The dull tones of social media addiction are something we don't always address head-on in popular culture. Yes, there may be a plethora of lifestyle coaches posting solutions to this problem on pastel-themed Instagram feeds (the irony of which is palpable), but this serves no justice to the fact that there hasn't been this wide an acceptance of a damaging addiction likely since the Opium Wars. Its entrenchment in our lives is uncomfortable and absurd, which is exactly the approach that Sebastián Silva takes in tackling the issue in his new black-comic-thriller Rotting in the Sun.
In making such an audacious critique of social media, a fiction film may just be adding to the problem in many ways, which is perhaps why he chooses to play himself in the film, Sebastián Silva. The film opens with the director, emotionally destitute in the knowledge that he is a has-been, going to find solace at a gay nudist beach. This is where he meets the lairy Jordan Firstman, an influencer played with suspicious accuracy by the influencer Jordan Firstman. He immediately starts fanboy-ing Silva, pitching him an idea for a TV show solely about his life. Upon returning home, drugged up and sleep-deprived, Silva agrees to let Firstman stay over so they can work on the project. This is until a terrible accident occurs involving Silva's maid Señora Vero (played by frequent collaborator Catalina Saavedra), pushing the story into an all the more dark, disturbing thriller.
To call the rest of the film Hitchcockian wouldn't be a stretch, not only because Silva himself cites the late British director as a key influence, but also because of Silva's extreme efforts to hide this picture-defining plot twist. Many have theorised that a good twist is one that you should be able to go back to and guess from the very start, but in the case of Rotting in the Sun, the film's dark-comic value, both of the whole film and the twist, make this blindsiding worth the watch. The twist doesn't hold sway over the film's key themes of social media and the petulance of the wealthy, but what it does is push them from mockery to grotesque symbolism. At its base, this can be seen in how the characters initially joke around about taking the lethal sedative pentobarbital; after the twist, it's not as funny. But, on a more nuanced level, the twist completes a message of exactly how much of our lives we submit to social media, and the paradox between it eternalising us while simultaneously leading us closer to death.
One thing that allows for this is the acting. As Silva claims, he approached Firstman with complete transparency in the fact that he wanted to make a mockery of his entire social media career, to which Firstman enthusiastically obliged. This adds a whole new dimension to the latter's portrayal of not only an influencer but of specifically himself; when he jokes about suicide or has a tantrum when Mexicans don't speak English, he does so with such a selfless yet audacious awareness that he is the butt of the joke. In an interview with Mubi, Silva claimed that his message in the film was that liberals are part of the problem that the right-wing perpetuates; Firstman, through not only his acting but how he embodies Silva's argument despite their apparent differences, becomes the prophet of this message.
On the subject of acting, and how the film's characterisations emanate through the film's formal qualities, we cannot overlook Saavedra's Señora Vero. Vero's jutting from a judgemental other of Silva's drug-fuelled antics to the foregrounding voice of the film's narrative is a brilliant reflection of its critique of social media. The drug- and depression-fuelled claustrophobia we feel at the start, while so suddenly and shockingly removed, is inherited in Vero's constant state of fright and restlessness. She is surrounded by a broken world, half on and half offline, that mutates around her day by day, until she makes a serendipitous escape through a misinterpretation on a translator app. While the film chooses not to close any argument about its themes, we are satisfied with the knowledge that poor Vero found a way out; something that a lot of us should strive for.
However, this isn't to say that the film is some modern Brechtian masterpiece, as it doesn't really implore its audience to do anything. It alienates us with depictions of gay sex as comedic; it disgusts us both literally through violence, and emotionally through the pathetic lamentations of the wealthy. But Silva knows there's nothing he can do to fight the epidemic of social media addiction, so why not just show us the reality of its grotesquery? That is a successful critique that this film cannot be denied.
Rotting in the Sun is available to stream now on MUBI