Sundance is as much state of mind as festival, a ritual as much as an assignment. At roughly the halfway point, I am pretty bullish on this year’s edition. Last year’s dramatic competition was the strongest and deepest collection of impressive young talents in memory, and this year was not likely to surpass that.
Sundance sets a tone, not just for the festival circuit, but the year. I caught up with this year’s breakout title, Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a couple of hours ago and I need time to sort out my feelings, but I certainly share the enthusiasm.
I have a great deal of respect for disparate titles such as Antonio Campos’ Simon Killer, Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On, Rick Alverson’s The Comedy, Mark Webber’s The End of Love, Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere and So Young Kim’s For Ellen. I’ll be filing dispatches and marking impressions of those titles in the coming days.
A good leaping off point is the most polarizing title. Campos’ second feature Simon Killer is another brazen and stylistically impressive study of disassociation and social disaffection. In a very convincing and commanding star turn, Brady Corbet holds the movie’s deliberately off-putting and abrasive manner.
Following a couple of highly regarded short films, Campos emerged as a leading American independent filmmaker with his remarkable 2008 feature debut Afterschool (notorious for being turned down by Sundance). Told with a hypnotic lyrical precision, the movie was a chilling and exact portrait of social and sexual pathology set inside a privileged boarding school.
A member of the deeply talented collective of filmmakers that constitute Borderline Films, Campos produced last year’s finest Sundance competition work, Sean Durkin’s extraordinary Martha Marcy May Marlene. In that film Corbet turned in a sinuously controlled performance as a handsome and laconic young man who proved eerily, even preternatural gifted at ensnaring bright and beautiful young women into a cult.
That interpretation proves a crucial rough draft in his snarling, believably vacant turn as a young American graduate drawn to the shadowy Paris sex underground around the Pigalle neighborhood. Campos said he was inspired by the lean and existential crime stories of French writer Georges Simenon. Campos takes a familiar theme, the extreme isolation and cultural dislocation of exile, and layers it with a barely suppressed sexual menace and behavioral oddity that gives it a thrashing and threatening intensity.
Fleeing from the painful beak up of his five-year relationship and uncertain about his professional prospects, Simon takes advantage of an available flat left to his keep by his French cousin. Possessing only rudimentary grasp of the language, Simon is a prototypical wild child, unable to make connections and drawn to solitary activity (illustrated very early in a darkly funny incident involving his comically inept interaction with some local Internet pornography).
Prowling the nighthawk streets, Simon takes solace in one of the many sex bars that line Pigalle’s underground district. He is quickly drawn into a complicated relationship with the prostitute Victoria (Mati Diop, the terrific young French actress from Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum). An essentially straight if awkward young man who falls hard, Simon is turned inside out and unmoored by his social transgression.
After Victoria offers to extend their meetings outside the carefully observed milieu of the bar, Simon further disintegrates, using his peculiar combination of vulnerability and psychological acuity to slowly and imperceptibly take over Victoria’s life. He concocts a series of blackmail schemes against several of her regular customers as a way to finance their lifestyle.
Afterschool and Martha Marcy May Marlene were both photographed by the brilliant Jody Lee Lipes. Simon Killer was shot by Joe Anderson, Lipes’ protégé. Campos is a naturally gifted imagist blessed with a striking sense of composition. The movie’s color schemes, with Paris introduced in a dazzling off-blue contrasted with the hard red interiors of the bar, impose a slightly off-kilter sensibility.
Corbet’s Simon (and several secondary characters) are often captured with the camera trailing behind, the camera close to their bodies, as though attached to the back of their heads, a quick and sharp expression of the inner tumult and volatile social surroundings. I also like his expressive use of restricted space, playing off zooms and tracks within confined space.
In the hotel space the two young outlaw lovers share, Campos repeatedly plays with space and movement; there’s a dazzling and ecstatically beautiful moment of the two, their heads unseen, moving and pirouetting around each other. The camera is still and locked down, the bodies in ecstatic forms of release and surrender.
Corbet and Diop are credited, with Campos, of developing the story and they are both mesmerizing. Pasty, even incoherent, Simon acquires a deeply discomfiting menace that coheres in a way both frightening and wholly believable. Beautiful, tragic and emotionally scared, Diop is sensational as a broken angel of deliverance.
Perhaps because he is also dealing with a language he is not fully comfortable, Campos is sometimes more effective at tone and feeling than detail or emotional subtlety. Afterschool felt more organic and held together as storytelling. But the use of opposition, particularly as a second young woman, virginal and blonde, takes hold of Simon’s predatory behavior, the movie moves in other volatile directions.
In Simon Killer, the early ambiguity of Simon’s character study gives way to a slowly evolving though unmistakable portrait of a psychopath. In the movie, his character wrote his dissertation the relationship of the brain and the eye, and how information is processed and intuitively understood.
Simon Killer is designed to infuriate and unsettle, capturing through camera movement, editing and texture a dark and brutal descent. The mood, tone and sharp acting elevate it to something primal and unflinching.