As seen with Jordan and Mateo, Silva extends his self-fictionalization to most of the cast, taking actors and regurgitating them as screen versions of themselves. Sometimes the cinematic portraits come across as true to life, realist though tinged by a dreaminess, in the style of Manet; take Silva’s brother, who cameos as a concerned brother with a gaunt face and hopeless eyes. Other times, the portraits come closer to a Gillray cartoon, stretching out one feature in particular so that a shroud of upper-class callousness drapes over the actor’s real self.
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In the opening scene of Rotting in the Sun, a fictional version of the director Sebastián Silva is reading from Emil Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born in a park in Mexico City. The book’s pithy sentences (“Only the optimist commits suicide”) interweave with a street performer’s somber cover of the Cranberries’ “Zombie”; Sebastián types “como matrase facil y sin folor” (“how to kill yourself painlessly and easily”) into an online search, and an image of the sedative Pentobarbital taunts him; when he looks around the park, all he sees is trash, shit, and the melancholy performance with no audience. He returns to the Cioran passage, which continues, relentless: “Resign yourself to decay at all times.”
The Trouble with Being Born is, to risk understatement, a curious choice for Silva to include in a film about himself. Though the book is a collection of aphorisms that each address suffering as an inherent feature of existence, Emil Cioran wished that readers of his book would approach it without gravitas. He found that “serious” people – by which he meant the professors, with their expectations for a linear and thoroughly defensible argument – recoiled at the contradictions present in the book. “Oh, look what this guy said ten pages back, now he’s saying the contrary,” Cioran recalled his skeptics protesting, to which he rebutted: “Explaining bores me terribly. When I’ve written aphorisms it’s because I’ve sunk into fatigue – why bother?” His conflicting aphorisms were like a shrug or a slump, gestures of resignation. In the age after Maggie Nelson, it’s not shocking to encounter a book of complex and soul-searching fragments. What remains unsettling about Cioran’s treatise is how much he withheld when he refused to explain himself – because it bored him, because, as he says, why bother? “What I know at sixty, I knew as well at twenty,” he writes, failing to mention that during those forty years he did have an important reckoning: he renounced his affiliation with the Iron Guard as well as other fascist ideals that he upheld with ardor in his twenties. Explaining bored Cioran terribly, but avoiding explanation allowed him to shrug with resignation and leave the distasteful truths about himself unsaid.
Rotting in the Sun seems at first to be the product of someone who has read too much Cioran, fed into his delusions, and without realizing, absorbed his habit for selective introspection. In scene after scene, Sebastián embodies Cioran’s sunken fatigue. He spends much of his spare time on his phone, which resembles an endless hallway of absurdist videos and search results for suicide methods, or taking bumps of ketamine. In moments that demand action or agency, he detaches. During one argument between his housekeeper, Verónica or “Vero” (Catalina Saavedra), and his landlord, Mateo (Mateo Riestra), Sebastián’s eyes display a resigned exasperation and he falls backward onto the bed, would fall – the viewer gets the sense – into another k-hole if he could, the bliss of dark abstraction that it offers, the allowance to pull his cap down further over his eyes and splay his legs wider. His lack of motivation is so consuming, it seems, that he cannot even put it to words. (One is reminded of Cioran: “Explaining bores me terribly.”) In a rare and telling moment, Sebastián attempts an explanation of his boredom only to trail off, his sense of defeat curtailing the expression of his sense of defeat:
SEBASTIÁN: Why do we have to eat three times a day? Nobody cares about anything. No one cares about me. No one gives a shit.
MATEO: What are you talking about?
SEBASTIÁN: What was Scorsese’s latest film?
MATEO: I don’t know.
SEBASTIÁN: You see? No one cares about . . . .
MATEO: What does that have to do with anything?
SEBASTIÁN: It’s just an example of . . . . I need water.
