a film driven by performance and writing to a film driven by contrivances to get to some sort of resolution. I found myself less engaged with the characters even though what came before was an interesting character study.
I also noticed in the last half of Simon Killer that instead of trying to engage with the patterns and repetitions, I was just waiting for them to happen. Nothing new is presented in these repetitions that we didn't already know, which makes the film seem to drag on longer. That's an issue with stories that get hooked on patterns. Eventually to maintain interest, the pattern needs to be broken or altered just enough, and the story needs to go somewhere unexpected but inevitable.
Some films I've watched lately reach a point where they seem to give up. They were doing something well, but then decided to linger too long without the energy to remain interesting. These movies wind up ending on sloppy, haphazard, and muddled notes, as if the flimmakers just lost the will to tell their story. These films stumble to their conclusions, and I wind up distanced from material I was really in touch with for a while. It's less like a studio fadeout and more like a half-hearted shrug -- "Eh, so that's it or something. Credits." If Simon Killer begins with the promise of color and a great pop song, it ends with a mumble that fails to move or convince.
Allistair Pinsof: [This blurb was taken from Allistair's coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.] With a title like that, you walk into a movie with some expectations. You know, like maybe Simon is a killer. Except, he's not. He's a pretty endearing guy who is on vacation in France as he gets over his ex and tries to find out where his life will be going next. Simon is also pretty lonely. It's only a matter of ties until he graduates from sex chatrooms to a brothel -- where he meets hooker with a heart of gold Victoria. And then we discover Simon is a seriously fucked-up dude who ... you probably know. The slow reveal of Simon's true nature is captivating due to Brady Corbet's strong performance, some great cinematography, and one of the best soundtracks I've heard in years. Unfortunately, director gives into lame pretensions too often and bogs the plot down with dead-ends. When we know who Simon really is, we no longer care. But, seriously, where can I buy the soundtrack? 63 - Decent
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of Film Comment Selects. It has been reposted to coincide with the film's theatrical release.]