What is the opposite of a crowd pleaser? A crowd disturber, perhaps, or a mass baiter? Such a term is necessary for the types of films visited by the Mexican director Michel Franco. The hero of Franco’s “Chronic” (2016), for example, was a nurse, played by Tim Roth, who cared for terminally ill patients, including a stroke victim with a weakness for pornography. Now Roth is back, in Franco’s “Sundown,” which could be described as a vacation movie set in Acapulco. Don’t worry, though. It’s always a nightmare.
Roth’s character this time is Neil Bennett. English abroad, it starts out pale and is gradually scorched by the heat; at a delicious moment, he removes small strips of her burnt skin. Neil is on vacation – an upscale Mexican idyll, in which tinkling bells accompany your massage and margaritas are brought straight to your lounge chair – with his wife, Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and their children, Colin (Samuel Bottomley) and Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan). Or so we believe. Later, Neil tells Berenice (Iazua Larios), a young woman he meets at a store, that Alice is his sister and the kids are hers, not his, but even now we can’t. be safe; Does Neil pass himself off as a free agent, the better to woo Bérénice? Such misconceptions and minor deceptions are typical of Franco. He guides us through the landscape of his stories, gives us the wrong map and invites us to get lost.
The tranquility of the trip is interrupted by a phone call, informing Alice that her mother is dying. Everyone hastily heads for the airport, whereupon Neil announces that he forgot his passport and will take the next flight. What he fails to do. In fact, he never leaves. He takes a cab to the hotel – not the fancy place the family stayed, but a seedy joint next to a public beach, where he sits on a plastic chair and has a beer. And another beer. The ocean washes its feet. He sleeps with Berenice. His cell phone is tucked away in a drawer, like a pair of dirty socks. He is not going anywhere and is in no hurry to get there.
We so instinctively link Tim Roth to aggression – remember how he chatters, gesticulates, smokes and waves a gun in the dinner sequence that opens “Pulp Fiction” (1994) – that it’s amazing to witness to the portrait of pure passivity that he reveals here. His shoulders slump, as if bent by an invisible yoke. His gait is an aimless dawdling, and his reactions are restrained, whatever the provocation; when someone is shot near water, a few feet away, Neil doesn’t even drop his beer bottle. Here, we realize, is the most scandalous of creatures: the human who wants nothing. I’ve seen enough movies about people rushing to make the most of their mortal time, ticking off to-do lists and harvesting rosebuds while they can, so it’s a relief to meet Neil, the enemy of optimism. The title of the film does not do it justice. It should be called “The Fuck-it List”.
Others gave up, on screen and on the page, but rarely so much. Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Passenger” (1975) swaps identities with a dead man, but he maintains a basic curiosity. The same could be said of the numb narrator of the “the strangerwhich, at least, puts his mother to rest, while Neil doesn’t care to attend the family funeral. Most relevant of all is “Mr World disappears», a 1945 novel by Georges Simenon, which I freely admit to being obsessed with, and which finds Monsieur Monde—Mr. World – escaping a Parisian rut of regularity and wealth, taking a train south, checking into a cheap dive, as Neil does, and crying into his pillow: “What flowed from his whole being, to Through her two eyes, it was all the fatigue accumulated over forty-eight years, and if they were sweet tears, it was because now the ordeal was over.
“Sundown,” as you’d expect, crawls with astringent detail. No other director would go from naked lovers, kissing in the shower, to close-up squeezed lime drops on an oyster, which responds with a scintillating squirm. And yet, as a whole, the film lacks the courage of its own desperation. The longer it goes on, the more Franco feels compelled to wrap it with plot and context. Someone reads a newspaper article, which refers to Alice as “the heir to the multi-billion pound pig production and abattoirs in the UK” (Billions, really? That’s a lot of pigs.) The implication is that she and Neil are, in the meanest sense, filthy rich, and owed their reward; Franco is rooted in the brutal politics of class warfare, as he did in his previous film, “New Order” (2020).
