Friday, April 5, 2013

An American (sociopath) in Paris: Antonio Campos' second feature, SIMON KILLER; plus short Q&A with the auteur & his actor

Don't we all want to go to Paris? I sure did. Most of us will have had a better, more enjoyable, maybe even enlightening visit (it's the "city of lights" in the country of philosophers, after all) than does Simon, the anti-hero of Antonio Campos' sophomore effort, SIMON KILLER. Simon's a narcissistic cutie-pie and lady-killer (the latter metaphorically, if not by the finale, in actuality) who needs to be the center of someone's attention -- if not the American girl he left behind, then any of the few he manages to meet during his stay in France. I don't think I'm giving away spoilers here: One does not add that second word to a film's title without serving up a certain expectation for the audience.

Mr. Campos, at right, is the talented filmmaker who gave us a few years back AfterSchool -- a look at the way we live now in one of our "better" private high schools -- a movie as uniquely conceived and executed as it was appalling to witness. (It also gave us one of our first up-close-and-personal views of that very good actor Ezra Miller.)  AfterSchool was both hypnotic and exotic (in a kind of sick way), and so is Simon Killer, though for me it is not quite as interesting a movie, stylistically. Nor is its universe as "special" as that of the former film. It's leading character, Simon, as played by actor Brady Corbet, below, consistently puts us off, as befits the socio-unto-psychopathic personality this fellow inhabits.

This makes for an interesting, if frustrating experience, for we generally want to try to identify with and follow our hero (even our anti-hero) to some extent. Yet every time we try, Simon's behavior puts us off. When we would normally go left, but Simon turns right. If we want to zig, Simon zags. Eventually, we must just step back and watch at a safe distance, as our boy grows crazier and crazier.

Though we see various sides of Simon -- his interactions with a relative whose flat he occupies briefly, a couple of girls he meets, a prostitute or two (one of whom becomes his "amour"), a bully in the street, his mom via computer camera -- none of these makes him any more likable. In fact, each encounter has the opposite effect. This is distancing, to say the least. Our "hero" in AfterSchool may have grown up to become Simon, but in that earlier film it seemed as if there might be a little hope for him lying around somewhere.

Campos tries some interesting visual effects in his new film: his opening shot of Paris, then colors and shapes; crass color filters over his relationship with his hooker, too, as they seem to grow closer. At times the cinematography is grainy, smudged, almost always dark and unclear, not unlike Simon himself. But the sex is certainly hot. At one point, Simon gets finger-fucked by his girl (the lovely Mati Diop, of 35 Shots of Rum), although we might wish that Campos had been a bit more egalitarian in his use of full-frontal. As usual, the female anatomy gets the once-over, while the male remains discretely covered.

Another thing: the film moves too slowly. Campos seems willing to extend a scene past its sell-by simply to get more of a song he likes onto the sound track. And yet there are some indelible moments along the way. It's been awhile since we've had a movie so dedicated to exploring a sick personality. You may not much like Simon Killer, the young man or the movie he inhabits. On the other hand, you won't easily forget either of them.

The film -- from IFC and running 101 minutes -- opens today, Friday, April 5, at the IFC Center in Manhattan, then hits VOD the following Friday, April 12.


TrustMovies met with filmmaker Antonio Campos (shown below) and actor Brady Corbet (further below) in the restaurant of the Crosby Street Hotel for a brief Q&A earlier this week. Both men were pleasant and as eager to talk as you could expect from folk who've been doing the this meet-your-public thing for probably a little longer than they might like.

(In the following, 
TM's questions appear in boldface
Campos' and Corbet's answer in standard type.)

When I saw Simon Killer, I couldn't imagine that it had come from the same guy who did AfterSchool. They seem so different, beginning with their location and style....

I feel like the two movies are cousins. If you'd seen my short films, as well, you might find a through-line.

I'll have to do that. Still, style-wise, the difference is pretty immense. What were the biggest differences in filming the two? 

Well, this is a lot more intimate a film, I think. And then, filming in Paris, of course, and having only a outline script which the actors then improvised on. The script is a blueprint, rather than... gospel.

(To Corbet) How do you feel about improv. Do you enjoy it?  

Well, no. Not really. The thing is that I am terrible at improv. It's not my forte. I was just working on a movie last week, and the director says, 'Just say this and this and this...' And I tell him -- 'No, you've gotta write that down.'  With this film, we had some scenes that were loose, but that by the time we were shooting, we would have improvised at rehearsals, and then Antonio would transcribe what was working well during those rehearsals. Some scenes were half improvised, where I knew generally were we were going. The thing that's really hard is when you are in a position where the director wants you to be really angry, and then you run out of things to say after about 15 seconds. There's nothing I hate more than seeing an actor searching for words, because it shouldn't be about the words. People have this thing about improv, where they think it'll be more realistic. But it's not.

Watching your film, it didn't seem to be improv. It seemed real -- but not improvised.

Antonio adds, "If anything, this is more like the Mike Leigh approach to improv."

To Corbet: How did you deal with working on a character who is so dark? 

Because of the nature of this character's psychology, we tried to be true to him in every moment. Like when, early on, he's a victim of aggression. But then, the thing is, an hour later, he will no longer be that victim..

No, he's the victimizer.

Yes, he is living in a psychology where he isolates everything, moment by moment.  I didn't have to internalize anything that's going on with anybody else in the film. Just stay with Simon. And there he is, having a good time.

Hee's a narcissist. 

Sure, he a narcissist, a sociopath, all of those things. Or maybe none of them. He's so slippery, it's hard to give him a label. I think those things are impossible to speak summarily of. The best example of this, I think, would be something like in Camus' The Stranger. That scene in which the people are constantly pleading with the character: 'Why did you do it? Why did you pull the trigger six times?' When he finally talks about it, he says, 'It was hot that day! There was sweat in my eyes. I saw a figure standing in the distance and suddenly I had this chill run up my spine and it went into my right hand and I pulled the trigger over and over and over again.' So, like sometimes, you can blame an atrocity on the weather. (I laugh)

To Campos: Do you have another film in the works? Or maybe you've already finished it?

Not yet, but I am writing a second draft of something right now. It's a feature based on a documentary about a murder trial.

So you are staying within this sort of dark realm?

I guess so, yeah.

Well, it's the world we're living in right now.

It's always been the world we live in.

Hmmm.  Maybe the speed now....

The speed and the access to it. The technology makes things happen faster. Technology has made it easier and quicker to hurt each other. (Brady laughs and agrees with that assessment. As does TrustMovies.)

On that note, we have to leave our dark prince 
of independent film, and his actor, and await his next 
foray into death, shadows and troublesome personalities....

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