If you find Simon too ugly a person to watch, just remember—Simon Killer’s beauty lies in its form.
In Simon Killer, director Antonio Campos plays provocateur, giving us a protagonist who becomes so unlikable, so repulsive, you’re sure to leave the theater full of hatred and contempt for him. Campos’ film is thoroughly distressing, an exercise in discomfort that will be difficult to embrace for most, much like his first film, Afterschool. However, dismissing it as a purely unpleasant experience would be to overlook an expertly crafted film—it’s deeply sensuous, with intoxicating imagery and a seductive musical score. I was enthralled with it from beginning to end, but if you find Simon too ugly a person to watch, just remember—Simon Killer’s beauty lies in its form.
Simon (Brady Corbet) is a recent college grad from New York who, reeling from a recent breakup, has fled to Paris in search of—what else—love and sex. Bewildered by his new surroundings, he shuffles aimlessly around the city until he happens upon a kind-hearted prostitute named Victoria (Mati Diop) who he convinces to take him in, feed and clothe him (through some devious manipulation). Simon eventually hatches a foolish, half-baked extortion scheme that results in Victoria getting badly beaten (though this doesn’t stop him from cheating on her with another girl). A frightening, vicious side of Simon gradually emerges as his frustrations grow. His lies accumulate, his mind comes undone, and we steadily approach the grim implication of the film’s title.
As Simon’s actions become increasingly alarming, you can almost hear Campos whispering in your ear—“What if Simon did this? How about this?” He takes your patience for Simon—stretches it—and stretches it—and stretches it—until it inevitably snaps. When it snaps depends upon your tolerance for wickedness in people. I turned on Simon when he threw Victoria’s love in the garbage by sleeping around behind her back. However, you might turn on him in the opening scene, in which he refers to his ex-lover as a whore. Everyone’s breaking point will vary, which is Simon Killer‘s most intriguing quality. No matter where you draw the line morally, Simon steps over it and keeps walking—and walking—until you’ve got nothing left for him but disdain.
Corbet’s natural gifts are fully unleashed here—Campos gives him a lot of space to work his magic, and it’s clear that the two share the same sensibilities. The film hinges on Corbet’s performance, and the one he delivers is stirring, nuanced, and often shocking. He has nervous tics that are steadily amplified throughout the film until Simon resembles something like an abused, rabid animal. The most unforgettable of his idiosyncrasies are the long, guttural moans and groans he releases when he becomes upset, angry or nervous. They’re spine-tingling—half childlike, half bestial—and get louder and more primal as his emotions swell. Diop is effortlessly alluring and balances hard-nosed street-savvy with maternal sensitivity. She does a solid job of earning our sympathy and has natural chemistry with Corbet.
While Simon Killer’s ponderous pace can be trying at times, what helps the experience is Campos’ masterful technique. He moves his camera with finesse and deliberation—you can sense how much meticulous thought went into every shot, though the scenes still feel organic and un-staged. Campos twice returns to a still-life shot of a table in Victoria’s apartment which is at first clean. Later in the film, it’s littered with cocaine bags, half-eaten food, and used wine glasses. Campos focuses on the clutter for long takes while the characters chatter off screen. The film is full of inventive shots like this, with each of them more interesting than the last.
Campos and cinematographer Joe Anderson shoot Paris like’70s New York—there’s nothing saccharine or romantic about it. The camera is aimed low, never concerned with showcasing the picturesque scenery—its only focus is Simon and his actions. Interiors are lit with thick waves of color that saturate the screen like ink blotches. In a remarkable extended shot halfway through the film, Simon is gleefully dancing in a nightclub as the psychedelic, undulating lights he’s bathing in seem to lull him into a rapturous trance. There is a carnality to Simon Killer that’s truly unique.
The film’s soundtrack and score are used aggressively, to great effect. The music always reflects what’s going on in Simon’s head, and is sometimes literally the music he’s listening to—when he takes his headphones off, our music cuts out. When the camera follows Simon as he prowls the Parisian streets, a pounding tribal beat fills the speakers to convey his predatory mindset. When he dances lovingly with Victoria in her apartment (a welcome respite from the film’s thick tension), we hear the film’s soothing title song. The musical choices are all very functional in fleshing Simon out as a character. The percussive musical score and cool indie-pop soundtrack are as conflicting as his mental state, which is appropriate.
Simon Killer is a raw, primal film that will leave you emotionally and psychologically stripped. Though a feeling of unease and dissonance pervades it, its cinematic elements are immaculate. It’s not a perfect film—as a character study, it’s somewhat shallow—but at the end of the day, it will stick with you (in the ickiest way) for a good long while, and achieves this through pure, masterful cinema.