Film Comment Selects 2013 Review: SIMON KILLER is An American Sociopath's Last Tango in Paris

From Borderline films, the trio of producer/directors responsible for indie darling Martha Marcy May Marlene, comes the uplifting story of an American in Paris who finds solace in the thighs of a young prostitute. Simon is his name and killing is NOT his game, though it may very well someday be. Similarities aside, this is no Tango and there's nary a stick of butter, but there is role-reversal and there are thumbs. And betrayal and heartache and violence and possibly VD. Fun!

Simon Killer is the second feature from Afterschool director Antonio Campos and continues in that film's dark tradition. It takes the tired "white kid goes to Europe, finds love and/or cultural enlightenment" premise and turns it on its head. It then stomps that head into the pavement. Because why does everyone who embarks on a self-centered European Vacation have to come back a better person? What if when you went to find yourself, what you found was a loathsome, insecure wreck prone to fits of violence? No one ever tells that story.

For the record, Europe didn't turn Simon into a brutal sociopath (and I don't want the Parisian Board of Tourism breathing down my neck). Those seeds were already planted. The impetus for his sojourn is a bad breakup, of which details are slowly revealed in stalkery emails to his ex. By the time we begin to realize Simon wasn't the best boyfriend in the world, his current shackee Victoria is beginning to realize he isn't the best boyfriend in the world. And that's when shit gets ugly. 

Campos prefaced the screening by saying it was okay to laugh, it was okay to hate Simon, to sympathize with him, to feel indifferent. I imagine in a lot of cases, viewers will confuse how they feel about Simon with how they feel about the film itself. I wasn't able to stay for the Q&A, but a friend of mine who did said an "old codger" who didn't like the direction of the discussion complained that the film "didn't blow him away." I wouldn't have been as rude about it, but I have to say I agree. 

I liked the film much more than I liked Simon (who is completely UN-likeable), but I still left the theater feeling a bit ambivalent. Mati Diop gives a brave performance as Victoria, if you consider being nude in every other scene brave, and Brady Corbet makes for a fine sociopath in training, but redundant sex scenes bog the film down and pad the runtime. Don't get me wrong, I liked the audacity of the thumb scene, but it didn't really tell me anything about the characters or contribute to the narrative. It's been a long time since I've seen Last Tango In Paris -- does the infamous butter scene serve a higher function? 

If there wasn't such a high level of technical precision on display, it would be easier to write the film off. The device of following Simon with the camera, focusing on the back of his head while he wanders the streets, everyone else out of focus, effectively conveys his isolation. Then there are the periodic collages of color and light that pepper the film. Aesthetically, it keeps things interesting and serves as a thematic connection to Simon's background in neuroscience and his own deteriorating mental state. Other reviews have complained about some of these choices, calling them distracting, but they aren't mere stylistic flourishes. They strengthen the characterization of Simon in a very specific way.

Simon Killer is a film that goes to dark places, and fans of difficult material will follow willingly. If you really like to get down in the muck, I'd recommend seeing it in a festival setting. I don't see it getting an R rating without a few cuts. It's not as devastating as a Requiem For A Dream or an Irreversible, but mainstream movie-goers will probably find it unpalatable. For those of us who subject ourselves to cinematic endurance tests on a regular basis, it might not be unpalatable enough. Maybe that's where my ambivalence stems from. Or maybe, like Simon, I'm lacking in empathy.   
     

Joshua Chaplinsky is the Managing Editor for LitReactor.com. He has also written for ChuckPalahniuk.net. He might still be a guitarist in the band SpeedSpeedSpeed, and is the poison pen behind thejamminjabber, although he's not so sure he should admit it.

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