There is a wonderful, stylistic swagger about director-screenwriter Antonio Campos’s Simon Killer. From the moment the soundtrack kicks in and the opening sequence plays there is a tangible sense of an inventive mind at work.
It’s there in the second scene, too, which neatly subverts the convention of zooming in on a character as they share a revelation. Campos chooses to zoom out, slowly, isolating Simon (Brady Corbet), putting the audience at a distance from him. Then, the camera creeps back towards him. Bringing us closer to this young American college graduate about to sample life in Paris.Campos’s track record includes directing Afterschool and producing Martha Marcy May Marlene, and he maintains his skewed view of the world with this clever take on a somewhat charming sociopath. Where it works best – aside from the dazzling camerawork – is in its ability to withhold details about Simon’s previous relationship and his life in the US. Simon provides a few clues … but the neat trick is: are you really sure you believe him.
So what do we know? Simon has flown to Paris to stay in the flat of a family friend, and is attempting to get over the breakup of his relationship with Michelle. He shares a few of his thoughts on Michelle prior to the friend’s departure for the south of France. It’s clear Simon is a bitter man and the relationship didn’t end well.
Alone in a big European city, he visits the usual tourist hangouts but, starved of contact, he’s soon trying to get to know a couple of nice French girls using cheap chat-up lines. He fails.
What changes everything is meeting Victoria (Mati Diop), a young prostitute who falls for his looks and also his lies and offers of protection. Though she doesn’t want to at first, she falls in love with him. Gradually, Simon’s charm fades and his neuroses take hold, and we’re left looking at a man who might be out of control.
Campos does his work with unconventional camera angles, strange compositions and a stuttering soundtrack that packs a punch – often before it cuts out rather than fades away. It serves the story and character perfectly. Even the sex scenes – which are strident – provide an addition to the narrative.
But where the plug really gets pulled on Simon Killer is at its heart: the story. There is a stench of cliché in the young foreigner pursuing his fantasy of a French girl and there is filmic conventionality in the fact that Victoria, and later Marianne (Constance Rousseau), fall so easy for the charms an audience would struggle to justify. And, while the film’s lead is hardly depicted as a “hero” there remains an undercurrent of misogyny in the way women are portrayed throughout – not only when they are in a scene but even when they are being discussed. It may not be overt intent, but amid the prostitutes, one-night stands and insulted ex-girlfriends there is a casual sexism that drags the movie towards the oh-so predictable. And that is as unfortunate as it is disappointing.