Simon Killer: Sundance Film Review

2012-02 FEA Sundance Simon Killer H
Joe Anderson

Mati Diop and Brady Corbet in the provocative competition entry "Simon Killer."

Chilly, uninviting tale of an uncivilized American in Paris won’t travel far.

There is little to compensate for the cold and nasty nature of Simon Killer, an unpalatable Franco-American entrée one would like to send back to wherever it came from. This lushly and pretentiously made drama about a young American whose worst instincts are unleashed during a stay in Paris endeavors to entice with details of the seedy underworld of La Pigalle but is a turn-off in almost every respect. Likely to be rated NC-17 if it ever gets to that point, this latest effort by the production group behind last year’s big Sundance attraction Martha Marcy May Marlene will find meager traction Stateside.

Writer-director Antonio Campos, noted for his 2008 directorial debut Afterschool, has acknowledged the influence of the prolific French crime novelist Georges Simenon on these dirty doings in the less savory parts of Paris. But there are echoes as well of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley in the lying, deceptions and blackmail ploys of Simon, Campos’ young American in Paris, played with unmodulated seediness by Brady Corbet.

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Taking a European break after grad school and the end of a long relationship, Simon indulges, amusingly, in computer porn and noses around Paris a bit before ducking into one of the district’s many girlie bars. He partakes of a quickie with the attractively skinny Victoria (Mati Diop, good), who likes him enough to propose continuing the (paid) relationship outside the premises of the club.

Their sexual relationship is delineated in sufficient detail to make it clear how and when Simon gains the upper hand, whereupon he launches into a sordid little blackmail enterprise while simultaneously managing to become entirely broke. Suddenly feeling himself studly, though, he starts up with another girl and begins imagining himself as capable of nearly anything, which actually might have been the case all along.

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There is merit and perhaps necessity in keeping certain things vague and unknown in tales such as this. Shrewd storytellers know how to manipulate and tease audiences in their giving and withholding of information, but Campos merely irritates with his obfuscations and parsimonious revelation of character traits and hints of what has actually taken place. At the very least, he is artistically consistent in this unrevelatory impulse: Many shots follow the back of Simon’s head, Dardenne brothers-style, as he walks through the streets, but the director keeps what lies ahead and around him deliberately fuzzy and unfocused, to unedifying, not to mention unscenic, effect. More than a few compositions in personal interior scenes are framed directly at crotch level.

The heavy techno-rock soundtrack is occasionally seductive but far more often harshly irritating. Dialogue switches off between English and French almost at random, or with Simon’s varying ability to speak and understand the latter. As with the Ripley stories, the dramatic resolution is open-ended, creating the possibility of sequels that, in this case, will surely not be forthcoming.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production: FilmHaven Entertainment, Borderline Films
Cast: Brady Corbet, Mati Diop, Michael Abiteboul, Constance Rousseau, Lila Salot, Solo
Director: Antonio Campos
Screenwriter: Antonio Campos, story by Antonio Campos, Brady Corbet, Mati Diop
Producers: Josh Mond, Sean Durkin, Matt Palmieri
Director of photography: Joe Anderson
Production designer: Nicolas de Boiscuille
Costume designer: Laetitia Bouix
Editors: Zac Stuart-Pontier, Antonio Campos, Babak Jalali
Music: Saunder Jurriaans, Danny Bensi
106 minutes