For a 23-year-old thesp, Brady Corbet seems unusually preoccupied with sociopaths, so much so that he and the creative team behind “Martha Marcy May Marlene” have built yet another unsettling broken-psyche study in “Simon Killer.” Directed by Antonio Campos (“Afterschool”), the film fashions Corbet into a sort of modern-day Ripley, amoral and disengaged enough from the feelings of others to become a potentially fatal liability in any relationship. Whatever revelations Corbet and Campos uncovered in exploring this character are well disguised from audiences, however, yielding a sexually explicit, emotionally opaque pic dependent on festival accolades to avoid being relegated to pervy VOD fare.
Brits call the soul-searching period young people take after graduating from college the gap year, a time to travel, experiment and find themselves before committing to grown-up responsibility. That’s where Simon’s head is when the film opens … sort of. Something went wrong with his five-year relationship with his high-school sweetheart, sending him to Paris to regroup. Simon’s a handsome enough guy, and just conversant enough in French that he doesn’t have much trouble scoring phone numbers from local girls, even if the pic’s bilingual mix is murder on the ears.
But the filmmakers aren’t interested in what appears on the surface; there’s something amiss deeper down, and it’s that half-buried rage that will ultimately become their subject. Instead of enjoying a simple Parisian fling, Simon allows himself to be lured into a sex club, where he pays for an awkward encounter with a prostitute named Victoria (Mati Diop, who collaborated with Campos and Corbet on the story).
“Simon Killer” is the sort of film, accepted by critics and a very small sliver of the moviegoing public, that establishes its daring (actually an appalling form of moral ambivalence) by cutting from a video chat between Simon and his mom to a scene of strenuous sexual intercourse with the aforementioned hooker. Though the script doesn’t provide many insights into Simon’s character, it’s worth remembering that he’s coming out of his first serious relationship, which makes it tricky to explain the transgressive sex he seeks from Victoria and others. He’s still too new to Paris to be hunting his last tango.
Simon’s capacity for violence feels similarly out of character, depending on Corbet’s own history with edgy roles (“Funny Games,” “Melancholia”) and a tension never entirely achieved, despite occasional strobe effects and a soundtrack that alternates between uncomfortable silence and blaring selections from Simon’s personal playlist. Not long after paying Victoria for sex, Simon picks a fight with some aggressive thugs and shows up at her workplace seeking sympathy. She believes his story and invites him into her apartment, confiding her most personal secrets, a harrowing miscarriage story that manages to be simultaneously poignant and emblematic of the film’s dark sense of humor.
When asked about his own past, Simon explains he was a neuroscience major who “studied the relationship between the brain and the eyes.” Is he lying? Maybe. The clues are insufficient to judge, tucked within d.p. Joe Anderson’s carefully calibrated compositions. More significantly, Campos has dedicated his own career to exploring that same relationship: How do the images we consume shape the way we think?
In “Afterschool,” a flurry of viral videos and online porn serves to explain how a boarding-school student might commit murder. Here, though Campos is more discreet about showing auds the same imagery, there is clearly something dysfunctional about the way Simon sees women as basically sexual objects, whether chatting them up in the street or over an Internet sex site. When confronted with a new partner, Simon feels compelled to stop his conquest mid-strip just to stare at her body.
Considering how graphic Campos is willing to be, “restrained” may not the right word for his approach, and yet “Simon Killer” withholds so much that some amount of frustration is sure to follow. This noncommittal technique, relying on a combination of audience projection and unknowable complexity, defies the old-fashioned pleasure of peeling the onion of character psychology, but rewards those willing to read between the lines.