EDGE Interview: A Sexy, Queer Hitchcockian Thriller? Sebastián Silva on 'Rotting in the Sun'
Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 8 MIN.
Judging from his film "Rotting in the Sun," Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva is a blend of styles and influences that's so comprehensive, but also so unique, that he's one of a kind. He's a little John Waters; he's a little Russ Meyers; he's a little Alfred Hitchcock; and you can even sense a strain of Woody Allen about him. He falls on the far side of Pedro Almodóvar, in a region only a demented version of Andrew Haigh could navigate, and if "Rotting in the Sun" feels like unequal parts "Rope" and "Stranger by the Lake," that serves Silva's particular sensibilities so much the better.
The film hit Sundance earlier this year like a torpedo and has been creating waves ever since. Scheduled to hit theaters on Sept. 8, thanks to its distributor, Mubi – the same champion of LGBTQ+ cinematic creativity that refused the NC-17 rating the MPA assigned Ira Sachs' gay drama "Passages," choosing instead to release that film unrated.
A visual artist as well as singer-songwriter, Silva is the auteur behind the acclaimed comedy-drama "The Maid" (2009) and the Michael Cera-starring "Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus" (2013), as well as another Cera vehicle, "Magic Magic." (Cera reportedly declined to co-star in "Rotting in the Sun," due to the film's explicit content.)
A work of daring meta-fiction, "Rotting" features Silva as a suicidally depressed version of himself. Between projects, living in Mexico City with his dog Chima in a flat belonging to his straight friend Mateo, and reading the work of Emil Cioran – a bleakly pessimistic philosopher who's nobody's idea of a good time – Silva drifts in a haze of ruined paintings and ketamine-induced trances. Mateo mocks him for his suicidal ideations, telling him to go to a gay beach, get laid, and cheer up. Even on the beach, surrounded by happily naked gay men, Silva's feeling too low to engage in sex – he's still got his Cioran book in hand – so he goes for a fateful swim that, after a near-drowning or two, turns into a life-changing chance encounter with American social media influencer Jordan Firstman (also playing a version of himself... a frequently naked, orgy-throwing version, that is).
The two instantly fall into a love-hate relationship that escalates from argumentatively flirtatious to creatively promising, and then – when Silva goes missing – to panic-stricken. With his only clues being Silva's suicide-obsessed diary and a seemingly endless supply of ketamine, Firstman decides to unravel the mystery. But Mateo's screwup maid, Vero (Catlina Saavarda, who played the title character in Silva's "The Maid"), knows more than she's telling, and she's not willing to talk.
Judging from the reviews out there, people either love "Rotting in the Sun," or hate it. EDGE caught up with Sebastián Silva to find out more.
EDGE: Did you anticipate the level of response the film has gotten, either positive or negative?
Sebastián Silva: Truly, I didn't. When I was conceiving this movie, I was a little angry or disappointed at the film industry in general. My attempt [here] was to have the most intimate possible movie experience, without thinking about festivals or actors or talent. I was like, "I'll just work with whomever is around me."
So, that's where I was living in Mexico City when I shot this movie. Matteo is my friend; Chima is my dog. [As for] Jordan, I met him in Plaza Rio de Janeiro, randomly. Everything was extremely spontaneous and in a vein of making something truly for my taste, [like] quoting [Emil] Cioran. It all feels so profoundly personal and specific.
I think the crime mystery of it is fun. Suspense just works in movies. And the other thing is, it's a comedy. My movies do have comedy, but this one was conceived as a comedy. Similar to the experience I had with "Crystal Fairy," it's very satisfying to make a comedy that actually makes people laugh. It's really the biggest treat. I love making a movie that makes people think and makes them emotional, but to have them laugh is a treat.
EDGE: This movie reminds me, in its mixture of suspense and comedy, of Alfred Hitchcock.
Sebastián Silva: It's inevitable that he would be an influence. I co-wrote ["Rotting in the Sun"] with Pedro Peirano, who I co-wrote "The Maid" with and other movies. He's a master of crime and suspense. He showed me all the Hitchcock movies when I met him. Hitchcock is in everybody's mind whether they know it or not; he's influenced everything that we have seen. The other movie that I thought about while making this was [Woody Allen's] "Manhattan Murder Mystery," just because of the nature of the crime – it's not truly a crime, but people that are not ready to face problems like this are the ones in charge of discovering what happened.
EDGE: I did think about Woody Allen a little because in this movie there is a certain fascination with existential anxiety.
Sebastián Silva: Yeah, I mean, that's what being alive is, no? I mean, I assume you have that, too.
EDGE: Maybe not to the same extent, and I don't think I could make it into such an entertaining movie.
EDGE: Was this anxiety a primary reason for why the film is so explicit, even though it's not necessarily erotic?
Sebastián Silva: Yeah, I mean, everybody watches porn, and everybody has genitals, so I'm not showing anything new to anyone. They've seen dicks. But everybody seems to be afraid to confess they see them, or to be open about the fascination for them. It seems like genitals are still weirdly a taboo for people.
Jordan himself, he's very sex positive and promiscuous. He was like that with me when I met him, and he's like that with everyone he meets, so I asked him if he would be willing to bring that trait for the character. I thought it was both hilarious and unexpected. I was like, "You know what, I'm gonna have him have a lot of sex in the movie and show it," and then I decided to not question that decision, because if I had I would have maybe censored myself and been like, "Well, it's gonna be harder to distribute. Why do I want [this?] Am I trying to shock people with dicks? Am I being part of the problem? Am I saying that dicks are shocking?" I was like, "I'm just gonna fucking have real sex in the movie. Who cares?"
I feel a little tired of the hypocrisy in films, where values have been moved around. I feel so gaslit. We can have huge movie stars shooting each other in huge movies. The whole Marvel Universe is people shooting each other with creative weapons, and millions of people die, and people betray each other – but nobody has any sort of deep moral issues with that. But then they see an erect penis, and everybody's so concerned. So, yeah, I think that the explicit sex came as an answer to how unbalanced ethics and morals seem to be nowadays in entertainment, and how television and film keep censoring human bodies but also promoting gun violence. It's like, "Here you have 40 dicks, motherfuckers, just look at them and deal with it."
But as you said, it's not erotic. I feel that the explicit sex in this movie brings in a raunchy element of comedy. Gay guys are not surprised; they're just laughing it off. And straight people are really laughing at these dicks, instead of people feeling offended.
EDGE: It makes the movie funnier that you keep your clothes on.
Sebastián Silva: Yeah, it's funny that he's checking everyone out, but he himself is fully covered. But you know what, we did shoot a scene where I took a shower so it didn't feel that I was exploiting everybody and showing everybody's genitals but mine. But the editor was like, "Why do we have this? We don't need to have this scene just to justify showing other penises. It's weird."
Also, I guess my character is so seemingly depressed and suicidal that maybe it wouldn't make much sense that he would feel comfortable running around with his dick out. I feel like [he would want to be] protected and shielded.
EDGE: The film scolds our social media and celebrity obsessions.
Sebastián Silva: Yeah, 100%. It's a movie that tackles a lot of elements that make for a rotten humanity. We are so oblivious to each other's pain, and our priorities have shifted in a way that is concerning. It makes us look like we are rotting on this planet, and that we are destroying ourselves. We really are.
"Rotting in the Sun" opens in theaters Sept. 8 and is streaming on Mubi.
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.