Premiering at Southbank’s BFI Flare Festival last month, ‘psychological thriller’ Sunburn, promises a potentially interesting premise: Four sexually-fluid friends, each with secret’s of their own, uniting for the return of an estranged friend who holds the key to their pasts.
As an avid fan of Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl, how could I resist such a premise? So, when the opportunity came up to see an early press screening of Sunburn I eagerly took it. Little did I know the stressfully disappointing two hours I was about to undertake.
Admittedly, I was five minutes late to the screening. Southern trains were being a nightmare and as I awkwardly walked into the cinema mid-showing, I spent the first ten minutes doing what all those who have been late to the cinema do: piecing together what is happening and figuring out what I missed.
At the point of my entry, the screen was on two of the main characters, Simao and Joanna, alone in a dimly yet naturally lit room, talking about an absent third friend, David, who they were apparently about to see.
It was clear that both characters were having an internal fight, both being excited to see David, the implication being made that to both he was once more than a friend, but also fearful as to what his arrival back in their lives will do.
As the film progressed and the two friends went to a beautiful villa joined by two others, Vasco and Francisco, the same formula continued throughout the 82 minutes as various amalgamations of the four friends discussed their pasts with David and their fears of seeing him again.
David is the elephant in the room. A big one. Though barely in the film, he occupies every conversation, taking a hold on these four people’s lives despite their efforts to move on.
For each member of this incredibly incestuous friendship group, David was a source of desire, a source of pain and a source of discomfort. Despite the claims made in the premise, this is essentially what the film was about. Director and writer Vincent Alves do Ó was clearly interested in the emotions and stresses of an ex re-appearing in one’s life. Anyone who’s dealt with that knows it can be a tense, stressful event for all involved however, Sunburn doesn’t translate that tension well.
The film tries so hard to live up to the ‘psychological thriller’ title it claims to be. The music throughout the film was reminiscent of the score to actual psychological thrillers like Shutter Island. It would build up, sneaking in as someone goes for a run or is lounging by the pool to then quickly disintegrate into nothing. Nothing happens. No drama is created and like the boy who cried wolf eventually it becomes tiresome.
Furthermore, voice-over monologues by David interject at various points throughout the film, indirectly talking to each character individually in the same way your therapist might ask you to write a draft letter to your ex telling them how you really feel.
Both these monologues and the conversations between characters are filled with seemingly, psychologically deep yet meaningless comments that have no actual relation to anything else being said. As Joanna randomly threw out the line “life is ugly, that’s why people have children”, there was a sense of confusion in the cinema, each of us thinking, ‘what has that got to do with anything?’.
A common trope of a psychological thriller that audiences expect is the building up of tension. One expects for a detailed story-line sprinkled with a few fake shocks and misleading moments, before a climax that sends all in the cinema reeling. However, Sunburn takes that build up to new heights.
The viewer is slowly edged throughout the film. At any moment the repetitive discussions about David’s upcoming appearance will manifest in David’s actual arrival and drama will ensue. However, as that climactic moment comes and David finally arrives, the drama doesn’t start, no thrilling is done and the audience is left with figurative blue balls wondering why they just sat through all of that intensely tedious foreplay for nothing.
If you like your films to have story-line, narrative and action, then this is not the film for you. In fact, you will be utterly dissapointed, verging on demanding your money and, if it were possible, your time back. However, if you like the foreplay: the visuals, the aesthetic and reading into a dialogue; then you may find something vaguely enjoyable within this film.
It is undeniable that the shots, the scenery and the aesthetics are all visually stunning. The villa, with it’s huge pool and open-plan, glass-everything look, is typical of the expensive, desirable lifestyle that characters in these dramas often live. Similarly, all the characters are aggressively stunning individuals with enviably stunning bodies who don’t really seem to wear anything but speedos and bikinis.
But cinematic shots and attractive people do not a good film make. With it’s forced tension, awkward dialogue and minimal narrative, the only way to describe the film is lacking. It says rather a lot when my delayed journey to the screening had more tension in it than a film that calls itself a psychological thriller.
With that being said, is Sunburn a psychological thriller? Absolutely not. Is it an aesthetically-pleasing, superficially-deep melodrama? Why not.