Apr 12, 2013

Style Gets In The Way

Simon Killer

I really wanted to like Simon Killer, a film by Antonio Campos, from the team that created the very creepy Martha Marcy May Marlene.
The premise is promising. A young American man, (Brady Corbet, excellent, when you can see his face) is drifting in Paris after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend. He is lonely and brooding. He's bad news. I expected a tense, atmospheric film about a guy who loses his marbles and causes mayhem. And it is, albeit directed in the most pretentious way possible, thereby doing a disservice to the actors and to the story. The cinematography is deliberately precious and exasperating. Every scene is too long, what we see of Corbet's committed performance mostly lies in looking at the back of his head or his headless torso. The guy is in Paris. I don't expect a travelogue and visions of the Eiffel Tower, but it drives me crazy when filmmakers think that the only way to capture a character's alienation is by showing us only the nape of his neck, or by shooting everything at navel level.
I think about Roman Polanski's The Tenant, which is also about a guy who is losing his marbles in the City of Lights. There is not much physically of Paris in that film, but the little ironic details, the corner cafe with the surly barkeep, the apartment building with the creaky stairs, the nosy neighbors with their dogs and baguettes, give you a concentrated sense of Paris, and more importantly, they make the protagonist feel even more disconnected and adrift from everything and everyone. If the camera never opens up, there is less contrast, less irony and less drama. You care less about the character. The style calls attention to itself, and takes the audience out of the story and into tedious despair.
Simon Killer is too self-conscious, too deliberately hermetic. The plot is a bit contrived. Simon falls in with a hooker, Mati Diop, (also excellent, if underwritten). A wonderful scene where he orchestrates his own beating in order to insinuate himself into her life, gives you a chilling glimpse of how manipulative he is, and what he is capable of. I wish the rest of the movie was as sharp as this scene. Instead, Campos chooses a contrived plot development about the couple trying to extort money from embarrassed johns (do the French care?) and he also chooses to dwell on the sex, which is alienated and semi-violent and which feels as deliberately "provocative" as the rest of the movie. Worse, I had a feeling that the director was getting off on the violence against this woman, and that he lost the way of his story to direct his loving gaze at a bunch of sleaze.
Simon Killer does, however, have a fantastic soundtrack. The music playing on Simon's earphones is modern and happy and this provides a haunting contrast with his increasing isolation.

Upstream Color

This movie by Shane Carruth makes Simon Killer look as mainstream as an afternoon special. Here the style gets even more in the way of a very complicated story about humans being poisoned with some stuff coming from worms or pigs or both. I couldn't really tell because Carruth does all kinds of narrative jigsaw puzzles but steadfastly refuses to explain or establish anything. The movie is nicely shot, but the two main actors are bland ciphers we know nothing about (Carruth plays the male lead; he is no actor). After a while, I lost hope of ever trying to understand, not what was going on, but the point. The movie seems to be an environmental horror and a love story (between cyborgs; the couple is as exciting as two cold fish). These two seem to have something in common. Both seem to have been infected by whatever it is that is making humans have no willpower (worms or pigs or both). They never talk about it. She looks at his scars and does not think to ask, "Gee, you too? What's up with that?" At some point they hide in a bathtub. I never understood why. Two minutes later they are in bed, unconcerned with hiding anymore. At some point, my patience deserted me and I left.
I have noticed that deliberately obtuse movies such as this, with broken sequences, inexplicable behavior by characters and random surrealistic touches, tend to be described as poetic. This is an insult to poetry. True poetry requires structural and dramatic rigor, it requires enormous coherence and it is by nature, articulate. It requires getting out of the filmmakers' head, and into real human feeling.

The cardinal sin of movies is boredom. A close second, pretentiousness (they are closely related). I prefer to be bored than to have to sit through pretentiousness. It kills my soul.

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