11/05/12 - Chinese 2, 7:00 p.m.
11/07/12 - Chinese 4, 10:15 p.m.
By Joey Ally
SIMON KILLER, Antonio Campos’ follow-up to his chilling, coming-of-age AFTERSCHOOL (AFI FEST 2008), is a film about vision in both the literal and metaphorical sense, and the ends justified out of desperation to synthesize the two. It does not structure itself in terms of a literal film-within-a-film, as does AFTERSCHOOL, yet it is still a film about film, deftly and quietly probing much of the same territory regarding voyeurism, storytelling and the intractable barrier between action and experience.
The film follows (often literally, in lengthy walking sequences shot from behind) Simon (played by the complicated, captivating Brady Corbet), a recently graduated, recently singled 20-something. With no one to hold onto, the structure of school days past, and the monotony of office life successfully staved off with the help of parental support, Simon is, for the first time in his life, an island — a man free to do as he pleases, whenever and with whomever. A dangerous man.
A neuroscience major, Simon focused his studies on the relationship between the eyes and the brain. His published thesis examined “size pooling,” or the study of how the width and size of an object is weighted against the objects surrounding it. This is the only detail Simon shares in the same exact verbiage regardless of the listener — a definition he recounts immediately and frequently throughout the course of the film with apparent pride. It’s a poignant and pointed trope, considering that Simon has just experienced his first real heartbreak, and his time in Paris becomes devoted to cultivating experiences adequately intense to contextualize, and thereby minimize, the accompanying pain and isolation. Simon has come to the most notoriously romantic city in the world for the express purpose of examining the width and the size of his loss.
For a while, this translates into stomping down cobblestone streets, blasting feeling- fraught music into his brain, and occasionally trying out a phrase en Françaison a girl or two before retreating, defeated, to his dark apartment to watch porn, e-mail his estranged ex-girlfriend and video chat with his mother. The only insight offered into his childhood comes from these conversations with “mom” (a small yet pivotal role, portrayed with remarkably filled-out restraint by the fantastic Alexandra Neil), a woman whose love is apparent, yet muted by the conventions of her New York society manners.
After weeks of cyclical meandering, Simon encounters a young prostitute, Victoria (a ravishing and nuanced Mati Diop, who fills out the film’s writing team in addition to her lingerie-heavy wardrobe), with whom he shares a monetized and awkward, yet nearly tender, sexual encounter. It is here that the film begins to take off, as we watch as Simon moves from a boy afraid of his freedom, into a still-boy emboldened by it.
The only music we hear as soundtrack over the course of the film pumps from Simon’s iPod, a genius aural device in the movie that brings us literally into Simon’s headspace; similarly, visual cross-fades bring washes of pulsating color that mirror the intensity of his moods. Slowly, it becomes clear that Simon is fabricating his own reality. Unequipped to deal, and utterly bored, with the meager obstacles facing his privileged existence, Simon conjures heightened narratives within which he might experience the emotions he’s been promised in literature, music and film. Simon is controlling the story.
The realization that he cannot control Victoria frustrates him into near-mania, as it leads him to devastating acts of physical compromise, twisting deception and extortion. Simon was undoubtedly that kid who would slam his own finger in the door so a distracted mommy would halt her business to kiss it and listen to his falsified account of how it happened; now he is the grown man picking fights with strangers so a detached prostitute will tend to his bruises and offer him shelter in her own home.
The film is a study in how far Simon, unchecked by context, will go. The answer is: really far. As he adds more imagined storylines, more people and more elaborate ruses, he loses control of his manipulations. He’s inexperienced at this game, and as the real danger of his calculations intensifies, we watch his exhilaration turn to horror when he loses control over his own behavior. Simon has been searching for an experience that might overpower his malaise, but predictably the reality of the emotions that accompany the circumstances of his new lives is too much.
It is tempting to characterize Simon as a sociopath — he’s a pathological liar, a philanderer (as much as one can stray when he’s chosen to date someone whose vocation involves sexually satisfying other men) and a dilettante whose dearth of consideration for the feelings he actively seeks from others is shocking. Yet, this kind of classification is the easy choice, and the wrong one. Simon is not a person without emotion, or remorse — he is a boy like any other of his generation, reared on romanticism and the notion that each of us is special, only to discover at the end that he might just be some lonely dude who wrote a really technical thesis on a subject he’ll never fully understand. His desire to amplify his importance in this world, while misguided, does have genuine moments. Simon talks Victoria into an extortion scheme with her clients, and when collecting from one particularly pleading man, he says “It’s not for me; it’s for her” with a vulnerability that suggests he really believes he has positioned himself as a kind of hero.
Simon seems to want to do good — or at least see what it feels like — but he can’t figure out how to do it in real life. He entraps himself, therefore, in a space between fake lives full of excitement and promise, built upon false foundations, and a real life devoid of meaning. He just can’t figure out how to be a real person — how to take what is outside, and make it touch the inside, or take what is inside and let it touch the outside.
Campos’ filmmaking is exquisite here. He, Corbet and Diop wrote as they shot, and the intimacy they found as collaborators drips off the screen. This is definitely a narrative in which the words spoken leave determination of the “truth” to the viewer, while the shots themselves leave nothing to question. Campos knows where he wants us to look, because he knows what Simon wants us to see, and that he manages to integrate the two without it ever feeling like a device is a triumph. This is filmmaking in the first person that feels like filmmaking in the third person; Simon is dragging us along, but it is only afterward that we are fully aware of it.
SIMON KILLER is a fresh and frightening view of the open-armed, eyes-raised- toward-the-sky wailing of a generation desperate to find meaning in the absence of obstacles; of the struggle that accompanies the lack of struggle, and the emptiness that follows. It is an existential look at perception versus experience, and the space between the lens and the film — a space I’m certain Campos will continue to fill, much to our collective discomfort and delight.
Joey Ally is a writer and actor who comes from New York City, lives in Silver Lake, and can be found on Twitter at @joellenally.