Mexican cine-sadist Michel Franco returns with another cravenly bleak drama about life as a pageant of eternal suffering.
“Who hurt Michel Franco?” is a question prompted by the Mexican director’s sadistic brand of cinema. He treats his characters like ants under a magnifying glass, letting them scurry around for a little before the sun rises and he then mercilessly fries them to death.
Franco’s one ideological position seems to be that life is beset by random acts of violence and cruelty. With this in mind, the first shot of Sundown is classic Franco to the point of self-parody. Fish on a ship’s deck gasp for air, slowly suffocating in the sun.
Under the same blue Acapulco sky is a wealthy family made up of Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Neil (Tim Roth) and two teenage children. Yves Cape’s camera shoots from a detached distance as the family recline on sun loungers, drink margaritas and exist at the slow pace of Brits abroad in a hot country.
Dialogue is sparse until Alice receives two phone calls in succession. One to say that her mother is in hospital, the next to say that she has died. Cue a rapid trip to the airport, but just as the family are about to rush through passport control, Neil announces that he’s left his passport at the hotel and so has to stay on.
There has been a motif at 2021 Venice Film Festival of characters who abandon their lives, seen in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, Hagai Levai’s Scenes From a Marriage and, to a point, Harry Wootliff’s True Things. Sundown is most pregnant with potential when chronicling Tim Roth kicking back on the beach with a bucket of beers, striking up a sweet romance with a local, much younger lady and staying at a basic hotel well below his means.
The lack of signposting around his dramatic choice is entertaining and curious. Roth makes for a typically humble presence – a vision of nonchalance who betrays none of the expected hand-wringing before, during or after he pulls the cord on prior commitments in order to stake his hand on something new.
Of course, this being a Michel Franco movie, it is only a matter of time before the open plains of his future shrink down to a pinhole. With depressing predictability, the director finds a way to introduce violence into proceedings, not bothering to seed clues, rather recycling his usual “shit happens” sensibility and – like that – an intriguing premise is snuffed out.
There is a little something extra up the film’s sleeve which, combined with Roth’s beautifully poised performance, enable more than the usual amount of humanity to linger, yet this feeling is dwarfed by the frustration of watching a story that is carefully set up, only to be abandoned, much like the Bennett family at the airport.
Published 5 Sep 2021
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