Screening at Melbourne Queer Film Festival, Sunburn (Golpe de Sol) is a conceptual Portuguese drama exploring the complex connections between four long-time friends. Writer-director Vicente Alves do Ó fills each scene with bold experimental filmmaking touches that draw out the attitudes that gurgle under the surface. This results in a film that may feel a bit evasive and sometimes overwrought, but it’s also strikingly observant. And it’s a rare film that dares to create characters whose sexuality is realistically fluid.
The plot is contained in an isolated villa, located in a forest that seems to be on fire (there are sounds of emergency vehicles racing around in the background). The four central characters, now around 40 years old, have gathered for a relaxing holiday, swimming and lounging around, reminiscing about the good old days. The house belongs to Francisco (Nuno Pardal), who has agreed to have a baby with Joana (Oceana Basilio), even though their relationship feels somewhat tenuous. Meanwhile, Vasco (Ricardo Pereira) confesses that he is seeing a married man, and Simao (Ricardo Barbosa) hasn’t told his friends that the film script he’s working on is all about them. Then their relaxing break takes a turn when Daniel calls each of them to say he’s coming by for a visit. None of them have seen him in 10 years, and his impending arrival brings up deep feelings because all four were once in love with him.
What follows is a complex character study of four people whose long friendship has always depended on repressing their feelings. That’s no longer possible with Daniel coming to visit, so unspoken tensions bubble to the surface, straining each inter-relationship. Clearly, they’d much rather just have another drink and a bit of a dance together than talk about their darkest thoughts and feelings. And as they finally break the silence, a startling range of bombshells explode amongst them.
Alves cleverly uses David’s voiceover to reveal the way each of these people is connected to him, hinting at bigger issues in their past. This is juxtaposed with shots of the four friends eating, drinking, swimming, sunbathing and circling around each other, having fragments of conversations that they don’t want to finish. The actors are excellent at using physicality to convey the feelings they are hiding. Each interaction reveals subtle clues that hint at their lingering feelings for David and, even more intriguingly, their true yearnings for each other.
So even if the characters feel somewhat undefined by the film’s structure, they are continually challenging the audience to think about how easy it is to lie to the people we love the most. Each of these characters thinks he or she has dealt with the issues in the past, but actually they’ve just tried to ignore them. And since Alves refuses to put any of them in a box regarding their sexuality or attraction to each other, they are almost unnervingly easy to identify with. So even if almost everything about Sunburn (Golpe de Sol) remains slightly out of reach, it’s both moving and challenging.