An acerbic social satire, Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva’s latest reflects a cultural malaise rooted in cultural ennui. More than a casual swipe at modern social trends, Rotting in the Sun exposes a kind of cruelty, alienation, and social stratification that is only as modern as the technology through which it expresses itself.
The key opening image of Silva’s ninth feature is of a pet dog eating a homeless person’s recently-deposited excrement on the street. Degradation, revulsion, and compulsion, all wrapped up in a vile spectacle and topped off by its owner – Silva, playing a highly unflattering version of himself – beating the animal for engaging in the act of unthinking consumption. The metaphor for social media – an endlessly-scrolling toilet roll of content – is hard to miss.
There’s an immediacy to the filmmaking that chimes with its subject matter, but with subtle elements of surrealism at its edges: a glimpse into Sebastián’s mind in the midst of a ket-induced slump is pure, wondrous abstraction, while Silva’s phone-esque close-ups distort faces, and the frequency of real sex scenes may well shock us out of our own multi-screen indifference.
What distinguishes Rotting in the Sun as a satire, however, is the about-turn it makes in the second act, which both upends its narrative and complicates its satire. Sebastián, a ketamine-addicted filmmaker who toys with the idea of killing himself with pentobarbital, is the archetypal modern melancholic, rousing himself from his k-holes for just long enough to mope around on the beach reading E.M. Cioran’s misery tract The Trouble With Being Born. After nearly drowning in the midst of one of his sulks, Sebastián meets insufferable influencer Jordan Stillman (playing himself) who persuades Sebastián, reluctantly, to join him at a party and later to collaborate on a series together.
The turn in the film arises when Jordan arrives at Sebastián’s apartment to find no sign of him. Meanwhile, the housekeeper (Catalina Saavedra – stealing the show) a previously minor character, becomes the film’s MVP and the film turns in to a cat-and-mouse detective thriller. The rising prominence of Saavedra’s housekeeper, and Jordan’s surprising tenaciousness and sincerity in discovering his missing associate reveal deeper social anxieties than the usual tabloid archness that social media satire can sometimes produce.
Much of Rotting in the Sun’s satire is rooted in class, from the shocking cruelty with which the building manager treat’s Saavedra’s character, to her own solidarity with another character. Ultimately, this is a film about alienation – as a satire on social media, its final statement is a blackly comic one on technology’s absurd failure to in any way alleviate it.