The most divisive dramatic competition entry yet to screen at Sundance, Simon Killer is the second feature directed by Antonio Campos, director of Afterschool and producer of last year's Sundance hit Martha Marcy May Marlene. Like Martha Marcy, Simon is built around an attractive, enigmatic young person whose ostensible recent trauma — in this case, the titular recent college grad, played by Brady Corbet, comes to Paris in an effort to recover from a rough break-up — both muddles their vision, and complicates the film's view of their behavior. They are character studies which willfully obfuscate the truth about their main characters, psychological thrillers only offering misleading glimpses into psyches.
This approach to storytelling, while productively disorienting in Martha Marcy, is given richer formal and thematic complement in Simon Killer. In the first dialogue scene, Simon explains to a family friend that he completed a neuroscience thesis on peripheral vision, and the relationship between the brain and the eye.
“I'm not sure I understand,” responds the friend, who is French, and is letting Simon stay in his Paris flat for a week. “That's okay, nobody does,” Simon sighs.
What initially seems like pretentious post-grad arrogance twinned with self-pity is slowly revealed to be something closer to an admission of guilt: as long as Simon's modus operandi isn't understood, he can do anything, say anything, be anyone. And over the course of his winter in Paris, he'll create several lives for himself, his pathological lies and manipulations swallowed whole by a couple of very beautiful, very young women unlucky enough to end up in his path, and naive enough to let him into bed.
Simon's early speech about his supposed academic specialty is in some sense a decoder for the whole movie. Joe Anderson's gorgeous cinematography is constantly drawing attention to the way eyes — and cameras — work, with widescreen compositions built with Corbet in the absolute center, extreme focal changes amplifying the tension between foreground and background, and pulsing color field abstractions acting as minds-eye transitions.
And whether or not Simon is really an expert in the scientific mechanics of the brain's relationship to the eye, he demonstrates some kind of expertise in the way perception works in his dealings with women, from his coddling mom to the prostitute who takes Simon in when she thinks he's been mugged. These women take what Simon shows them at face value, and lose their ability to focus.
As sensually rich as it is, full of eye-candy color and smartly chosen pop music (one of Simon's seductions is set in a club, to LCD Soundsystem's “Dance Yourself Clean”) and flashily ambitious filmmaking, Simon Killer is an embodiment of, and comment on, cinema as a manipulation of the eye and the brain. Plus, it effectively deflates the mechanics of male sexual compulsion without any of the martyr bullshit of Shame.
It was a good day for narratives. I also saw Keep the Lights On, writer/director Ira Sachs' richly textured, sad and beautiful autobiographical love story.
Documentary filmmaker Erik (Thure Lindhardt) and publishing house lawyer Paul (Zachary Booth) meet over a phone sex line in late 90s, post-AIDS/pre-social web New York. After they hook up, Paul admits he has a girlfriend. But Erik and Paul continue to see each other, and eventually, the girlfriend is out of the picture and Paul and Erik move in together. They're very much in love, but their romantic idyll is eventually punctured by Paul's “secret” crack habit, which sends him spiraling downward as Erik is winning awards for a long-gestating new film.
Sachs' intimate portrait of this relationship is full of lived-in detail — no wonder, since Sachs reportedly based the film directly on personal experience — and also speaks more generally to the day-to-day struggles of living openly. It's a shock transition for just-out-of-the-closet Paul, whose “secret” drug addiction seems associated with his formerly secret sex life. But even Erik, who has been openly gay for a long while and seems extraordinarily poised and comfortable with himself, tells a friend he's been “hiding crucial events of my life since I was 13 years old.”
Both a personal history and a kind of capsule of the texture and mores of recent gay social life in New York City, Keep the Lights On is also very intentionally in dialogue with gay New York history. Throughout the film, Erik works on a documentary about Avery Willard, a photographer and amateur/underground filmmaker who documented queer men throughout the second half of the twentieth century. In Search of Avery Willard actually preceded Keep the Lights Out; Sachs and co-director Cary Kehayan were already making a documentary on Willard when Sachs decided their film should be Erik's film-within-the-film.
Rather than adding one more mirror to the hall, by inserting his own non-fiction work about visual documentation of the evolution of gay identity into his fictionalization of his personal true story, Sachs manages to position filmed memoir as a kind of time capsule.