Rotting In The Sun *****
Starring: Jordan Firstman, Sebastián Silva, Catalina Saavedra
Director: Sebastián Silva
The New Queer Cinema Movement of the 1990s has become notorious because of its subversive intention to unapologetically depict LGBT+ people in a seditious way. In a period of Hollywood boom, it dug its spurs firmly into the flank of the era’s movie landscape. With debauched characters deliberately captured by sloppy camerawork, directors Gregg Araki and Bruce LaBruce became some of the loudest Queer voices of the time. Now, thirty years later, comes Rotting In The Sun. Debauched characters? Check. Sloppy filming? Check. Totally modern and entirely topical? Absolute check. Maybe we have a Newer Queer Cinema Renaissance on our hands...
Director Sebastián Silva plays himself, as a suicidal filmmaker struggling to find inspiration in a world he feels disconnected from. At a sex party at a beach he encounters social media influencer Jordan Firstman (again playing himself) and he’s cajoled into committing to collaborate with him on a TV series. Although reluctant, he soon finds himself beguiled by the TikTok-er’s considerable charm, but as they tentatively begin a working relationship, Sebastián vanishes and Jordan is left to find out where he went. Talking to his maid, Vero (Saavedra), he soon realises that she knows much more than she is letting on.
Jordan Firstman is an absolute marvel here. His character arc is quite extreme, but this sassy and hyperactive trend-setter is a perfect representation of the social media age. Initially he’s profoundly dislikeable, high on drugs and completely over-familiar, but that gives way to razor-sharp intelligence and unwavering focus as he tries to solve this mystery. And in the earlier scenes, some of his lines are so painfully 2023. After filming Sebastián snorting ketamine and posting it to his story, he is incredulous in his defence: “But it will get you so many more followers.” He documents his investigation on his feed and only lets his emotions out at times when his fans can see it. “I love this dark new version of you,” says one of his party friends. “I’ve gained 20,000 followers,” he replies, “It’s so sick.”
What’s probably most striking about this film is just how un-sexily explicit it is. You see more penises in the first fifteen minutes than you would normally on screen for several years. But absolutely nothing about it is sexy - and deliberately so. The film adeptly captures the desensitisation of gay men toward sex, drugs and scandal. Sebastián’s fridge only contains poppers. Ketamine is snorted like drinking wine. And a blow job is as casual as a handshake... in fact Jordan does indeed shake a man’s penis as a greeting at one stage. The relationship too between Sebastián and Jordan is interchangeable between lovers, friends and colleagues; Jordan declares “I’ve just met my new husband”, when really he’s just formed a business partnership.
Life is just so casual to Jordan – introducing someone as “he sucked me off this morning” is clearly not unusual – that when something genuinely major occurs, it disarms him. We know from the start what has happened to Sebastián, but watching Jordan refocus his chaotic life to try and uncover the truth is as entertaining as the plot itself. Without Jordan, this would be much less of a film.
Catalina Saavedra is remarkable too. Silva collaborated with her on his most successful film to date, The Maid, and here she assumes a similar but excellent role. She is essentially the film’s dual lead, but her gradual introduction into the story makes her eventual dominance of the narrative all the more gratifying. Vero is the opposite of Jordan in every way, meaning that their many scenes together are laden with tension, wit and bold dramatic irony. We know what happened to Sebastián and exactly how Vero is involved, but only Google Translate can help the influencer drag the truth from her.
The film’s only problem is that its opening act is just so edgy, so arresting and so scandalous, that when the story veers back toward traditional narrative territory, it starts to lose its freshness. But it certainly manages to entertain. And look out for a real brilliant malfunction moment in the final act when Google inexcusably lets Jordan down. The film’s final moment is exquisite.
This feels like a real watershed moment for Queer Cinema. We’ve become so used to high-spec filmmaking that this rough and raw indie curveball has gleefully smashed through our Everest window to draw our attention to this spicy, hot mess. And we are totally here ready for it.
UK Release: Out now on VOD, released by MUBI