Bad things go down in the city of lights in Antonio Campos' chilling character study.
He's been called Michael Haneke's foremost American acolyte, and it's not at all difficult to see why. Antonio Campos makes films in which people indulge in extreme self-abasement while ignoring the psychological fallout their actions might cause. Buy It Now fired a satirical blunderbuss at e-commerce by charting how a young girl sold her virginity via the internet. Afterschool carefully riffed on Haneke's own Benny's Video, offering a glassy, alienating portrait of an scarily indifferent schoolboy who is slowly desensitising himself to hard sex and violence.
His latest, Simon Killer, could almost be seen as a sequel to Afterschool, as it follows a man who believes he's a good guy, but is apparently blind to the horrific consequences of his actions. Brady Corbet (who handily worked with Haneke on his US remake of Funny Games), plays the eponymous antihero, an angular, nomadic twentysomething who has escaped to Paris following a tough break-up with his girlfriend. Initially it would appear that he's made this trip to allow the relationship to breathe, with the intention of coming home and giving it another go. But it's not long before he's looking elsewhere for his sexual kicks.
Campos photographs Paris with the same sense of chilly detachment (and barely audibly repulsion) that he did with the school in Afterschool. It's recognisable, but aggressively deromanticised. Simon ambles past many of the city's great monuments and places of interest, but he seems uninterested by them. As such, Campos's camera reflects this geographic apathy by seldom zeroing in on scenery or buildings. Exterior shots are often filmed at twilight and the background often remains out of focus. Simon is not on holiday. His surroundings have little bearing on his emotional state.
The seeds of Simon's downfall are planted when he's coaxed into a backstreet brothel. He's instantly paired off with Mati Diop's Victoria, an escort who knows how to work the emotional contours of her clients. Simon becomes obsessed with Victoria, or so it seems. He decides that he's going to put himself in great personal danger to free her from the shackles of her profession. And then that ominous title starts to gain its meaning, offering suggestions as to why Simon may have been ditched in the first place.
The film is intended as an ambivalent character study with a fairly unremarkable narrative that addresses the deep folly of desperate actions which, from certain angles, may appear entirely logical. Yet despite Simon's clear sociopathic tendencies, the film can also be read as study of international relations, and the difficulties of progressive intervention into the problems suffered by those of other races, cultures and even genders.
Simon Killer asks, can we truly ever display an act of charity – can we save a person in dire need – without some sense of personal entitlement and self-satisfaction? Plus Victoria's situation is only negative when judged through Simon's western eyes – did she even require Simon's aid?
It's a rich film, but not a particularly pleasurable one. It's nihilistic sense of pessimism at times feels laboured and Simon's increasingly bizarre decision-making process gradually becomes dictated by the inexorable death-spiral narrative. Campos has talent to burn, and even though this film lacks the squalid subtleties of Afterschool, it's still makes for a bleak drama about the practice of looking for love in all the wrong places.
Antonio Campos's Afterschool was revelatory, but this perplexed audiences at Sundance.
Brutal, nasty, unflinching. If you like that kind of thing.
Aside from some brilliant flourishes, this is a fairly conventional tale of a myopic male sociopath.