If his T-shirt said “Crew” instead of showing a picture of David Bowie, Mexican director Michel Franco could be mistaken for a member of the young staff of the Arava International Film Festival and not one of its guests of honor.
Franco attended the 10th-anniversary edition of the festival to present his latest film, Sundown, which stars Tim Roth and Charlotte Gainsbourg, and was one of the most enthusiastic moviegoers at the festival, attending every screening under the stars, not only of his movie but all the movies that were shown.
The director, who may pass easily for a 20-something slacker but who is actually 42, is the son of a mother from Haifa and speaks Hebrew. “I would come here on vacations but I’m entirely Mexican,” he said. His father is Mexican-Jewish and runs a company that makes suits, while his mother now works in the movie industry. He attended a Jewish school at one point, although it was too strict for him, he recalled.
Sundown, which had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival this year, is an offbeat look at Neil (Roth), a man vacationing at an exclusive Mexican resort with his family. The opening few minutes make it look like he is on an idyllic trip with a close-knit family, but an off-screen tragedy back in their native England changes everything. His family goes home while Neil stays behind and seems, inexplicably, to drop out, moving through increasingly downscale locales and having an affair with a local woman, Bernice (Iazua Larios). To say more would be to reveal spoilers, but the movie has a dreamlike – and sometimes nightmarish – quality, as it reveals layers of the psyche of a tourist far more troubled than he appears to be at first and paints a portrait of every strata of Mexican society. Every time you think you know where the story is going, Franco expertly pulls out the rug from under you. Even the most basic facts about the characters are different from what most viewers will assume to be true.
“I like doing that,” he said. “The typical thing to do in films or what the books on how to write a script advise... is to deliver as much information as quickly as possible so the audience can know all about the characters. And I find it kind of lame. I like when I’m reading a book or seeing a movie to discover little by little what it’s all about. And I think it’s interesting that way... If you had known... all about the family the moment it begins, you would see everything through a certain lens. I think it’s more interesting for you to look at it and you gradually understand what it’s about.”
The script deliberately plays with some conventional fantasies outsiders have about Mexico, of running away to a place where it’s cheap to live, kicking back and meeting a pretty young Mexican. “Many people, especially males, fantasize about that, to do it for good or just for a little while. So I’m playing with those expectations,” he explained.
At one point, Franco actually shot footage from Neil’s childhood that would have made explicit some of the more mysterious aspects of the story, but these scenes ended up on the cutting-room floor. “I decided it’s not about his background, it’s about what he’s living right now.”
He acknowledges some of the literary references in the film, notably Camus’ The Stranger and Melville’s "Bartleby, the Scrivener," although he is a little embarrassed to bring them up. “I didn’t reread The Stranger while I was writing it, I didn’t want to steal from it.”
The idea behind the story began to take when he underwent a crisis a few years ago. “I went through a rough couple of years, suddenly I didn’t feel young anymore... up until I was 38, I felt very young, and suddenly felt 55... and suddenly I started questioning where I am in my life which is I guess the midlife crisis.” His friends were married with kids, but he had chosen to stay single and concentrate on his work. “And the only way to pull myself out of this crisis was writing this thing and shooting it. And I had a story about a character who stays behind but I didn’t know why, and while I was feeling miserable, I thought, ‘Get to work. Get to work.’”
While Sundown is definitely about a man in crisis, it is also about a country in crisis. Neil’s journey “shows people different sides of Acapulco,” both the rarefied resorts in the hills and the cheap, crowded, noisy and crime-ridden beach where the locals go. These scenes as well as a sequence set in a jail highlight “a very corrupt system,” in a way that puts viewers in a place where they question their assumptions.
It is a less inflammatory look at Mexico than his previous film, the controversial New Order, about a rebellion of the poor and a military coup that turns twisted and violent, which was released last year. But Sundown is still a critical and incisive look at his homeland. He is one of Mexico’s most acclaimed filmmakers, and among his other films are After Lucia, April’s Daughter and Chronic. Chronic also starred Tim Roth, however, in a very different story about a nurse who works with terminally ill patients, which won the Best Screenplay Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015. When they first worked on Chronic, and a previous movie, 600 Miles (which Franco produced and Roth played an ATF agent), Franco said: “He was the guy from Reservoir Dogs and all these movies I had grown up watching... But working on Sundown, 10 years later, he was just Tim.”
Franco wrote the screenplay fast with Roth in mind and sent it to him. “He said, ‘It’s perfect, don’t change anything.’ And I didn’t.”
They managed to finish filming it in early March 2020, just before the pandemic closed down movie sets all over the world.
“We got it done just before we realized what was happening,” he said. He sees the upheavals of the COVID-19 era as an appropriate time to release his movie.
“This isn’t a time you want to see anything obvious,” he said. “And my movie doesn’t tell Neil’s story in an obvious way.”