It's a sad fact of contemporary film culture: Most brash, unconventional debut films by young American auteurs usually end up as calling cards for their eventual move to Hollywood. Art films might be a way to eke out a modest living in Europe, with their meager national subsidies and their prestigious film festivals. But here, most directors leave film school wanting to make their mark helming a Batman picture or getting hooked up with the Fast and Furious series, abandoning their indie roots. So when true visionary oddballs manage to wander out of the thick fog of Sundance — people like Richard Kelly or Shane Carruth — it's both shocking and deeply gratifying.
Like those guys, Antonio Campos is the real deal. His debut feature Afterschool hit the scene in 2008, premiering in Cannes to great acclaim and a bit of confusion. The story of a high school kid (Ezra Miller) who accidentally videotapes the death-by-overdose of two classmates, the film is actually an ice-cold examination of the psychological effects of a culture of detachment and voyeurism. Shot and directed with a precision that called to mind such masters of atmospheric control as Todd Haynes, David Cronenberg and Michael Haneke, Afterschool was a preternaturally assured first feature that announced the arrival of a major new talent.
While I suppose it must be said that Campos' latest film Simon Killer isn't as accomplished as his debut, it's also equally vital to note that its shortcomings are a direct result of its ambition. Rather than simply refine his ample strengths (or worse, abandon them for some industry payday), Campos took on new challenges, and if the results are that Simon Killer is a flawed, imperfect film, then so be it. It's also a formally assured one, and never less than riveting.
First off, the title, while not exactly misleading, is not the kind of plot designation that film titles typically are. Without giving anything away, the film itself is really more about what happens between the "Simon" and the "Killer." Almost the entire film is seen from the point of view of Simon (Brady Corbet), a recent college graduate who has chosen to cope with recent heartbreak by taking a solo trip to Paris. He is a bit of an enigma, this Simon — part vacuous white guy, part pushy American tourist, part latent sociopath, and all camera. That is, Campos is forcing us to hitch a ride with Simon's eerie disengagement. After being coaxed into a sex club in a seedy arrondissement, Simon meets "Victoria," aka Noura (filmmaker Mati Diop), a sex worker with whom Simon strikes up a relationship, and a moneymaking scheme.
As things spiral out of control, we begin to see edges fray, not only on Simon but on "Simon," the character this would-be conman may have been playing all along. One refrain throughout the film, which presumably permits us access to Simon's inner world, consists of letters he writes to the woman who left him. But in time, Campos and Corbet (who co-wrote with Diop) cast doubt on the sincerity of everything we've seen and heard. Simon Killer employs a stark visual device — electronic fades into panoramic landscapes — as a visual analog to this unreliable-narrator concept.
By the end, we, like Noura, may be left with less than we started with. Simon Killer walks a thin line between ambiguity and an outright muddle. But we've unquestionably gained something from watching Antonio Campos' ideas come into focus and slide back out again.