Portugal is a land of sun and sea, amazing food and beautiful people. But is there more under the facade of natural and cultural beauty? With so much to offer, why does 'Sunburn' feel more like a superficial tan than a deeper more serious burn?
Four friends escape Lisbon and head south to spend the weekend at a luxurious but isolated villa. There is a pool, too much wine and many unspoken tensions. Their idillic weekend is disrupted by the imminent return of the mysterious David, who had left the country 10 years previously. Each of the four in the house has some form of history with David - romantic, sexual or otherwise - and his return (or threat of) turns the weekend on its head, as old tensions resurface and new relationships are tested.
In 2017, Portugal suffered some of the most devastating bushfires the country has ever seen. It is no surprise that these bushfires were used in ‘Sunburn’ as a metaphor for the approaching danger that is “David.” A crackling that underpins the whole film, it is just some of the poetic film language the director Vincente Alves do Ó uses throughout his sometimes too luxuriously-paced film. The pacing, though slow, still somehow doesn’t allow for the characters to develop beyond each other, and while we are given slow panning close-ups of attractive people basting by the pool, there is very little to help us understand these characters, and through this lack of understanding it’s impossible to empathise with any of them, disconnecting you from the whole film.
It might also be me, but I find the plight of middle class attractive people to be passé and not something I can really get on board with.
What I can get on board with (#allaboard the 2018 Eurovision slogan from Portugal) is the fact that this is an LGBTQI+ film where the focus isn’t on the characters and their sexuality. It’s just a film about four friends and their flaws; they just happen to be queer. This kind of mainstream, almost irrelevant treatment of sexuality is a fantastic thing we are seeing come into fashion, and it’s something I can totally get behind. Minorities are people with people problems like majorities, so why not make a film where their sexuality isn’t their be all and end all?
This is an LGBTQI+ film where the focus isn’t on the characters and their sexuality. It’s just a film about four friends and their flaws; they just happen to be queer.
I do also love a limited situation - the one set is the house, a small island in the sea of forest that surrounds them. But unlike one of my recent favourite limited location films ‘The Party’, the limited circumstances don't allow characters or script to come to the front and centre. Instead, they felt as clinical as the white of the luxury villa.
That said, arthouse films are often hard to digest, especially when they are dripping with Portuguese intellectualism (it exists). While I love Portugal and Portuguese people, there is something in their cinema-making that feels like it’s produced only for their cultural elite, and maybe that’s why I was left so cold by ‘Sunburn’. These aren’t the people I know or associate with, and maybe those sort of people got something out of it. For me though, I was left barely touched by the sun.