If this were the whole film, its structure would be a chain of self-pity, disguised as sympathy, that threatens to ensnare the viewer: Cioran bemoans his existence, Sebastián bemoans his existence watching Cioran bemoan his existence, the viewer bemoans their existence watching Sebastián bemoan his existence watching Cioran bemoan his – and anyways, one begins to wonder, why does Sisyphus continue to push the boulder up the hill? Why bother?
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Whatever enthusiasm Sebastián lacks, Silva as director compensates for with his energetic pacing and his proclivity for the about-face. He crams scenes with intercuts from point to counterpoint, protagonist to foil, so that they are dense with duality; the camera is always slightly askance as a result, as if unable to keep up with these leaps across extremes. Morbid/comedic is a favorite duality of his, as is sober/addicted, but perhaps no divide appears more prominently in Rotting in the Sun than that of upper-class/working-class. In the opening scene, the camera shifts in seconds from Sebastián to the woman singing “Zombie,” then back to Sebastián, then to another street performer, back to Sebastián, then at last to a man pooping in the park. Later, the same park features a change in focus from Sebastián to, just over his shoulder, a white man receiving a shoeshine. His accent the blend of American presumption and ineptitude, the man thanks the shoe shiner before resuming his phone call with, we imagine, a friend in distant privileged lands. “It’s like if New York and LA had a baby,” the man tells his friend. Even as Silva takes an interest in the jarring interplay between inverses, he allows for complexity; consider the different types of wealth represented by the digital-nomad shoeshine recipient, Mateo the landlord, and Sebastián the struggling artist who manages to retain an apartment, dog, and housekeeper.
Once we enter Sebastián’s apartment, his foil becomes apparent. It’s hard to not pity him as he reads Cioran and plunges onto his bed with an expression that mixes dismay with exhaustion at his own dismay, but when the camera shifts attention to Vero, all that pity seems inappropriate. The weight [or gravity?] of his helplessness practically dissipates once the camera pans to her in the next room, toiling over the sink. She is so at a remove from luxuries like poppers or ketamine that she treats them as strangers to be feared and distrusted, not knowing that they have the power to sweep her off her feet, lay her down on the bed, and deliver her a brain rush. She remains on her feet almost all the time, washing dishes or handing Sebastián a pastry or weathering Mateo’s vitriol. While Sebastián detaches from the conversation when Mateo scolds Vero for having stacked paintings that were still wet, she must remain present, holding her face stiff, not allowing her body to slouch or crumple. After the incident, she approaches Sebastián with a request to speak to Mateo on her behalf; she cannot afford to lose her job because she needs the money to help her uncle with his medical bills. Sebastián’s response – “I think I told him” – floats between affirmation and denial and lands nowhere.
The second time The Trouble with Being Born makes an appearance in the film is on the sands of Playa Zicatela, Mexico’s premier nudist beach for gay men. The excerpted passages are just as acute – “It’s not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late,” Sebastián reads, ensconced as usual within his own suffering – yet light and lightness poke through more than before. Bumps of ketamine and a reggaeton beat carve into the film’s sense of despair, and the abundance of limp dicks, impossible to overlook, are both sad and funny in their flaccidity. Sebastián yields to their good humor, taking a break from reading Cioran to doodle the word PENTOBARBITAL into his notebook. It’s an uncanny image, the black-and-white outline of the poison’s name spruced up by bubble letters and a benevolent, childish depiction of a sun that smiles over it all. In the moments that follow, Sebastián almost drowns as a line of nude gay men watch on with a lack of urgency that tears the viewer between two emotions: solemness for Sebastián’s plight, or laughter at the casual manner in which an array of bare butts can be poised on the shore amid such circumstance.
