Sundown: Beach Bummer, by David Bax
Michel Franco’s Sundown opens with a shot of a gasping fish out of water. It’s upsetting in its casualness, a matter-of-fact gaze at the world’s capacity for cruel indifference. It’s also more than a tad obvious, which makes it an altogether fitting introduction to Franco in general, a director who seems to have endeavored to carve out a reputation for himself best described as “poor man’s Michael Haneke.” Burnishing that brand is the fact that the protagonists his films tend to take lazy pleasure in victimizing are often affluent, just like those in Haneke’s work.
That’s true once again in Sundown, though, unlike Franco’s last two films (2020’s New Order and 2017’s April’s Daughter), the idle rich this time around aren’t Mexicans. Neil and Alice Bennett (Tim Roth and Charlotte Gainsbourg) are members of a wealthy English family, vacationing at a high end resort in Acapulco. This allows Franco to work in the critiques of Mexico’s class divides and manipulatable institutions that are inherent to most of his films.
As a contrast to Bergman Island–the other recent movie in which he plays a vacationer–Roth is inarguably the lead here. Alice’s massive influence on Neil’s life is mostly applied from offscreen, even as it comes more into focus the further away she gets. Gradually, Sundown becomes less a portrait of a man on vacation than of one in a limbo of self-exile.
Roth employs his soulful eyes and increasingly craggy face to great effect, giving us more than enough to chew on in lengthy shots of him simply staring off into the ocean. Franco aids in this with a thoroughly considered use of sound design. The noises that come from a private beach and a public one are identifiable even when there isn’t a drop of water in the frame.
Sundown doesn’t reach the heights of the best movies about depressed men in unfamiliar places (Lost in Translation, Anomalisa). But Franco and his regular collaborator, cinematographer Yves Cape, take advantage of the visual opportunities of their location, a paradise paved over with ugly roads, chintzy shacks selling to tourists crammed together along the seaside.
But there’s too much of a sense of endorsement in the depiction of Neil’s desire to drop out and abandon his family. For all of its ennui–not to mention the escalating incidents of random violence–Sundown sometimes feels like a bit of midlife crisis wish fulfillment. If Haneke sniffed that impulse out, he’d pin it to the floor with his boot and watch it squeal. Franco eagerly indulges it.