If the French have an aversion to Americans, it can only worsen with protagonists like Simon wreaking psychotic havoc in the bedrooms and on the streets of Paris. The titular antihero of "Simon Killer" is a lovesick New Yorker who decides to holiday (read: languish and writhe in self-pity) in Paris in the wake of a painful breakup with his college sweetheart, Michelle, whom we vaguely get to know through narrated letters and voice messages. Simon concedes when he sends conciliatory correspondence to Michelle that he is breaching their agreement, or really her stern demand, that they not contact. Though what exactly transpired between them remains vague, what becomes vivid and drives this dark tale is Simon's hostility and ineptitude in relations with women.
Writer/director Antonio Campos excels at portraying the slow boil of male violence. Campos's freshman feature "Afterschool," which debuted at Cannes in 2008 and garnered an Independent Spirit Award nomination, revolves around the psychotic fixations of a prep school boy transfixed by violent internet porn and the enigmatic tragedy of popular twin girls overdosing at his school. Simon is older (though no more mature) and more socially adept (the ineptitude comes later, when the relationship deepens) than the earlier protagonist, but, like him, Simon harbors a dark will belied by outward sensitivity.
Campos' vision is a bit akin to the Michael Haneke we know from "Funny Games" and "Benny's Video." He has something to say about the modern antisocial man, but he does it with much ambiguity and, in the case of his new film, much style. Whereas "Afterschool" has a rather flat mise en scene, "Simon Killer" has a lusher palette, a sort of noir poeticism to the images of Paris. There is an ominous quietude to the shots of wintry Parisian streets, and Campos employs flickering blue, red light, and hazy blue exteriors as transitions that evoke the sinister undulations of Simon's mind. Both films use obtuse framing and camera movement, with the camera often lingering below the chin instead of giving us revealing close-ups. This is like a stylistic counterpart to the narrative's refusal to feed us insight in a neat manner.
Simon's gentlemanly façade dissipates slowly. At first, we sympathize with his sadness. Actor Brady Corbet ("Mysterious Skin," Martha Marcy May Marlene") does a brilliant job of rendering a quietly fuming young man whose boyish charm allows him to encroach on strangers' personal space - a more insidious version of what the villains of "Funny Games" achieve. Certainly, to Victoria (Mati Diop), the hooker with whom Simon moves in soon after his first time as her patron at a bar in Pigalle, he seems a welcome escape from her often callous clients and a domineering ex.
But then we witness his charisma twisting into something dreadful and learn he has a proclivity for tantrums, like a privileged teenage boy denied what he believes to be his due. His hurt tone of voice yields to deranged whimpers and sob-distorted pleads for his mother. As his personality develops for us, his correspondence with Michelle begins to carry haunting echoes. What was it that caused their breakup? Why is she so adamant that they never see each other again? Then, what about his relations with trusting Victoria and a kind, bourgeois French girl, Sophie? Will they perceive the danger of Simon's company before it's too late for them?
This is an art house thriller, Campos neatly building tension around the mystery of Simon's interior world. We first glimpse Simon's potential for violence in street encounters, and this potential becomes more a focus when he proposes a scheme to Victoria, by now his girlfriend. His plan to blackmail her clients for money so as not to spread videotapes of clients' encounters with Victoria seems like a disaster-in-waiting, as Simon seems to lack the cunning and physical might to pull it off. On one hand, it would be nice for these machinations to be better worked out. There seems to be some missed potential for gripping interactions and suspenseful sequences in Simon's pursuit of the money that is purportedly for Victoria. There is a wonderfully moving moment or two and spurts of tension, but this part doesn't feel fully fleshed out. On the other hand, the story is really about Simon's dealings with women and their responses; and as an honestly murky character study it delivers.