Then it’s as if our only choice is to laugh. As soon as Sebastián resettles himself on the sands of the beach, a voice cuts through the urgency of the scene to say, “Guys, we’re fine, we’re fine.” The speaker is the comedian Jordan Firstman, also playing a fictional version of himself who sports a vapid smile throughout the film. He spews out one staccato word after the other, a waterfall of energy that first overwhelms and hammers, then becomes soothing for the familiarity of its force. Sebastián’s seriousness erodes over time through his encounters with Jordan. “I’ve never met someone so obsessed with drowning,” Jordan says, and the near-death experience from moments ago seems trivial in light of these words. Later, learning about Sebastián’s suicidal ideations, Jordan responds with a prank – pretending that his sister took her life, which he apparently finds so funny that he cannot hold a straight face – and then an aphorism of his own to rival Cioran’s entire book: “I like life.” Where Cioran’s project in The Trouble with Being Born was to represent his fatigue through unexplained contradictions and convenient omissions, Silva uses the screen version of himself to put the acts of introspection and autofiction about one’s troubles on trial. Sebastián may continue to wallow, but Silva at least is able to see the humor in his situation.
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As seen with Jordan and Mateo, Silva extends his self-fictionalization to most of the cast, taking actors and regurgitating them as screen versions of themselves. Sometimes the cinematic portraits come across as true to life, realist though tinged by a dreaminess, in the style of Manet; take Silva’s brother, who cameos as a concerned brother with a gaunt face and hopeless eyes. Other times, the portraits come closer to a Gillray cartoon, stretching out one feature in particular so that a shroud of upper-class callousness drapes over the actor’s real self. For Mateo, it is his voice that takes on a significance disproportionate to real life, grating against the viewer’s ear as he berates his workers or as Sebastián recalls his urges to take Pentobarbital. For Martine Gutierrez, a visual artist who plays an incredibly vacuous visual artist in the film, it is her facial expression – stoic for the most part but with a crinkled nose, as if she is always catching drift of an unbecoming odor – that turns her into a caricature.
As caricatures, the characters become vessels for the audience’s moral judgements: we turn up our nose at Jordan’s Duolingo Spanish when he arrives in Mexico City, we roll our eyes at Martine’s generalizations about Latino people. Unlike Janet Malcolm’s depiction of the writer in The Journalist and the Murderer as “a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse,” Silva seems to have been upfront about his betrayal. Upon meeting Firstman, he saw Social Media incarnate. “I was like, wow, this is so profoundly sad – but funny at the same time, to be completely honest,” Silva recalls in an interview with W Magazine. At their next encounter, Silva says, “I asked him: Are you willing to play yourself, and for me to write a character and a portrayal of you that truly humiliates you and shows your lifestyle? . . . . He was very willing, and he was laughing at me insulting him.” The story has a happy ending: they held hands and jumped into a pit of self-flagellation.
But Silva has a gentle hand when it comes to satire. He does not want us to loath the characters so much as laugh at them, to love them as we judge them. Despite seeing Firstman as a symptom of cultural ailment, Silva ended up taking a fondness to him. “I’m going to get along with this weirdo,” he remembered thinking in the same interview. In reflection of this, Jordan morphs over the course of the film from the one-note embodiment of vapidity into a layered, human character. He pushes his dildo behind the mirror and begins to introspect. He deletes his Instagram posts, derides his followers via livestream for enabling him to not be “real” for so long, and wears clothes emblazoned with comically trite messages to signal his heightened understanding of the world. (I REALLY DON’T CARE DO U? reads one hoodie.) It’s Maslow’s pyramid in a funhouse mirror, a distorted journey to self-actualization.
Perhaps Silva handles the rest of the cast with so much grace because he is really intent on skewering himself. Though Malcolm most famously wrote about the transgressions that writers commit when they write about others, she warned that a similar injustice occurs when we write about ourselves. “By making himself into a subject,” she wrote, “the autobiographer sets himself up for a betrayal no less profound than that invited by the subject of someone else’s writing.” In Silva’s case, the betrayal seems intentional, the sharp words aimed inward with a masochistic delight.
