Having likeable protagonists obviously isn’t a priority for Antonio Campos.
In Afterschool, his debut feature as director, a video-mad geek calmly films two girls dying from an overdose rather than bothering to fetch help.
But Simon (Brady Corbet), antihero of Campos’ sophomore movie, is an even more repellent specimen, not least because his creepily duplicitous nature lurks behind a disarming facade of awkward boyish helplessness.
At the outset, we might seem to be in for that old cliché plot – young American innocent abroad finds sex and love in Paris.
Still bruised by the break-up with his girlfriend, recent graduate Simon arrives from New York, where he meets gentle hooker Victoria (Mati Diop, 35 Shots of Rum) and moves in with her.
But right from the start, Campos’ haunted lighting and controlled, insidious camerawork hints at something much nastier in store. It’s soon evident that Simon’s a persistent, sociopathic liar, fibbing even when there’s little or nothing to be gained by it.
Before long we find ourselves doubting everything he says – and when he starts drawing Victoria into a scam to film her married clients to then blackmail them, it’s not hard to guess it’ll end in disaster, for her if not for both of them.
Corbet, who played the cult leader’s second-in-command in Martha Marcy May Marlene (which Campos co-produced), gives a compellingly watchable performance – the nastier he gets, the harder it is to tear our eyes from him – well matched by Diop as his touchingly vulnerable dupe.
Campos drip-feeds the tension, with extended takes and languid, crawling pans that tantalise us with what they might reveal.
There’s also an obsessively pounding music track that often plays out via iPod within Simon’s head. Paris – grim and neon-smeared, very un-Ville Lumière – provides an unsettling backdrop.
Anything but a date movie, Campos’ Paris-set character study builds a quiet, creeping sense of menace, with a courageously unsympathetic performance from Corbet at its icy heart.