MICHEL FRANCO: SUNDOWN (2021)


TIM ROTH IN SUNDOWN

Strange holiday

"O. Henry by way of Michael Haneke," says Josh Kupecki of Austin Chronicle. I thought rather of the short stories of Somerset Maugham, which often deal with devastating turns of fortune suffered by British colonials in remote places. But granted, it's Maugham with touches of Haneke. Sundown takes us to a very posh hotel complex at Acapulco, a destination that I'm told has gone sour underneath since Mexico's violent drug cartels have made it the assassination capitol of the country. We will see that come into play. Michel Franco is a Mexican director who shows his harsh minimalist side here. He likes to deal with death, troubles, and the rich. Here, the persistent fascination is the enigmatic behavior of the main character, played with splendid control by Tim Roth, who manages to be both strange and very relatable. The setting is brilliantly used: one can't imagine anyone but a Mexican director, and a bold one, using it so well.

There are two college-age siblings, Colin and Alexa Bennett (Samuel Bottomley, Albertine Kotting McMillan), with two adults. We don't know exactly what the relationships are till later when it turns out Colin and Alexa are the offspring of Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Neil (Roth) is her brother, not her husband. This is an economic powerhouse: they are the owners and future owners of a billion-pound English livestock and meatpacking company. Nothing is happening. They're served large breakfast tequilas by polite servitors. One notable event is Colin sneaks a large additional pour of tequila to his drink from a bottle he grabs from the next room, and when Neil tastes the difference he calls Colin an "asshole."

Then Alice gets terrible news from London and insists they must return at once. They rush to the airport but, when they get there, Neil finds he has left his passport at the hotel. One knows it's a ruse, but it doesn't totally matter; it is a ruse. He insists they should go ahead and he will follow on the next possible flight. But when they're gone,he has a sleazy cab driver take him to a mediocre hotel and, sitting on the beach, stays sloshed on beer day after day, making up stories to Alice about a lost passport and complications at the consulate that she gradually realizes are an infuriating, meaningless string of lies.

Neil has a strange ease and calm, as if he's found his sweet spot. This is reenforced by his new union with Berenice (Iazua Larios), an attractive woman who runs a beach concession. It's sex, and almost a romance. They don't have to say much; they have little to say. As usual, Franco has no score, using only diegetic music. A motley crew of men crowd in on Neil at his beach table and he chats with them noncommittally.

But a first blaze of violence comes when a speedboat sweeps up and a shooter takes out a man quite near where Neil is sitting. His strangely compelling inertia (and rejection of all the complexities of his high powered normal life) acts as a counterpoise to increasingly violent events. But when an infuriated, contemptuous Alice comes back from London, after the funeral of their mother, to find and confront him, accompanied by the benevolent, neutral family lawyer Richard (Henry Goodman), the reach of the local violence touches the Bennetts. There is an episode in a local jail that wonderfully expresses that ugly underbelly hidden behind the spectacular cliff divers, the sparkling drinks, and the posh hotel that was already imminent when Neil first stepped into the sleazy cab. The appearance of pigs in the jail shower is an ironic touch too splendidly visual to call heavy-handed.

At the end there is another surprise that could explain Neil's strange behavior. There may be that. Or mightn't it just mean that life is inexplicable and cruel? There's certainly that too. It may feel like there are longeurs even though the run-time is admirably short. But what I like about this movie is the way, as in a Maugham story, you settle in for a tale of the unexpected, for some deliciously rude shocks. Unlike Maugham, Franco has no well-turned moral to point, no world-weary life lessons - only a suggestion of the disjointedness of society, the anomie of the very rich, and the inexplicable irony of fate. Best of all this is a good, mysterious tale that takes us to an exotic world the filmmaker makes very vivid, turning it skillfully to his own ends. Personally I found this film a lot more satisfying than the other, critically much more highly rated Tim Roth vehicle of the last year, Mia Hansen-LÝve's Bergman Island.

Sundown, 83 mins., debuted at Venice (a nominee for the Golden Lion); also 13 other festivals (with some award nominations and one win), including Toronto, Busan, BFI London, El Gouna, Chicago Taipei. Limited theatrical release and internet from Jan. 28, 2022. Screened at Landmark Albany Twin, Albany, CA. Feb. 5, 2022.