And so, at the forty-one-minute mark, with over an hour left in the film, he commits a suicide across mediums – Sebastián, pushed accidentally by Vero as they move a sofa, falls from the rooftop of his apartment building. He was always a stumbling character, falling into k-holes and onto his bed, and this final fall comes as a fitting conclusion: the death he fantasized but was always too fatigued or noncommittal to bring about.
Following the Psycho-style switch-up, the film divides into two as it alternates between following Vero, murderer by chance and elusive culprit by necessity, and Jordan, the de facto detective. The foils have upstaged the protagonist. (This always seemed to be the point of the film’s transitions and intercuts: to show that extremes can not only exist side by side, but begin to resemble one another.) At her niece’s quinceanera, in a pink floral top and lipstick she applied on the car ride over, Vero schemes. From then on, the camera switches from Jordan’s daylight investigations to her in a dark cellar with her brother holding a lightbulb, or on the rooftop at night, or in a fluorescent-lit bathroom as she hunches over a trash can with gloved hands. Her seeming apathy in the face of Sebastián’s death gives way, at times, to tears that shape her body so it folds in on itself. All the pressures of grief, as well as a potential job loss and jail time, weigh on her. But for the most part, she carries herself with inexpression and tact and the signature neutral frown that Saavedra is so talented at executing.
A slew of recent movies, from Parasite and The Menu to Triangle of Sadness and Saltburn, have espoused a formulaic “eat the rich” ethos. These movies’ plots follow a formula meant to satiate the general public, whose bellies murmur at the sight of spacious rooms and lush curtains, and who are aching to feast on on-screen deaths and deserved comeuppances by the time the climax rolls around. The murderer in these films tends to be a cunning and stealthy rebel from the lower class; common tropes include dark comedy, a cast of caricatures, and a heist montage where the underdogs ascend the social ladder. These films are fun to watch, easy to predict after a certain point, and tend to leave the viewer feeling full.
In the spirit of his film version, Silva does not seem to enter this genre on purpose, but rather to have fallen into it backwards – and in doing so, crashed into the structure, sent its various parts into disarray. The accidental death of Sebastián does not send Vero into a revenge spree that will usurp the class hierarchy or vindicate her years of silent toil, so much as it illustrates the tangled and intricate relationship between classes. She does not relish Sebastián’s death or profit from it, because she has lost a companion and must now navigate out of a labyrinth in which, it seems, every turn she takes leads to a new obstruction: Jordan’s persistent questions, Mateo’s suspicion. In other words, the film does not end with the downfall of the privileged person as the natural next event in a causal sequence, but rather takes death as it is: an event that can happen at any time, at once accidental and fated, and that reverberates in many thorny ways.
Despite the distance and unspoken opposition between Vero and Jordan, brief interstices appear in which the two seem to understand each other better than any other characters in the film. They use Google Translate to overcome their language barrier, and in doing so are able to have sincere, if garbled and unintelligible, conversations; the true communication resides in their untranslated words, their silences, their shared loss of Sebastián. In one especially tender moment, Vero drops her neutral frown and confesses to Jordan, sobbing, “I have a pain inside here,” as she points to her chest. “It’s too painful.” They hug. The scene is harrowing and arresting and does not last long. He calls her a car, and they retread their separate paths, the homosexual and the murderer, nestled once more into the roles that keep them apart.
Cioran, E. M. Interview by Jason Weiss. Itineraries of a Hummingbird, https://www.itinerariesofahummingbird.com/e-m-cioran.html. Accessed December 29, 2023.
Cioran, E. M. The Trouble with Being Born. Translated by Richard Howard, Arcade Publishing, 1976.
Malcolm, Janet. The Journalist and the Murderer. Vintage Books, 1990.
Silva, Sebastián. Interview by Nicolas Rapold. W Magazine, 2 Feb. 2023, https://www.wmagazine.com/culture/sebastian-silva-rotting-in-the-sun-sundance-jordan-firstman-interview-2023. Accessed December 29, 2023.
Silva, Sebastián, director. Rotting in the Sun. Mubi, 2023.
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All images are screenshots from the film or trailers.