Michel Franco: Sundown (2021) | featured image
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Tim Roth in Sundown (2021) | courtesy of BFI LFF

Masculinity Has No Meaning in Michel Franco’s ‘Sundown’

Michel Franco’s Sundown, which played in competition for Best Film at the BFI London Film Festival, is an exploration of masculinity in crisis. Or is it?

Michel Franco
CommonGround Pictures
9 October 2021 (BFI LFF)

Stories that plunge you into an existential abyss have always taken my interest. Director Michel Franco’s Sundown (2021) is a noteworthy addition to the canon of existentialist cinema, unafraid to broach the reality that at some point desire for what we want from life is meaningless. 

Tim Roth’s character Neil is weighed down by his own existential crisis while on holiday in Acapulco with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), niece Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan), and nephew Colin (Samuel Bottomley). When a death in the family cuts their holiday short, they fly home without Neil, who uses his forgotten passport as a reason to return to the city. Checking into another hotel he passes the days drinking in the sun and enters into a sexual relationship with local woman, Bernice (Iazua Larios). 

Time seems to have little meaning in Sundown, as daily life is lost in a type of eternal recurrence as the days bleed into one another. Neil frequents the beach and the same shop, where he meets Bernice, to buy beer. Roth is captivating with a calm temperament, and when he witnesses a man shot dead on the beach, his response is muted. Even his sexual rendezvous with Bernice struggles to raise his pulse. 

The image of Roth’s character has shades of his contemplative filmmaker in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island (2021). When his wife, played by Vicky Krieps, also a filmmaker says, “I’m afraid it’s saying stuff I’ve already done. We spend all our lives saying the same thing” he replies, “We do but from different perspectives. You’ve just got to trust yourself.” 

Roth’s skill is to trust in his ability to bring nuance to his physical presence, using the perspective of other filmmakers and actors to lend him a familiar yet different vibe. What makes him a compelling actor is the moods he expresses without words. He sums up something internally in his performances and creates layers of conscious and unconscious expression. 

Superficially, Sundown feels calm, provoking the feeling that nothing much happens. It’s a fitting first impression when much of the story is an act of repression. Franco invites us into Neil’s world, but the sparse insight that follows distances us. The story is simultaneously about intimacy and distance.

We glean little about Neil, unsure what events have shaped him. Has he always been prone to existential episodes, or is this something new? We’re uncertain as to how well Alice knows her brother. In hindsight, the crisis takes on a different complexion than an indulgent privileged man bailing on his family. There are subtle moments that suggest more intricate motivations that can be lost in the haze of the film. It’s easy to overlook some of the subtle exposition, but it seems to be Franco’s intent to not commit to an explanation. Instead, he wants his audience to infer. 

It’s often said that we don’t really know who anybody is, and Sundown picks up on this sentiment to offer its audience murky characters. Director and actor create a space for the audience to enter the film, to vicariously experience the angst by filling the void of the character’s silence with our own thoughts and feelings. 

Closed off, Roth’s character intrigues us because we’re driven by an instinct to understand the story and its characters. It’s a contrast to Franco and Roth’s previous collaboration Chronic (2015), which revealed the character gradually. This time, the director strips things down to offer a subtler insight. If we listen and watch, we can see the narrative that has brought Neil and Alice to this point in their lives. Much of the mystery derives from the limited access to Alice, who can clarify what we can only infer. 

Neil is symbolic of the crisis of masculinity and privilege, although he can be seen as a broader metaphor for men and women who are sleepwalking through life. Sundown shouldn’t be read as a man trying to escape his life because Neil talks about his sister, niece, and nephew to Bernice. He’s a character that has wandered from his path; the question is why?

When Alice returns to Acapulco and asks him what he wants, he cannot tell her. As the film reaches its conclusion we begin to realise that for Neil desire is inane. We’ve witnessed a man in existential crisis, but not because life seems pointless, but what’s the meaning of life when confronting your own mortality?  

Sundown’s strength lies in our relationship with Neil and his choices, which have tragic consequences. He becomes our point of identification, and his uncommunicative presence means that the audience shares any indirect guilt for these choices. Neil’s passive nature and muted response to violence, tragedy, and imprisonment are the response of a man who is confronting the reality that life is meaningless. 

RATING 8 / 10