The American filmmaking collective behind BorderLine Films — directors Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Antonio Campos (Afterschool) and producer Josh Mond — is self-styled to an extreme. Their films are bred from a certain machismo, unshakably brooding in tone, marked by cunning narrative ellipsis and a chilly stylistic rigor: each film follows a psychologically whacked protagonist wandering through a prism of long takes, glacial zooms and shallow focus, an invariably restricted point of view teasing the possibility that trauma is right around the corner, just outside of our peripheral vision. Yet within the formal elegance of these films — wherein most scenes feel like they were set up as challenges — there remains a tryingly cynical worldview, giving us further distance from characters who, lacking emotional complexity, are left feeling like props. Campos’ facile Simon Killer plays out a narrative of bruised masculinity it rarely sets out to challenge, masked with shades of a sordid pop sensibility reminiscent of the stylistically divergent but similarly shallow films of Gaspar Noé. To sum it up: an American in Paris just wants to get laid, but very bad mommy issues will lead him to the club and other more desperate measures. (If only Campos had a sense of humor.)
On the surface, Simon Killer would seem to be a film about ocular fetishism. It begins with a panoramic view of the city of Paris, superimposed by a series of epileptic flashes as pulsing red-and-purple waves wash over the screen. Simon (Brady Corbet) is a neuroscience major who, claiming to have written a thesis on peripheral vision, flees to Paris after a tumultuous end to his five-year relationship with his girlfriend. He goes to visit the Louvre, watches Lourdes at the cinema, then his gaze shifts toward two girls leaving the theater. While following them, he bumps into a man on the street, who demands an apology: “Pourquoi vous avez deux filles et moi je n’ai aucune?” “I’m not fucking laughing at you,” he yells, amid a babble of broken French. Minutes later, he goes home and masturbates to bad streaming video before finding sanctuary with a myopic prostitute (Mati Diop). Later in the movie, he picks up a girl with nystagmus. By the time she pleads, “I don’t like the way you look at me,” this jumble of cold perceptual metaphors has diffused Simon’s ticking time bomb of consciousness, his secret nature nothing more than petulant self-sabotage.
Campos and cinematographer Joe Anderson are painstaking in their visual approach to these scenes, but they mostly function as empty gestures: Simon’s scopophilia, which the camera occasionally embodies, would provoke had the film not took pains to be as self-absorbed as its protagonist. Though it takes place in the city of lights, Campos hardly gives us a view of the Parisian streets outside of Simon’s stubborn strut, often the only thing in focus in many handheld tracking shots. Roughly half the film is unsubtitled in French, making its theme of miscommunication and displacement mind-numbingly literal. Yet perhaps the film’s biggest flaw is its lack of strong female characters. Mati Diop — herself an experimental filmmaker, and a luminous presence last seen to US audiences in 35 Shots of Rum — isn’t allowed to be more than a blank slate, a punching bag lacking agency against Simon’s dunderheaded designs. (In an ostensibly pivotal scene, when he convinces her of his get-rich-quick scheme, the two begin to dance, filling out an extended take that confirms the director’s preference for camerawork over conflict.)
In migrating overseas, Campos seems to have trusted that the exoticism of Paris would speak for itself, but rather than engaging with the culture, it appears that surface tension is the limit of what really interests him here. Though a talented stylist, he chooses to leave his bitter sociopath drifting between psychological obfuscation and transparency, resulting in what feels like a cheap film disguised in arthouse gift-wrap. If one trusts the Spectral Display song that plays throughout the movie, “it takes a muscle to fall in love.” But in filmmaking, you don’t need muscle to take risks.