“Simon Killer” opens on a blue-filtered panoramic view of Paris that turns into a red-filtered spasm of strobe lights before cutting to Simon (Brady Corbet), a handsomely scruffy young man, asleep on a bus. The implication is that the light show — which was accompanied by a reggae-tinged pop song that sounds like it was played on circus instruments — was Simon’s dream state. Now that we’ve been granted access to the inside of his head, we’re going to be stuck there (for better or worse) for the rest of the movie.
This is an erotic psychological drama, not nearly as thrilling as its title suggests, but intriguing in the way it boldly offers for our examination a protagonist who is thoroughly unlikable and only barely, occasionally sympathetic. Not at first, though. In the beginning, Simon — a recent college graduate who has fled to Paris after a painful breakup — seems average enough. He speaks middling French, he smokes like a European, and he’s educated: he studied neuroscience, in particular the relationship between the eye and the brain. His casual dismissal of his cheating girlfriend as a “whore,” while coarse, is forgivable under the circumstances.
But soon enough we notice troubling details. His correspondence with his ex-girlfriend and his mom is full of misrepresentations about his experiences. Though his emails to the ex are friendly and cordial, her cold, wary response suggests their breakup wasn’t nearly as one-sided as he told us. What else might he have lied about?
He meets a prostitute named Victoria (Mati Diop, also the film’s co-writer), first in a professional capacity and then socially, whom he manipulates in his needy, narcissistic way. Simon uses people; Victoria is used by people. But they both fill the other role sometimes, too: Simon, in a foreign country and not totally fluent in the language, is easily taken advantage of; and Victoria, though a prostitute, is no victim. She knows how to get what she wants. There’s a crucial and somewhat shocking moment when the power dynamic between them changes is a symbolic but unmistakeable way. The question then is how Simon will react to the shift.
The movie was directed and co-written by Antonio Campos, whose under-seen 2008 gem “Afterschool” — about a video-obsessed teen who films two students’ accidental drug overdose — was a similarly quiet and disquieting look at disaffected youth. Campos shoots much of “Simon Killer” from one of two angles: following Simon from behind, or with the camera placed at crotch level, disinterestedly capturing whatever transpires in front of it. Sometimes it pans slowly back and forth across the room without regard for where the action is taking place. Campos uses long, unbroken takes, making even the steamiest action (and there is plenty) appear matter-of-fact.
This emotionlessness weighs the film down, though. As compelling as it may sound to watch a budding young sociopath come into full bloom, one’s interest level is bound to wane when we’re kept so detached from him. It is perhaps ironic that even though the story is told entirely through Simon’s eyes, and is greatly influenced by his imbalanced train of thought, we never really understand what’s going on with him. We’re fascinated as he becomes an increasingly unreliable and erratic source of information. But the climax, when it finally does come, is as un-climactic as everything before it. There’s a fine line between dispassionate and boring.
But I do like the film’s cool, muted color palette (with cinematography by Joe Anderson) and the general vibe of un-emphasized creepiness. There’s a highly engaging dramatic thriller hidden somewhere in this lugubrious, tamped-down Parisian nightmare.
B- (1 hr., 45 min.; )
Originally published at About.com.