Reel Women: On ‘Simon Killer’s Sociopath and the Manic Pixie Dream Prostitute
Antonio Campos' 'Simon Killer' (available now on VOD) is a fine spiritual successor to his debut, 'Afterschool,' and speaks the same language in regards to sociopathic behavior and the way men can view women not as equals, but as blank screens on which they can project desire.
There is much to be said about Antonio Campos' 'Simon Killer' -- like 'Afterschool,' Campos continues cultivating a signature style with snail-slow pans, shots where the object of focus is far off-center, and jarring imagery of body parts and heads all just out of range. Something always feels so off in a Campos film, and the intersection where sex meets violence is further magnified by his stylistic choices. Take, for instance, a scene in which we view only the limbs of our lead Simon (Brady Corbet) and his lover Victoria (Mati Diop) as they make love, and contrast that against a later scene in which Victoria's arms wrap around Simon's feet, grasping for help after she's been victimized. Without faces, these body movements and sounds could be the result of either sex or violence, or both. Without context, these appendages could be saying anything with their desperate motions.
'Simon Killer' follows Simon after he's been broken up with by his girlfriend of five years, a woman we only know through Simon's lens and via the carefully-crafted e-mails he sends to her, trying to control how she perceives him. Simon goes off to Paris to get over his heartache and, like most people post-break-up, find a sense of identity. While there he interacts with women through controlled and escalating circumstances -- first by chatting with (and masturbating to) a webcam girl, then by meeting and developing a relationship of sorts with prostitute Victoria, and finally by attempting to connect on a more traditional level with a pleasant young French woman named Sophie.
Simon is a bit of a sociopath and a narcissist, and by definition this makes him a liar, a man who uses others for personal gain without consideration of the effect, a man who feels little remorse for his actions but is highly susceptible to feeling shame, and a man who demands validation because deep down, people of Simon's nature are incredibly insecure. Simon manipulates women compulsively and systematically, and while we are never privy to the details of his prior relationship (aside from one e-mail that seems to indicate he became volatile at the end of it), we witness his damning behavior through his redundant interactions with Victoria and Sophie.
Campos uses the English-French language barrier to great effect, evaluating the way Simon hears only what he wants to hear, willfully ignoring crucial information. He spends a lot of time explaining that he studied the difference between what the brain and the eye perceive -- our eyes perceive what is objective, while our brains process that information subjectively, and the relative distance between the two is where we find an average meaning. But there's a dangerous disconnect between what Simon hears and sees and what he's understanding.
When Victoria tells him a story about a tragic miscarriage and the way her husband abused her in the immediate aftermath, Simon chooses only to understand that she had a child. He reasons that by convincing her to blackmail her married Johns by threatening to send videos of their infidelities to their wives, she will no longer have to whore herself out for money. In order to stop whoring herself out, she'll have to whore herself out for Simon, an act that seems less like exploitation than legitimate prostitution because Simon is orchestrating it as a means to help her. The problem with Simon's relationship with Victoria, of which there are many, is that he's objectifying a woman who makes a living in controlled objectification. He manipulates her into believing he's dependent upon her, and then sneakily projects his desires onto her. There is no greater metaphor for this than their first encounter in the brothel, where Simon asks only to gaze upon Victoria's nude body as he masturbates against her furiously.
Simon finds a woman who is an object by trade, and then tries to subjectify her by subjecting her to further objectification in an attempt to manipulate and figuratively sculpt that object into that which is desired. It's not much different from the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or in this case, Manic Pixie Dream Prostitute) -- a woman in a film upon whom a man projects his desires, and crafts a lens for her to wear through which he sees himself. She is not allowed to view him in any honest way, but only in the way he wants her to view him because it's through her forgiving eye that he can view himself most favorably; looking at his own reflection is too hard. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl ideal backfires because women -- even fictional ones -- are human beings with thoughts and ideas and desires of their own, and when they begin to speak and act independently, the male companion retaliates petulantly.
Sophie, on the other hand, has never been a victim, but she refuses to be manipulated by Simon. She will not help him when he comes to her door begging for help as he did to Victoria, and she will not allow him to gaze upon her naked body as he masturbates, finding his stare creepy rather than sexual -- two adjectives that are divided by highly subjective hairline fracture.
Ultimately, Simon wishes to hurt women the way he's been hurt (or at least the way he claims he's been hurt), victimizing himself in order to victimize another, and thoughtlessly, selfishly placing her in harm's way in order to create dependency. He is trying to help someone who never asked for his help, and he automatically mentally catalogs each woman as beneath him in order to protect himself from getting hurt again -- by doing so, he actively makes himself the perpetrator, creating a cathartic experience through which he can relieve himself of his privileged pain (and oh, what delicious privilege heartbreak truly is).
Simon feels entitled because of that heartbreak, and when a woman like Victoria, who has already been a victim in her life, rails against his projected ideal, he acts incredulous and outraged that she doesn't want to be victimized yet again. Yet when a woman who has, to Simon's knowledge, never been victimized or placed herself in circumstances that might indicate such, refuses his sociopathic advances dismissively, Simon cowers. We show people versions of ourselves, controlling our image in varying shades from person to person. Simon tries to force his reflection out of someone else, using women as mirrors to validate himself, and though he's mentally unstable and violent, the notion is universal. When we are left heart broken and have lost the person we thought to be our other half, we often go looking for ourselves reflected in another, though we may not always like what we see.
'Simon Killer' is a fascinating, acutely perceived story of a sociopath who deals in perception, highlighting the thin line between the normality of human necessity to craft our own mythology and meaning and the psychopathy of those who are only able to define and validate themselves through relationships, and how those relationships often become abusive. Campos takes relatable concepts of heartbreak, the search for self, and the need for validation and twists those concepts into something hideous and chilling. Then again, we're only seeing the Simon that Campos wants us to see.