This Spoiled Meta-Life: Sebastián Silva’s “Rotting in the Sun”

Sebastián Silva in “Rotting in the Sun” (Courtesy of Mubi)

Only optimists commit suicide, optimists who no longer succeed at being optimists. The others, having no reason to live, why would they have any to die?

This one of innumerable aphorisms from Nietzsche 2.0 philosopher Emil Cioran is quoted in the opening scene of Rotting in the Sun, introducing us to our angsty protagonist, the filmmaker Sebastián Silva’s parallel ego, Sebastián, who sits by the Plaza Rio de Janeiro fountain reading The Trouble with Being Born, a book of sustained disdain that shares with other works such as The Temptation to Exist a particular contempt for the West, describing it as “a sweet-smelling rottenness, a perfumed corpse.” Looking up to observe his surroundings that appear to confirm his disgust for humankind, Sebastián watches a random guy pluck through trash before taking a public dump. Grossed out, Sebastián turns to his smartphone, googling himself, then entering search terms for suicide tourism in Mexico and the euthanasia drug pentobarbital.

As Sebastián’s lean whippet Chima, in a Divine-like move, starts to chow down the excrement, we see Sebastián lurching forth to pull Chima away and slapping it around in punishment. The camera lingers on Chima’s defenseless face, bearing silent suffering. When a stranger observing the scene accuses Sebastián of being a dog-abusing asshole, we see him embracing the label, and carrying that attitude forward to his frazzled housekeeper Vero, played by Catalina Saavedra, in semi-reprisal of her role from Silva’s earlier film The Maid

Sebastián, we learn, is having little success as a painter, though he must have had some prior successes to afford his apartment and a cleaner (perhaps due to a Sundance-winning indie film or two?…). He’d rather snort ketamine and cast his despairing psyche off into cosmic oblivion. His friend Mateo (Mateo Riestra) and companion suggest Sebastián take a weekend vacation to a cruisy gay nude beach, Playa Zicatela, to wrench him out of his self-pitying K-hole. 

Even on vacation, however, Sebastián prefers to stay secluded reading his morbid book to the readily available assortment of glistening dicks and sandy trysts beaming at him along the seashore. Taking a quick dip in the ocean to cool off, he gets caught in a riptide, followed by a near-drowning meet-cute. Enter his existential antagonist: Jordan Firstman–a hyper-manic influencer/hustler, both a potential romantic interest and nemesis, eagerly peddling his pitch for a new reality TV show dimly titled “You Are Me.” Before Sebastián can catch his brush-with-death breath, Jordan pitches: “Think of it like, Curb Your Enthusiasm, but positive.” 

Jordan Firstman and Sebastián Silva in “Rotting in the Sun” (Courtesy of Mubi)

Sebastián is barely enthused, yet Jordan can’t believe his serendipitous luck in their meeting: “I watched Crystal Fairy & the Magic Cactus last night!” In a way, their dynamic is not too distant from Michael Cera’s Jamie’s unrelenting pessimistic undermining of Gabby Hoffman’s whimsical Crystal Fairy. At one point after pissing Sebastián off for posting an Instagram story of him snorting cocaine, Jordan insists he’s adorable, emphatically shouting, Why don’t you like me??!!

Such relatable desperation. Jordan is full of limerence and yearning as much as he is full of ambition. His life-affirming eagerness flies in the face of Sebastián’s passive misanthrope. Sebastián is ambitious only insofar as he’s aware he needs to regain momentum in his career because, as his companion Mateo says, it’s not chic to be an artist and be broke at the same time. And yet, to be idle and indifferent seems the most appealing response to our careerist and opportunistic world – just as it was for Cioran, who himself never worked, aside from a brief stint at teaching which he hated, wanting instead to live “like a parasite” by dodging a regular day job to jot down his hard to take entirely seriously thoughts as they occurred to him. 

Alas, Sebastián returns home for a business meeting on Zoom, nodding despondently along with two TV production executives who incoherently convey that of course a female director is the ideal candidate for a film about “a killer virus” that attacks only men. The only pitch that seemingly speaks to the execs is Jordan’s show, which Sebastián mentions as a last resort. Though he thinks the concept is stupid, he has enough openness of mind to invite Jordan to his live-work space, perhaps with the intent of wielding the show to his tastes, or perhaps he’s just willing to sell out. 

When Jordan discovers himself “ghosted” on arrival to begin their collaboration, his creative project is stymied and dual romantic pursuit thwarted. Jordan, offended, paranoid, confused, begins to spiral in a search party effort orchestrated via Instagram. Sebastián’s abandonment has darkened Jordan, as though the former’s nihilism and condemnation have been transmitted like a virus to Jordan in his absence. 

Vero (Catalina Saavedra) and Jordan Firstman in “Rotting in the Sun” (Courtesy of Mubi)

Jordan, adrift and aghast at the evasive demeanor of Vero and Mateo, nevertheless carries on with flings and cling-on artist friends who don’t much like his new morbid persona, which has him frustratedly stomping around in Melania Trump’s infamous hooded jacket that she appropriately sported at a migrant child detention centre with I really don’t care do you? emblazoned on the back. A superb reclamation moment for fast fashion victims. 

I’m already beginning to spoil the glorious decomposition of the film, but what resonates most is the way Sebastián’s cutting criticisms of Jordan’s ideas lead Jordan to a crisis of selfhood. Jordan deletes his own goofy posts on Instagram in remorse of who he was, becoming less of a dimwit and more of a sensible, sensitive soul – someone Sebastián might, in fact, find more attractive. While the film covets shallow, solipsistic, likably disliked characters – you’re left with little pools of sorrow for poor Vero the cleaner as she is exiled from the household, in tandem with bereft Jordan, still attempting to find clues and unravel the mystery.

My habitual inclination to assign some psychoanalytic framework to Jordan’s abandonment predicament proved fruitless, though it dawns on me that the frame, as with a Hitchcock plot, was hiding in plain sight all along. There’s enough sordid solace to wrestle from Cioran himself. With so many wilfully contradictory and, occasionally, borderline campy quips, it’s hard to pick the most pertinent, but this one stood out with regard to Jordan’s arc: 

I get along quite well with someone only when he is at his lowest point and has neither the desire nor the strength to restore his habitual illusions.

Or this:

Nothing is more commonplace than the ersatz troubled soul, for everything can be learned, even angst.

Or perhaps just this will suffice for all intents and purposes here: 

I would like to be free, totally free… free like an aborted child.

Liberating, no? Cioran’s counterintuitive inversions take on near whimsical overtones, so long as you’re living the Cioran life, which is to quit your job, be as death-obsessed as possible, and above all, live without conviction about anything. 

The narrative of the film itself is Cioran-esque: chaotic, unstable, shifting – a succession of sketches and accidents. And while an explicative summation at the film’s end remains lost in (google) translation, the truth of the matter is simultaneously a shrug – since we don’t need philosophy to tell us that sometimes, no wait, always – shit is happening.


Jessica Almereyda has work published in Art Agenda, Art Observed, Blue Arrangements, BOMB, Big Other, Brooklyn Rail, Caesura, Fence, Hotel, Liber Feminist Review, Manhattan Art Review, Overland, and others. She is based in New York.

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