Near the end of “Sundown”, we are granted yet another revelation, which supposedly – and, I would say, disastrously – explains Why Neil chose to log out. What the film thus gains in coherence, it loses in tension, in secrecy and in existential shock. I don’t want to know the purpose of a man like Neil (or Mr. World). He doesn’t need reasons. Just watch him turn away from life and raise his face to the sun.
Among recent books on cinema, one of the most nourishing is that of Richard Koszarski “Keep them east“, released last year. The subtitle gives the ingredients – “Kazan, Kubrick and the revival of post-war New York film” – and the result is packed with snippets of local knowledge and delicious ironies. An example: why Harry Stradling, the director of photography on Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), was not employed to work in Hoboken, on “On the Waterfront” (1954 ) of Kazan, as the director hoped? Koszarski has the answer: “Shooting a movie in New York was under the jurisdiction of IATSE Local 644, which was trying to defend local jobs by erecting barriers designed to discourage import from Hollywood cameramen, members of West Coast Local 659.” All of this on a film about muscle union.
Now, inspired by “Keep ‘Em in the East”, Film Forum is curating a short but intensive season of films from the relevant period. ‘On the Waterfront’ is on the list, of course, as are Billy Wilder’s ‘The Lost Weekend’ (1945) and Jules Dassin’s ‘The Naked City’ (1948) – usual suspects, much refreshed by being seen through Koszarski’s goal. delivered. The sight of Ray Milland, in Wilder’s film, stumbling down Third Avenue, seeking to pawn a typewriter for booze money, becomes somehow more desperate once you learn that the camera was hidden in a packing box, in order to capture some authentic shots of Milland in the street. Reality was there to tear him away, like a purse.
Such documentary cues multiply as you explore the movies on offer. Try “Little Fugitive” (1953), directed by Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Ashley, and filmed largely on the sly in Brooklyn and Coney Island, with an unprofessional child in the lead role. Or listen to the voice-overs, as urgent as the news, that kick off Anthony Mann’s “Side Street” (1949) – “Three hundred and eighty new citizens are born today in the town of New York” – and Maxwell Shane’s “The Wall of Glass” (1953): “On March 27th, thirteen hundred and twenty-two displaced persons walked past the Statue of Liberty in New York’s safe harbor.”
From this benign start, Shane’s film shrinks and darkens to black, as a concentration camp survivor (Vittorio Gassman), after stowing away on the refugee ship, flees to Manhattan with immigration honchos on its trail. His decisive appeal for clemency, both hokey and moving, is proclaimed inside the UN building, in a vacant room marked “Commission on Human Rights”. As Koszarski reminds us, Hitchcock was then banned from filming in these august premises for a scene in “North by Northwest” (1959). Not that Hitch cared about the universal dignity of humanity. What interested him was the look on a man’s face: Cary Grant, innocent, but holding a bloody knife.
The figure that stands out from “The Glass Wall” is Gloria Grahame, but, then, Grahame always stands out. Here she plays someone so close to scarcity that she swallows leftover meal in a restaurant and claims a few pennies on the sidewalk, trapping them with her shoe. To read Koszarski’s exemplary book, or to brave the season at the Film Forum, is to meet other women who are struggling to get by in the metropolis, and to feed on its legendary energy in the aftermath of the war. There’s Nettie Cavallo (Coleen Gray), in Henry Hathaway’s “Kiss of Death” (1947), who moves to Queens with her husband, an ex-convict, and daughters, and prays that her past won’t end. not shake it (A little hope.) Then there are the newcomers: Helen St. James (Jane Wyman), in “The Lost Weekend”, who arrives from Toledo with a leopard-skin coat and finds herself with a job at Time, or upstate self-propelled blonde Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday) in George Cukor’s “It Should Happen to You” (1954), who makes a name for herself by posting that name on a Columbus billboard Circle. Innocent but knowing, she becomes famous for desiring nothing but glory. The next New York, Andy Warhol’s New York, is not far away. ♦