At first glance, the protagonist of the entertaining sex-and-death-and-Instagram dark comedy “Rotting in the Sun” appears to be its director: 44-year-old Chilean-born filmmaker Sebastián Silva (“Nasty Baby,” “Crystal Fairy”) ), who here plays a severely depressed version of himself. He enters the film in an existential state, his head full of suicidal thoughts and his strikingly handsome, sad-eyed face buried in a copy of EM Cioran’s The Trouble With Being Born. He soon flees his Mexico City apartment and moves to a gay nudist beach paradise, but Sebastián already seems averse to the pleasures of life, whether he’s enjoying a sunset or snorting ketamine. Even the many, many naked men who march into his field of vision (and ours, thanks to Gabriel Díaz Alliende’s blatantly horny, often crotch-reaching camerawork) seem to fill him with more gloom than joy.
If you’re craving happier company, you’re in luck: it stars comedian and social media personality Jordan Firstman, also playing a fictional version of himself, albeit not deeply depressed. An exuberantly narcissistic human firecracker, Jordan makes a dynamic first impression on Sebastián—let’s say he nearly kills them both—and remains an irrepressible, sometimes unwitting agent of clothing-choice chaos thereafter. Fate brought them together, Jordan claims, and he insists they work together on the show he is writing. The details of the project are vague, but it will be about putting the spotlight on some of his millions of Instagram followers, the ones who hang on every pointless life update and semi-inspired comic piece he uploads.
The show sounds terrible, but the working title (“You Are Me”) and pass-the-mic premise raise an intriguing question: Is Jordan actually the real protagonist of this film? The argument could be made, especially when Jordan, who is every bit interested in working with Sebastián, follows him home to Mexico City, only to stumble upon a mystery of ridiculous but eerily plausible proportions. I won’t say more (“Rotting” doesn’t need to be revealed) other than to note that Jordan quickly takes control of the narrative and becomes an amateur detective, interrogating Sebastián’s landlord Mateo (Mateo Riestra) and housekeeper Vero (Catalina Saavedra). ) and his Instagram colleagues to make them aware of a mystery whose solution has already been revealed to the audience.
And so “Rotting in the Sun” unfolds like an influencer-spiked episode of “Columbo,” if “Columbo” had smartphones, stark kinetic imagery and unsimulated gay sex scenes. The latter have, as expected, dominated headlines about the film since it premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, although Silva, who co-wrote the screenplay with Pedro Peirano, can hardly be accused of trading in shock value. Even when he’s strategically going full-frontal on this beach vacation, he’s less concerned with eroticizing the sight of proud, casually exposed skin than with normalizing it. He views sex as both a life-energizing force and a banal, matter-of-fact reality, a source of uninterrupted exhilaration and soul-destroying disappointment in equal measure.
Sebastián’s suicidal thoughts—he can’t stop Googling “phenobarbital”—suggest a deep familiarity with this disappointment. Jordan, on the other hand, is an eternal optimist; There is no frustration that a random connection and a few thousand likes can’t dispel. What holds the film together, despite its jittery syntax and tricky twist midway through, is the furiously combative, contrapuntal energy that exists between Silva and Firstman. Both actors playfully poke fun at themselves and each other, upending our preconceived assumptions about the value of the obscure, confident artist versus the vapid, wildly popular influencer. (Of course, it’s only Sebastián’s hesitant mention of a possible collaboration with Jordan Firstman that causes excitement in a depressing HBO pitch meeting.)
As always, Silva’s filmmaking – formally rough on the surface, carefully crafted underneath – depends on the constant elevation of expectations. Social media is fake but potentially insightful. Bodies are hot and sexy until they’re gross and uncomfortable. Jordan is insufferable, the worst self-proclaimed ugly American, but also lovable, empathetic and admirable in his tenacity. What happens to him and Sebastián is shocking, then funny, then shocking, then sad and then somehow even funnier. A master of staging domestic chaos in confined spaces, Silva transforms Sebastián’s under-construction home into a den of vice, a tangle of secrets and a site of the unspoken class tensions and inequalities that have always simmered in the director’s work.
At times, “Rotting in the Sun” feels like a compilation of Silva’s greatest hits, peppered with references to everything from the outdoorsy trippiness of “Crystal Fairy” (quoted specifically by Jordan himself) to the self-aggrandizing satire of “Nasty.” Baby.” The most significant callback, however, is Silva’s 2009 drama “The Maid,” in which Saavedra plays a housekeeper waging a quiet and not-so-quiet war against her longtime employers. She brings a different but similarly subversive spirit takes on the role of Vero, who initially appears as a friendly but unhappy marginal figure, but increasingly becomes a thorn in Jordan’s side as she refuses to let him gain the upper hand.
Vero, who is alternately angry and sympathetic, has little money and no social media profile to speak of. In a film characterized by bizarre meta flourishes and bacchanalian delights, she’s hardly the first person you notice. But by the end of “Rotting in the Sun,” you might well conclude that this desperately sad, shifty-eyed woman—unnoticed, unloved, and completely forgettable—was the real protagonist all along.
“Rot in the Sun”
In Spanish and English, with English subtitles
Duration: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Play: Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in downtown Los Angeles