Venice 2021: Director Michel Franco lets his story unfold incrementally and mysteriously
Venice Film Festival
In “Sundown,” his latest examination of how his country’s economic and social tensions sometimes explode, Mexican director Michel Franco takes a cold-eyed stare at his characters, even as the Acapulco sun beats down on them.
In the film that premiered on Sunday at the Venice Film Festival, Tim Roth and Charlotte Gainsbourg play British tourists holidaying in a gorgeous Banyan Tree resort, accompanied by two late-teen or early 20s kids named Alexa and Colin. They swim and eat and lounge around, getting served margaritas by their private pool, venturing out to eat dinner or watch a cliff-diving exhibition in which local men risk their lives for the visiting galleries before passing a hat for donations.
Gainsbourg is chided by the kids for always being on her phone working, until it rings with some terrible news which means they have to leave immediately. Gainsbourg squeals in pain on hearing the news, then hands the phone to Roth to deal with it by talking to a man called Richard who will “sort things out”.
After that, I don’t really want to tell you much more, except that Franco lets his story unfold incrementally and mysteriously, like a fisherman slowly reeling his catch out of the water.
His camera is blank, distant and so is Roth’s character, Neil, a taciturn, unreadable, unbothered chap whose motivation we will spend the rest of the movie trying to piece together, using every scrap of information to form a bigger picture.
The detached calm of the camerawork will be punctured by sudden outbursts of violence, sometimes physical but also emotional. The viewer remains taut and on edge, constantly scanning the wide frame of the composition for clues, on the lookout for what might happen next. I guess that’s how tourists are told to be in Acapulco.
To reveal almost any of what happens – or has happened – would be some kind of spoiler. But it would be a stretch to tell you to relax, that all will be revealed, because it won’t, not everything. Franco presents us with a puzzle, perhaps attempting to reflect the many impulses, divisions and complexities in how Mexico functions, especially in a tourist enclave such as Acapulco. “Is it safe?” asks Gainsbourg anxiously.
Roth, unconcerned, is particularly good here. If we can barely read Neil’s thoughts, Roth’s physical performance is floppy and loose-limbed, giving Neil an unhurried trudge and a long face that’s hanging on to its bones enough to form the expression of someone who’s encountered a bad smell. He moves with a graceless ease, so relaxed in his surroundings he’s practically supine. In contrast, Gainsbourg is all angles and restless energy.
If we can’t fathom Neil’s actions and reactions, he looks perfectly unruffled in whatever he’s doing, hardly communicating with any locals (he speaks not a word of Spanish and mostly just says things like, “OK” and “It’s fine”) and coming across as disinterested as the camera that’s tracking him. Neil gets through a lot of beer, though nothing seems to give him much pleasure.
We wonder if it’s existential ennui or a moral alienation that’s afflicting him. Or could it be something mental or physical, a condition we can’t see that makes him so passive and uncommitted? It’s not even clear if he really is miserable or if Neil’s always been a bit like this.
I’m being as opaque as Neil, which is ironic given the cool clarity of Yves Cape’s pin-sharp cinematography. You can see why Franco has earned comparisons with Michael Haneke, the director for whom Roth starred in the 2007 shot-for-shot American remake of his Austrian home invasion chiller, “Funny Games.”
“Sundown” is perhaps closer to “Code Unknown” or “Hidden” in the way threat simmers in the air but is never signaled — no minor notes approaching on an accompanying score, the only music coming from passing mariachis on the beach or from a beautiful singer in a restaurant. And in the family holiday dynamic, I was also reminded of Ruben Ostlund’s “Force Majeure,” without the ski boots.
With Roth and Gainsbourg, the film has every chance for good exposure, but “Sundown” is only a short film, just about making it over 80 minutes, every second of which manages to be simultaneously riveting and banal.
Yet its intensity burns like the sun which makes Neil’s skin blister, peeling off a layer we hope might reveal more. Franco is scratching away at the surface, too, making the sort of movie you come away from with questions, wondering if you’d blinked and missed something.
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