Michel Franco returns to the Lido just one year after his New Order won the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize, premiering his latest which also reunites him with Tim Roth after having done Chronic in 2015. Unfolding from a script Franco wrote with the British actor in mind, Sundown paints a disquieting portrait of a (white) middle-class family disintegrating as their summer holiday turns sour.
The film starts off in a swanky hotel, establishing its wealthy protagonists and their respective troubles, such as the swapping of one chaise longue for another and leaving empty bottles and alcohol glasses behind. Days string out for what seems like an eternity under the scorching sun in this anonymous place of leisure and beer, as Neil (Roth) and his sister Alice Bennett (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tend to her teenage children – one awfully quiet happy family. Indiscernible with its opulence and solid architectonics, the hotel they’re staying at feels like a fortress, a piece of land that might be anywhere in the world. But one should anticipate that geographical ambiguity is not exactly Franco’s thing.
The second act of the film unfolds on the beaches of Acapulco, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, a place which was famed as the go-to holiday destination for many living in the capital, is now largely stratified amidst soaring homicide rates. That very same ambivalence is ingeniously captured by cinematographer Yves Cape (as usual) and his combination of wide lens and central compositions, be it of people or landscapes. The ocean and the sun attract the camera as often as the film’s human protagonists do but the claustrophobic whiff of Cape’s framing choices foreshadows the traumatic punctures in the plot even within the film’s insistence of being aesthetically economic.
Franco’s penchant for shock and violent outbursts that are bubbling underneath the surface of a beautified, tranquil environment is actualized with every sequence. In effect, Sundown does lure one in and then keeps the audience on edge with a tight grasp all throughout the film’s 83 minutes runtime. Danger awaits whenever the camera lingers alongside the characters in the inside of a car, or in case of observing the beach through an immobile long shot. It’s a skill that Franco has acquired, to train his audience quite well – both across his oeuvre, and this film in particular – to foresee the worst and therefore imaginatively expand it. For a director to have his viewers remake the film before they’ve seen it forms a beguiling relationship that, most importantly, goes both ways.
Tim Roth plays a man who cannot and will not articulate his desires, in stark contrast with Gainsbourg’s high-strung performance. Instead, he prefers to float free, with little to no regard towards decision-making after illogical choice to stay behind in Acapulco once his mother – the head a multi-billion dollar slaughterhouse enterprise – dies. Roth’s performance is decisively one-note and well-fitted to conceal, rather than reveal this seemingly untroubled but actually impenetrable son and brother. He sticks to one face (a slightly amused big-eyed one) and one tone of voice (low and definite), inviting comparisons with absurdist literary characters such as Melville’s Bartleby (who would ‘prefer not to’) or any one of Beckett’s drifting nihilists. However, Sundown feels more mellow and melancholic, owing much to the silenced existential ponderings embedded in the unknowable protagonist who, instead of brooding, is actually living – he sips on beer, he meets people, and even forms a relationship with a charming local woman, Berenice (Iazua Larios).
As a character study, Sundown does very much with very little. The fact that the final product was a result of a more intuitive, collaborative effort rather than a stagnantly pre-planned shoot gives it a ring of gloomy authenticity that Franco’s tapped into his own vulnerability and drawn out more than the critical judgement towards the socio-political status quo in Mexico. And yes, the critique of how normalised violence has become is there but the plot places more of its weight on Neil, whose abdication from responsibility comes at a viciously high price.
Once again, Michel Franco confronts us with the banality of violence, and he does so with proficiency and a sincerity which allows him to describe Sundown as a love letter to the Acapulco of his childhood. Works fueled by nostalgia are never solely clear-cut idealisations, despite what the Romantic ring to the word may evoke. Acting on one’s national nostalgia entails admitting the trite and dreadful components of a relationship that is already conflicted. However, even if the ethical costs of Neil’s impeccably portrayed opacity amount to a cascade of misfortunate for the middle-class foreigners, they are still the only ones in the film who can afford the luxury of ruminating on life as being-towards-death.
This review is from the Venice Film Festival. There is currently no U.S. distribution for the film.