“A Movie Should Only be Understood by Watching It”: Michel Franco on His Tim Roth-Starring Psychological Drama, Sundown
Obsessively examining crisis in terms of its navigation and interiority, the films of Mexican director Michel Franco confront common human behavior amidst extraordinary events. In the face of his characters’ often truly confounding decisions, Franco’s interest in the indistinct, in the prevarications of men and women in conflict, and in the disparate realities posed by wealth and class divisions, affords him a distinct place in the contemporary cinema. Since his 2009 debut Daniel & Ana, the preoccupations of Franco’s output appear consistent, even as they may at times suggest a cloying violence, which in all its sundry forms, emerges as a reparative solution for his subjects.
In Franco’s newest offering, Sundown, a pair of wealthy siblings played by Tim Roth and Charlotte Gainsbourg find their idyllic holiday in Acapulco interrupted by tragedy. Roth in particular is never better than in Franco’s work. Both in Sundown, and in Franco’s 2012 film Chronic, he embodies a mysterious sense of quietude, so volatile it practically screams for release. But in these performances that release does not announce itself, and in both pictures, the viewer is left with an indelibly sullen, practically inscrutable endurance of pain.
While the mystery of people’s true motivations is front and center in all of Franco’s work, in Sundown there is an undeniable sense of its characters’ present tense ordeal. The film compels its audience, oftentimes excruciatingly, into a direct, even one to one relationship with the film’s lead character, in turn making them hostage to his choices. Neil’s trajectory is at times so frustrating and inexplicable that it denies not only morality, but rationality as well, and the film becomes a tragic character study, with Roth’s Neil, once separated from his sister and her children, finding himself entranced in what from the surface appears to be a nihilistic decline. Sundown demands attention paid to the most minor and private moments, and dictates its terms with an air of unimpeachable patience. In advance of its upcoming release, Filmmaker spoke to Franco about the picture, his critics, the state of the cinema, and what people are really like.
Filmmaker: Certainly in the case of your last two films, Nuevo Ordem & Sundown, the depiction of an extravagant form of wealth takes center stage. Your work has in the past been characterized, perhaps mistakenly, as being a kind of indictment of this wealth and particularly of the affluent’s indifference to poverty.
Franco: That’s nonsense.
Filmmaker: You feel there’s no preoccupation with the upper class in your films?
Franco: To be honest — and I’m being extremely straightforward — I’m just not worried about that at all.
Filmmaker: If you were to critique the films strictly through the lens of class division, it would seem possible to miss a greater question of how each of the characters’ individual moralities come into play in the narratives.
Franco: I just don’t think it gets in the way at all. I mean, we could talk about each movie, but then it would seem that I’m trying to defend the fact that they do speak universally. Every time [I’m] making a movie, when I’m writing, it has to be specific. I make choices. I think anyone can see themselves reflected facing the moral challenges and existential journeys my characters are going through.
Filmmaker: The films all have a certain contemplative pacing and a fairly plaintive, remote perspective in terms of staging. Perhaps Nuevo Ordem is the exception to this. What is there in the quiet, in the interruptions of violence, in not shying away from banalities or abberant behaviors, that draws your attention?
Franco: Well that’s just part of life on the one hand. And on the other, maybe it’s also the fact that I live in and was born and raised in Mexico, a country full of social disparity and contrast, a very violent country. Of course, not unlike most places in the world, but still, Mexico tends to stand out a bit. And I think it’s mainly about not running like crazy from one thing to another, running away from things to get on with the story. I prefer to observe, and I’m sure that the audience likes that and appreciates it. The thing I despise the most is making a film exactly like every other film we see on streaming services.
Filmmaker: Which characteristics do you mean specifically?
Franco: Just doing the same thing all over again. It’s like, what’s the point? Just don’t make the movie, don’t bother, don’t spend the money, don’t waste people’s time.
Filmmaker: So you’re trusting the audience with this pacing, and also you’re willing to allow the audience a certain amount of legroom to intimate and divine their own meanings when it comes to the characters and their reasonings.
Franco: Yes, but to me, this is the normal way to approach things. I honestly just don’t like formulaic movies. I’m respectful with the audience. I think my only purpose, the best I can do, is to ask questions, and then every member of the audience will see a different movie because we will have different answers to those questions. From their own experience.
Filmmaker: Right, but I don’t just mean you choose not to fill in plot points, but also concluding where you leave off with certain character trajectories still in flux and with these open questions, seems provocative, and it’s obviously intentional.
Franco: I think if you watch the same movie now and again in ten years, hopefully you will see a different movie. But that can only happen if it’s this type of open-ended movie. If it’s a very spherical movie, something where everything is digested for the audience, why would I watch that? It’s very patronizing.
Filmmaker: The choices of omission would appear at times to be more conclusive and vital to the life of the films, their narrative successes, than their content — what you chose to include, either by showing or telling.
Franco: I wouldn’t even say that I make any effort to make omissions. When I have to explain what a movie of mine is about, before shooting, when I’m writing or talking to actors, hopefully it will never be possible to fully explain. A movie should only be understood by watching it. It’s best if we’re not able to put it into words. That’s the power of cinema as opposed to literature. It’s more abstract and it should be. We should keep it that way so we don’t kill the mystery.
