Breakups are a bitch. Just ask Simon (Brady Corbet), who, in his heartbroken shellshock, wanders the streets of Paris, house-sitting for a family friend and composing long emails to a lost love who is clearly much better off without him. An exercise in constricted vision, Antonio Campos’ Simon Killer, the follow-up to his icky 2008 debut Afterschool, is a mood piece pulled off with such formal vigor, you can almost forgive how familiar it is.
Poor Simon is so busted up, he can’t even get a kick out of masturbating anymore and dumps long, overwrought monologues about his former relationship onto anyone who makes the mistake of asking him how he’s doing. He’s not taking in many sights during this Parisian getaway, and Campos conveys Simon’s unease largely through disjointed camera placement. Nothing ever seems framed quite right, shots cutting people off at the heads or legs, always isolating the protagonist in increasingly hermetic planes of visual asphyxiation.
It isn’t long before Simon finds himself in a sex club, falling almost instantly for a prostitute named Victoria (Mati Diop, from 35 Shots of Rum). It’s cute the way Simon believes her well-rehearsed lines, and a bungled attempt at intimacy soon grows into something more codependent and unsettling.
He’s got an idea about blackmailing her johns, the kind of scheme hatched up by somebody who has seen too many movies. The broken, mewling man-child of the first half even develops a bit of a swagger, playing house with his hooker and stepping out with a French co-ed. The jarring strobe-light scene transitions hint that disaster is on the horizon, but then again, so does the title.
Corbet co-wrote the film with Campos, and Simon Killer feels like an exploratory experiment, like a couple of talented kids saw Taxi Driver too many times. Campos’ bag of visual tricks relies a bit too much on that patented Dardenne brothers’ signature shot, following behind an actor’s head as he trudges from place to place. (Now that even the Dardennes have retired that shot, it’s time for other filmmakers to follow suit.)
But at least before it surrenders to inevitability, Simon Killer casts a spell. Corbet is so simpering, but with a darkness roiling just under the surface. Diop is even better, allowing us glimpses of humanity beneath the hardened exterior. It’s the kind of film we’ll look back on fondly when everybody involved has moved on to bigger and better things.