Tropic (Tropique) had its UK première at the Glasgow Film Festival 2023
Tropic (Tropique) begins in water, as young people in a pool try, under test conditions, to stay on the bottom for the longest amount of time, holding their breath. Edouard Salier’s sci-fi feature is set in a near future where nations are vying to be the first to found off-world colonies, and focuses on twin brothers Lazaro (Pablo Cobo) and Tristan Guerrero (Louis Peres) who are competing at their élite ‘Space School’ for a place in the European Space Programme, and perhaps even on the decades-long Eternity Mission into deep space. Spaniards living in France with their young single mother Mayra (Marta Nieto), the boys are already aliens and strangers in a strange land, but they are also each other’s anchors.
Despite the fact that Tristan is obviously ahead of Lazaro both in his physical abilities and in having a girlfriend (Isis Guillaume), he carefully pushes his brother to keep up. When Lazaro expresses the anxiety that only Tristan will be selected, Tristan assures his brother: “I won’t go without you”- and his words speak to the abandonment issues that have dogged both boys since the departure of their father. Now neither of them can really imagine a life apart from the other, even as they contemplate leaving behind all at once their beloved mother, the girlfriend with whom Tristan imagines skinny-dipping “every day of my life”, and indeed possibly the entire world.
In fact Tropic is a drama of separation, and the long, painful goodbyes which accompany it. The catalyst for this is an incomprehensible, irrational accident: a green substance which comes crashing from the heavens into the river where Tristan is training at night. Far from giving him superpowers or transforming him into an alien, this glowing extraterrestrial toxin arrives like an act of God (or a vagary of plotting), apparently in response to Tristan’s hubristic railing against the ‘old man’ in the sky – and in an instant leaves Tristan grotesquely disfigured and mentally impaired. Now Tristan barely recognises himself in the mirror, and Lazaro can no longer see himself in his twin – and so begins the difficult, divisive negotiation of letting go, as Tristan’s immense potential is permanently cut off, and Lazaro struggles to decide between embracing his brother’s disability and allowing himself too to be held back by it, or moving onwards and upwards without him.
It is a moral crux which, it turns out, matches the ethical dilemmas of space travel itself, where sometimes, in extremis, an individual has to be left behind for the good of the mission – even if those who survive must then live with the gravity of going on. And so Lazaro’s triumphant progress, his ascent to becoming the best of the best and rising above the rest of humanity, comes tinged with tragedy. Salier, co-writing with Mauricio Carrasco, draws in different ways on Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca (1997), Lennart Ruff’s The Titan (2018) and Alice Winocour’s Proxima (2019) to create an affecting story in six parts, each punctuated by images of a river that is both the scene of Tristan’s sudden, unexpected reversal of fate, and a locus of flux. The sink-or-swim stakes in this fraternal drama prove breathtakingly bittersweet.
strap: Edouard Salier’s drama is a spacebound sci-fi of siblings and separation, as an accident confronts twins with their differences
© Anton Bitel