Filmmaker: There is a form of brutal honesty at work in the films. They’re attuned to the opacity of morality,and seem devoted to exploring both desire and means. Would you say you are concerned with different stations in life, and how people of differing status levels can set a course of events in motion through extremely simple, but at times superficially selfish acts?
Franco: I just think whenever I’m reading fiction or watching a film, I like to go deep into a character’s conflict, whoever they are, it doesn’t matter. Is that what you mean?
Filmmaker: I suppose I’m curious if the crises you’ve imposed upon your characters are purely fiction, taken more from what narrative work impacted you most as your aesthetic was in its emergent stage, or if they are inspired from things you’ve observed in your own experience?
Franco: Well, I think it’s more from fiction. Thankfully, my life is not so full of conflict. Having said that, lots of inspirations come from my own experiences, but that’s the job. There’s a point of departure, certainly. That’s what Doesteyevsky did. What all great filmmakers do. You face your characters with challenges. It makes no difference whether it’s character or story driven, as long as its captivating.
Filmmaker: True. But in the last four of your films there are nonconforming, even questionable choices, whether viewed through a moral or ethical lens. But the characters are all doing what they have to to survive, in a sense. The character of Neil in Sundown makes decisions which alter the narrative track in a way that’s interior and not at all explicated through dialogue.
Franco: Well, I’m never preaching or explaining from a superior stance what life is about, or how things should be handled.
Filmmaker: Not to spoil the plot at all, but in Sundown, the character of Neil throws himself pretty much headlong into a relationship with a young woman who he meets on the beach, quite randomly in Acapulco. It’s a curious experience, watching the film and living in practically every framewith the character of Neil, where this projected anticipation begins to unfold. It could be possible to see the narrative heading one way, to be expecting something terrible to happen. The film is not manipulative, but it feels at times as if Neil’s newfound love might be about to betray him in some way. But it becomes clear over time that this is in fact a quite moving connection, and he’s just living purely in the moment.
Franco: It’s a love story for sure. I love the fact that he’s not looking for it. He’s looking for nothing and by doing nothing, many things happen to him. Some are not so positive, but he’s living one day at a time and present in the moment. It’s very hard to achieve, but that’s all I keep hearing people say we should be doing.
Filmmaker: Things do take shape through an extremely slow progression. There’s a world predicated on violence, overt forms and subliminal forms of violence, and then there’s a sort of violent, cold interiority which the characters all endure. You take this approach to characters, particularly with the character of Neil, his interior life, where he is essentially obscured by silences, and then at times by this refusal to be honest with others, especially those closest to him. There’s a very affecting sense of dread that begins to seep in. Yet still, Sundown manages to subvert the predictable expectation of how these characters will end up, how their lives will resolve.
Franco: It’s funny, to do what Neil does in the film, you have to be extremely brave. And very open to falling in love. He’s what, 60 years old? He’s not judging and he’s very open and that’s why it happens. I think that relationship is beautiful.
Filmmaker: How do audiences respond to that feeling?
Franco: What do you mean?
Filmmaker: That sense that this could all go terribly wrong, and might any moment?
Franco: Oh, I think many people will be expecting the worst. They’re suspicious of who she is and we don’t even understand fully who he is for most of the film.
Filmmaker: Right. Even in terms of Neil’s relationship to his sister, at first, we don’t know who she is in relation to him. She could easily be his wife. It’s not specified.
Franco: I did that on purpose. It’s more about the dialogue with the audience than what the characters say to each other. I feel, as an audience, if I can put myself in a place of watching Sundown, I think I’d be pretty satisfied, in terms of understanding why Neil lives the way he does, and where he’s going to end. You know where it’s headed and where we’re all headed.
Filmmaker: There’s no instinct to be expository in general, in your practice. In effect, we meet your characters the same as we would meet a perfect stranger in our day to day lives. We know nothing about anyone save for at first, their appearance, how they present and carry themselves. And then our knowledge of a person or character grows based on what they say and do, how they conduct themselves, explain themselves.
Franco: I’ll take that as the biggest compliment I could receive.
Filmmaker: Cinema as of late has become somewhat fixated on knowing and spelling out formative traumas for its leading and minor characters both. Which is not what the real world is at all. These are things we’ve no way of knowing when meeting someone for the first time in our actual lives. We don’t know what toy was taken away from them as children. When you remove that, there’s a canvas for projection.
Franco: The best way to comment on what you’re observing is to say that I’m certainly not the only filmmaker to discover that this is a more interesting way for cinema to behave. We know it. Right? The problem is just that films are being made in the wrong way.
Filmmaker: How so?
Franco: I’m sure many scripts are interesting when they are written, but once producers and financiers get their hands on them, pretty soon there’s nothing left. Everybody wants the easy way. Every character has written on their forehead what they are all about, what we should learn about them and so on. I’m very fortunate to make movies, not on my own of course, but I control them and am surrounded by people who want me to be in control, and they help me through that process. I think it’s the only way films should be made, so we can achieve that kind of random, personalized cinema. Films should be closest to who their directors are, and what they are like.
Filmmaker: Does that speak as well for your own work? The films you’ve made are certainly dotted with violence. At times they seem to have a fairly harsh worldview. Difficult, almost impossible circumstances abound for nearly all their subjects.
Franco: (laughs, pauses) I guess maybe I shouldn’t have said that.