Sundown (2021)

This is the second film at the 2021 London Film Festival to feature Tim Roth playing a man on holiday; the first is the wonderful Bergman Island. However, given that Sundown is directed by Mexican provocateur Michel Franco, this vacation was never going to be quite as restful.

Franco’s previous film was 2020’s controversial New Order, only just now released in the UK. That was a brutal, uncompromising film about a fictitious revolution in Mexico City, about economic and class resentments, and the violent abuse of power. Although it had its supporters, I found its provocations contentious and the film full of crass stereotypes. Admittedly, Franco portrayed the wealthy white bourgeoisie’s entitled disregard with an effectively caustic satire (a sort of “let them eat dulce de leche”). But it was his representation of the poor as little more than blood-thirsty savages, lusting for protracted violent revenge fuelled by bitter resentment that I found deeply questionable.

Nevertheless, there were elements of New Order that I found very impressive. Rigorously structured, and detached to the point of being almost clinical, while remaining directly provocative, the film could have been directed by a Mexican Michael Haneke, although perhaps missing the sly academic rigour.

Sundown retains many of New Order‘s strengths but dispenses with the more vexing elements. It is a very different film in both scale and subject matter, and I think a much better one.

This is a character study where the character is kept at arm’s length, played out as a sort of existential mystery from the start. For example we’re quickly introduced to Roth as Neil, a Londoner on holiday by a blue infinity pool in a luxury resort in Acapulco, together with Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and teenaged kids Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan) and Colin (Samuel Bottomley), but Franco lets us assume they’re a family unit before a stray line of dialogue reveals that Neil is actually Alice’s brother, and the kids are his nephew and niece. By wrongfooting the audience on such trivial details, Franco signals that the audience will have to put in the work to infer quite what’s going on and why.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Tim Roth in Sundown

The family seem to be having a good time, relaxing and enjoying the tourist attractions. However, when a family illness causes an abrupt end to the happy holiday with it barely begun, this seems to trigger a nihilistic reaction in Neil as he withdraws into himself, effectively hiding and callously turning his back on his family, spending his time unshaven, half drunk and dishevelled in shorts and crumpled T-shirt on a chair on the city beach. He starts a relationship with a younger Mexican shop worker Berenice (Iazua Larios), though we’re never quite sure whether this connection is meaningful or superficial, just as we have no idea why he seems to abandon his family so outright at a time of crisis.

There are echoes of Camus’s The Stranger here. In that novel, main character Meursault, a French settler in a poorer Algeria, like Neil suffers a family tragedy in the death of his mother and becomes withdrawn, detached and insensitive to any moral expectations. He embarks on an empty sexual relationship with a younger woman and, later, becomes incarcerated, accused of a violent murder. Franco’s plot doesn’t exactly mimic Camus’s but the similarities as well as the deviations are notable and surely deliberate.

As in ‘The Stranger’, the pervasive threat of violence is an almost casual undercurrent. And true to form Franco injects moments of abrupt brutality. Life has less of value in this paradise escape, just as the family tragedy appears to have little outward effect on Neil. But unlike in New Order the moments of violence are justified by both plot and theme, and are neither gratuitous nor sadistic towards the audience.

Franco’s other preoccupations are here too, most obviously a contrast between a remote privileged elite and the indigenous poor, but are handled more delicately than in New Order. Perhaps the only questionable note is in the portrayal of Berenice, Neil’s Mexican lover. She has little agency and seems content to amble drunkenly with Neil when she isn’t working or the pair aren’t having sex. Iazua Larios’s performance gives Berenice a good deal of charisma and charm, but this is no way an empowered characterisation.

Franco’s muted, almost clinical direction keeps the audience at a distance. Long static shots with characters at middle distance, an absence of soundtrack music to manipulate our reaction, or to offer any clues. There are long sequences that are almost dialogue-free, leaving us to ponder Roth’s blank expressions and seemingly aimless opaque behaviour. So it’s remarkable that Franco manages to keep the audience invested. The efficient script and direction inject plot points and clues at just the right moments to keep us intrigued, and while the film seems economical in style, it’s only on reflection we realise just how much has happened in the brisk 77 minute runtime.

Eventually all is revealed, although the revelations concern motivation and behaviour rather than some intricately-plotted intrigue. Small details and fragments of dialogue become more meaningful in hindsight. But I’m not sure if the eventual revelation quite explains everything. Although we deduce key context behind some of the incidents and behaviour, there’s still a satisfying array of impressionist gaps for us to fill.

This is a superb chamber piece, meticulously crafted where every moment is deliberate. The entire cast is good; Roth is excellent as a very watchable enigma and Gainsbourg is very good as the raging, bewildered sister, whose frustration and anger is often shared by the audience. Sundown divided critics at its Venice premiere, but there’s much to savour and admire in this rigorous and fascinating film.

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