We’re halfway through the 78th Venice Film Festival and I must say so far the selection has proved even more impressive than usual. This may have something to do with the festival’s increasingly frontloaded programming, but the fact remains that THE POWER OF THE DOG and THE CARD COUNTER are unequivocally great films. PARALLEL MOTHERS and Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino’s THE HAND OF GOD may not have reached the heights of the respective directors’ previous work, but both are moving, deeply personal projects. SPENCER is a very special film with a hypnotic point of view, so is Italian auteur Michelangelo Frammartino’s third feature THE HOLE, a spiritual, dialogue-free film surrounding a group of cave explorers that captures the wonders of the Earth – and of life itself.
The 2.5-hour French costume drama LOST ILLUSIONS certainly has a ton of dialogue and is probably the one title I had the most trepidations about, but even this one turned out well – terribly old-fashioned for sure, but also eloquent, emotional, handsomely made. Then we have OFFICIAL COMPETITION, which is a barrel of laughs featuring three actors at the top of their game, and Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour’s third feature MONA LISA AND THE BLOOD MOON, a loosely-structured, psychedelically stylish and cool modern-day fairytale that’s a party start to finish. On competition side, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut THE LOST DAUGHTER is the only film I couldn’t get into.
That leaves us with the last comp title we’ve seen so far, Mexican director Michel Franco’s SUNDOWN. The 83-min drama (the shortest in the lineup) follows a wealthy British family as they vacation at a luxury resort in Acapulco. Other than the fact that Mom Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) can’t seem to let work go, things are as idyllic as can be. The two kids are having fun while the presumable Dad (which we later learn is really Uncle) Neil (Tim Roth) chills. When an emergency happens, the whole family packs up to head home. At the airport, Neil announces he’s forgotten his passport and must take the next flight. But instead of going back to the hotel to find the passport he’s never lost, Neil checks into another one by the beach and just… stays.
The first hour of SUNDOWN is basically Neil starting this strange double/second life in Mexico. He lies to Alice, leaving her to take care of family business while he sits at the beach all day drinking beer. While everyone back home is grieving, he soaks up the sun and starts an affair with a local girl, seemingly completely unfazed by what’s happened or by his own behavior. Eventually Alice flies back to catch him in his lies and, in true Franco fashion, things suddenly turn very, very violent.
In general I have mixed feelings about Franco as a filmmaker. On a technical level I think he’s highly skilled. He composes interesting, provocative images and tells stories with great efficiency. It’s just that he can apply those techniques to misguided ideas and ends up doing something truly awful (see Venice Grand Jury Prize winner NEW ORDER, which I despised). In this case I think he’s found the right material to showcase his strengths.
Throughout the bulk of SUNDOWN, not much is explained. With a stark, stripped visual language and little dialogue, Franco lets us see everything Neil does without telling us why, and I was hooked. There are a million reasons why someone would ditch their family at a time of tragedy and stay in a foreign country doing nothing. But what if there’s no reason at all? What if a perfectly sane person just wakes up one day and decides they do not want their old life anymore, to hell with all the people they’re supposed to care and responsibilities they’re expected to fulfill? Does that make them a bad person or simply an honest one? The uncomfortable questions raised by this film struck me for their inherent truth and ugliness. There’s a Camus-esque nihilism to them that I find surreal, dangerous, appealing.
In the end Franco does offer answers – or at least strong suggestions – for Neil’s actions, which is a little disappointing for it takes most of the mystery away. But the way the answers are revealed is still quite a trip, including a harrowing kidnap attempt turned murder and some dead pig hallucinations. All in all, the film packs a rich, often surprising narrative and emotional arc within less than an hour and a half, which is pretty impressive. Roth is excellent as a character you’re not supposed to understand. His bizarrely neutral, unhurried demeanor hits that note between calmness, boredom and deep apathy perfectly and succeeds in keeping you guessing. Gainsbourg does not have a lot of screen time but fully reminds you what an amazing actress she is in a few key scenes involving her character.