Directed by Antonio Campos
United States, 2012
Philadelphia Film Festival
We probably see the back of characters’ heads nearly as frequently as their faces in Antonio Campos’ follow-up to his 2008 brooder, Afterschool. Favoring a handheld, following camera, a pulsing synth soundtrack that cuts abruptly in and out, slow zooms that seem to be fast becoming a trademark of BorderLine Films, and ambiguous red-light transitions, Simon Killer seems culled equally from Frank Perry character studies and the sinister commonplace dread of a Bertrand Tavernier thriller.
Simon (Brady Corbet) is a college graduate (or so he says) roaming aimlessly in Paris. Recently broken up from his unseen American girlfriend, Simon takes up with a prostitute Noura (Mati Diop). The two spend their days having sex and scheming to rip off Noura’s clients.
Little is explained in Simon Killer. Whether Simon is entirely unreliable is completely up for debate, and left open by the final five minutes of the film. But Corbet’s strong performance makes his amateur-Tom Ripley fun to watch regardless of verisimilitude.
The soundtrack – a pounding techno – plays almost exclusively through Simon’s headphones. Campos seems to take pleasure in hard-cutting the sound sharply in and out as the character changes songs, or as the scenes jump ahead in time. A dizzying technique, it sometimes get tired in its mimicry of Simon’s jumbled thought-process.
The best scene in Simon Killer is probably its simplest. It’s also the most successful example of Campos’ hit-or-miss insistence on minimal shots within a scene and a camera that often slowly catches up to its characters.
Simon and Noura stand up to dance and, instead of tilting up or cutting to show their faces or full bodies, the camera stays stationary, capturing only their midsections and hips. It’s an extended sequence that revels in the beauty of motion and carefree movement.
The simple moments – this dance scene, a video chat with Simon’s mother, an encounter with a police officer – work best in Simon Killer. It’s when Campos tries to get too much mileage out of the mundanity of Simon’s routine and shock cuts from routine to graphic sex that the film falters.