Brady Corbet and Constance Rousseau in "Simon Killer." (Joe Anderson / IFC Films )
"Simon Killer" was among the most divisive entries at the Sundance Film Festival when it premiered there in 2012. While it struck some as a chilling, unblinking look at the descent into violence and madness of a young American in Paris, to others the film was hard to take. One critic recently called it simply "icky."
A boldly formal film that is deeply subjective, plunging into the murky head space of its lead character, "Simon Killer" is both engagingly direct and disturbingly diffuse. Opening April 12 in Los Angeles, the film is the second feature written and directed by the 29-year-old New Yorker Antonio Campos, who made his debut with the bracing prep-school drama "Afterschool."
Working with regular collaborators Sean Durkin and Josh Mond under their Borderline Films banner, Campos was a producer on Durkin's 2011 Sundance hit "Martha Marcy May Marlene." Durkin and Mond, along with Matt Palmieri, are in turn producers on "Simon Killer," which follows Simon (a riveting Brady Corbet) adrift in Paris. Having come to Europe to get over a heartache back home, he stays at first in the apartment of a family friend and then begins to wander and hustle.
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He meets a young prostitute named Victoria (Mati Diop), their transactional relationship becoming something seemingly more genuine even as they launch into a hastily conceived blackmail scheme together. All the while the placid, quietly charming Simon reveals himself to be ever more volatile.
At a time when the origin story has become such a popular part of contemporary storytelling — where does a superhero come from? How did someone become something else? — Campos tackles what it takes for a guy with a meek exterior to unveil the stone killer within.
"For me it's not the origin of a serial killer, it's the process a person goes through to become capable of murder," he said by phone from New York. "What does it take to hurt someone like that? It's the birth of a killer."
Campos created "Simon" with Corbet in mind, working with the actor to shape the character. (The film's story credit is shared by Campos, Corbet and Diop.) Inspired by the noir-inflected storytelling of Belgian-born author Georges Simenon — hence the character name Simon — Campos and Corbet realized as they were first developing their story that it had parallels to that of Joran van der Sloot, the young Dutch citizen who was a suspect in the disappearance of a young American woman in the Caribbean, Natalee Holloway, and later convicted of murdering a young woman in Peru.
In one of the film's most telling moments, Simon likens himself to a fox who will one day be a lion, which conjoins a remark by Van der Sloot with a small fox pin Corbet was given by his mother. Corbet — who also appeared in "Martha" as well as Gregg Araki's 'Mysterious Skin," Michael Haneke's American remake of his own "Funny Games" and Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" — noted, "There's a lot of me in the character, there's not a lot of the character in me."
Simon tells just about anyone he had been studying neuroscience, doing specific research on the relationship between the eye and the brain. The film is broken up at times by brief visual interludes of streaks of light seeming to dance across the frame, created after Campos and cinematographer Joe Anderson discovered an in-camera effect while they manipulated their digital camera's light sensor.
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While Simon's chatter on the study of the eye and the brain may or may not be just another partial truth of the many that he compulsively spins forth, the idea of understanding perception took on a larger significance for Campos.
"When this idea came to me of the eye and the brain it kind of connected everything for me," he said. "I knew how I'd shoot it, and I knew that the way Simon saw the world would be the way we were trying to see the world. The film became about what people see that doesn't actually connect with what is in front of them, the disconnect in some ways between the eye and the brain."
The film skillfully manipulates audience sympathy, even as it reveals Simon's misogyny and growing mania, depicting graphic sex scenes and bracing violence with an unnerving rigor. In a Q&A after a screening at Sundance, Corbet raised eyebrows by declaring the film "a love letter to women from me."
"We didn't want him to be what people expect of an antihero in a movie," explained Corbet recently. "I think that a film that acknowledges an issue as prevalent as misogyny in our culture is, in and of itself, at least my version of a feminist effort."
"The real victim of the story is him," said Diop in an email from France, despite the peril Simon places her character in. "She's a survivor."
Campos acknowledged feeling "frustrated" by the way the film was received at Sundance and how that created a sense that the film is damaged somehow, almost diseased in some way.