There's an implied contract between artist and audience, whereby the creatives can take us to the deepest, darkest places of bad behavior and personal misery so long as they have something to say about the human condition, or the society that creates such miscreants, or any number of other notions that can be explored this way. In return, viewers expect something at the end besides, "Boy! This guy's really awful, isn't he?"
It's that lack of a payoff after a long slog that makes "Simon Killer" a disappointing follow-up to director Antonio Campos' "Afterschool"; that movie also made us wade through some amoral youngsters perpetrating horrible offenses, but at least there was some cogent commentary about online voyeurism and how media saturation can desensitize young people to real-life sex and violence.
This time out, we get another terrific performance from Brady Corbet ("Martha Marcy May Marlene," "Mysterious Skin"), but it's in the service of a parade of horrors that never leads anywhere interesting.
Corbet stars as Simon, a recent college graduate still recovering from a bad breakup. He's taken his misery to Paris, where he's crashing in an apartment of a family friend, and it's quickly apparent that he's not as blameless as he lets on about the end of his last relationship; whether it's his awkward encounters with strangers in the street or the increasingly pathetic e-mails ("I know we promised not to communicate, but…") that he keeps composing and re-composing to his ex, Simon is clearly a more twisted soul than his outward appearance would suggest.
(Not for nothing does he mention at several points that his course of study in college was about the relationship between the brain and the eye.)
He pays nightclub prostitute Victoria (Mati Diop) for some companionship, and when he's supposed to leave Paris a day or so later, he deliberately gets into a fight with some street toughs so that he can return to her all bruised up so that she will take him in. After a few days, Simon comes up with a blackmail scheme whereby he and Victoria can lean on her married clients, but the moment the idea comes out of his mouth, you can already imagine how doomed the enterprise will be.
The more we learn about Simon's past misdeeds, the more we begin to worry about his behavior in the present, and while the film generates a fair amount of suspense, Simon remains an outline who's never sufficiently filled in. Not that the movie should have to "explain" him, but there needs to be a little context for his sociopathy. Otherwise, he's just a boogeyman with a bachelor's degree.
"Simon Killer" may wind up being a somewhat pointless wallow, but that doesn't mean its creators didn't put a lot into it: cinematographer Joe Anderson gives the film a tawdry sheen, rendering one of the world's most beautiful cities into a place full of secrets and danger.
Corbet (who co-wrote with Campos and Diop) gives another compellingly unsettling performance; we may want to avert our eyes from who Simon is and what he does, but we can't stop watching him. Here's an actor who could have parlayed his looks into any number of leading roles on The CW, but he's instead gone out of his way to play complicated characters for directors like Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke.
It's too bad that all of this isn't in the service of a more successful film, but Campos clearly has a fascination with the dark side. Even if "Simon Killer" doesn't completely work, he remains a filmmaker who's going places.