Simon Killer ✮✮✮1/2
A Free Man in Paris
by Glenn Lovell
Go on, admit it. You’re in the mood for something naughty, like last year’s “Shame,” a dark, erotic thriller/character study that slowly draws you into its web even as it unnerves you. Look no further than Antonio Campos’s “Simon Killer” (now playing in San Francisco and Berkeley). It’s easily one of the most stylish and provocative films of the year ‒ on one level a mesmerizing hybrid of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and, for its steamy, no-holds-barred lovemaking, that X-rated classic “Last Tango in Paris.”
The sulky, baby-faced Brady Corbet plays Simon, an American tramping through Place Pigalle in Paris’s red-light district. A recent college grad, Simon is on the road, so he says, to put a messy breakup behind him. To friends he blames his girlfriend’s infidelity and erratic behavior. But as the narrative unfolds it becomes increasingly clear that it’s Simon who’s a mess; he’s a pathetic mama’s boy, a compulsive liar who projects his worst traits on everyone else. The question that lingers: How broken is this guy? Broken enough to cause someone serious harm?
In his darkest moments, Simon buries his head and emits a guttural moan, like some animal caught in a trap. His meltdowns will remind you of James Cagney flipping out in “White Heat.”
During nightly peram- bulations, Simon ducks into a side street bar and pays for the services of a willowy prostitute named Noura (Mati Diop). True to his M.O., he’s soon leeching off the malleable hooker, who, just out of an abusive marriage, is especially susceptible to the American’s little-boy-lost routine. Indeed, before long this punk gangster has his girlfriend blackmailing her clients. This can’t end happily.
Writer-director Campos’s debut feature, “Afterschool,” was a festival favorite that, sadly, barely found distribution. (It’s now available on streaming Netflix.) It’s about a meek prep-school kid whose behavior at a crucial moment is affected by a steady diet of Internet violence. For what it said about our media-addicted society it reminded me of Michael Haneke’s “Benny’s Video.” Like “Afterschool,” Campos’s new film comments on our addiction to Internet porn and cell phones (tourists look at the Mona Lisa through the lens of their iPhones). It’s also heavily influenced by the French New Wave, Godard in particular. Campos favors long takes, mirror reflections, slow pans back and forth between characters, unconventional compositions (when Simon and Noura dance, their heads leave the frame). Personally, I like this approach; it keeps one off-guard, uneasy, and more of a participant in the action.
Simon’s tour of the Parisian demimonde is backed by minimalist kettledrum score and, when Simon wears his earbuds or ducks into a disco, pulsating techno-pop by Austra and Spectral Display (“It Takes a Muscle to Fall in Love” is Simon’s favorite song). If ever a soundtrack begged to be mastered …
SIMON KILLER ✮✮✮1/2 With Brady Corbet, Mati Diop, Constance Rousseau. Directed by Antonio Campos; scripted by Campos, Corbet, Diop. 101 min. Unrated (violence, fairly graphic lovemaking with full-frontal nudity by Diop)