Rotting in the Sun: this shapeshifting queer comedy is unsparing in its barbs

Director Sebastián Silva plays a version of himself in this mordantly meta satire, which gleefully skewers hook-up culture and draws uneasy parallels between social media and drug addiction.

19 September 2023

By Caspar Salmon

Sebastián Silva as himself in Rotting in the Sun (2023) © Courtesy of MUBI
Sight and Sound

Like Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st (2011) and Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971), Rotting in the Sun is part of a subgenre of films whose narrative is driven by a central character’s suicidal ideation. Like the second of those films, it mines a seam of black comedy from that impulse. Unlike either, Rotting in the Sun is as queer as a £12 note, pirouetting giddily from the existential musings of E. M. Cioran in The Trouble with Being Born (which the protagonist is reading as the film begins) to a bit of knockabout comedy with a double-ended dildo. It’s the film’s daring association of nihilism, homosexuality and social media that elevates it to required viewing status for, particularly, clued-up gay audiences.

Director Sebastián Silva appears as a lightly fictionalised version of himself who is living somewhat aimlessly in Mexico City. Vaguely contemplating ending it all – he is obsessed with the idea of taking phenobarbital – Silva drifts between his derelict studio and the local gay beach, numbly huffing poppers and watching mindless viral videos. At the beach, one day, Silva attempts to save the life of a drowning man, before nearly drowning himself in the process. That person is the social media star Jordan Firstman, fearlessly caricaturing himself as a vacuous party boy. Firstman, who turns out to be an admirer of Silva’s work, proposes to him that they collaborate on a project together.

This mismatched pairing initially yields some savage comedy, since Silva – the director as well as the character – is mercilessly unsparing of Firstman, essentially calling him a clown and deriding his love of fame. What makes the film so winning is that none of that wounds Firstman – the real-life person or the character. “You can’t hurt me! I’m happy! A happy clown!” he beams at Sebastián: his openness, his gameness, which are so disarming, contrast brilliantly with the guarded, tormented self-parody of Silva. All the while, Rotting in the Sun provides a deceptively acidic critique of social media and a quizzical meditation on sexuality. Hook-up culture is viewed with wariness by the film; so too, homosexual drug use. “All gay men take ketamine!” a character vacuously exclaims at one point: the drug that feels like it’s suspending your very existence for a period of time is perhaps, here, seen as a form of extended self-destruction. Perhaps social media, taking you out of your life for however many wasted hours, likewise.

Catalina Saavedra as Vero and Jordan Firstman as himself in Rotting in the Sun (2023)
Courtesy of MUBI

In a hilarious twist, however, Rotting in the Sun abruptly shifts, becoming a sort of lightly unhinged procedural. Now, Firstman is brought into contact with Silva’s housekeeper Vero (Catalina Saavedra, superb), who knows more than she is letting on, giving rise to a deft comedy of manners that skewers its white, privileged characters. Firstman, wearing preposterous designer gear throughout, is an incongruous scene partner for the impoverished Vero, and there is joy in watching them translate each other’s language via Firstman’s phone and its flat AI voiceover. Moving into Silva’s apartment, Firstman becomes an absurd protagonist in a kind of social-realist vaudeville – a horny idiot savant trying to unravel a mystery, all the while engaging in group sex and recording video updates for his followers. “Cyber-bully Sebastián!” he orders them cheerfully. There are delicious satirical touches, like the jacket that Firstman sports, bearing the caption “I really don’t care, do u?” (a reference to the coat worn by Melania Trump on a visit to immigrant children at a border detention centre).

Throughout, Silva films proceedings with pared-down visuals, favouring a snappy edit that flits from the film’s narrative to clips from social media: this fits with the intense subjectivity in the film’s first act, where events are seen through Silva’s nihilistic eyes. That approach also serves the film’s comedy well, underplaying what could be outrageous or clanging moments – for instance, when Silva’s fridge is revealed to contain only poppers, or his dog has to be stopped from licking the aforementioned dildo.

If the film loses a soupçon of momentum in its last third, that is amply made up for by a truly beautiful, finally heartbreaking coda that manages to synthesise many of the film’s concerns into bittersweet comedy. The final trick up Rotting in the Sun’s sleeve may well be an unsettling burst of what feels alarmingly like sincerity.

► Rotting in the Sun is available to stream on MUBI now.

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