László Nemes’s sophomore feature Sunset shares the same vision as his Oscar-winning debut Son of Saul, but the virtuoso cinematic style without the back-up of a powerful story falls short this time.
Being a Hungarian myself as director László Nemes, his masterful first film Son of Saul (2015) made me proud and eternally grateful to witness the new rise of the Hungarian filmmaking tradition. Son of Saul premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix. It attended the festival circuits earning numerous awards including the Best Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards. Needless to say that the expectations for Nemes’s second feature Sunset were very high.
Sunset takes place in 1913 pre-war Budapest. Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) arrives in the Hungarian capital of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. She hopes to work at a hat store that bears her name. The Leiter’s millinery burned down when Írisz was two years old, and her parents died in the fire. Despite her dedication, the new owner of the store Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov) sends her away. Írisz wants to reconnect with her legacy and investigate her lost family history. As it turns out she has a brother, a certain Kálmán Leiter whom she knows nothing of. Írisz refuses to leave the city and follows her brother’s tracks to get some answers, but more mysteries arise.
Her quest brings her through the dark streets of Budapest and behind the closed doors of the bourgeoisie. She witnesses the chaos of a multilingual metropolis and the general turmoil of a world on the brink of World War I. The Leiter’s hat shop is a symbol of the overturning of an old order with beautiful things on display, while everything is rotting underneath. As one of the speakers say: “The horror of the world hides beneath these infinitely pretty things.”
Sunset is shot on 35mm film in Nemes’s signature visual style with hand-held long tracking shots, shallow focus close-ups and blurred background figures. The story is told entirely from the main heroine’s viewpoint with a breathless subjective camera closely following her every step. There is hardly a shot in which Juli Jakab’s character Írisz is not present in some form. The dialogue often consists of whispers as if each speaker is in possession of a secret. The visual style and mysterious storytelling reinforce the film’s overall feeling of a dream or nightmare.
The above mentioned cinematographic style worked incredibly well in the claustrophobic world of the concentration camps in Son of Saul. The terrifying rumours followed by desperate voices, the dreadful shadows accompanied by blurred figures, the pure essence of hardly detectable movements on the periphery were enough indicators of the darkest hours of mankind as the director referred to it in his Oscar speech. The torturous images of the Holocaust are deeply ingrained in our collective visual memory. So even some out-of-focus imagery completed with rumbling noises are sufficient for us to imagine the worst. That’s the reason why Son of Saul managed to reinvent the Holocaust film genre applying a fresh cinematic style to the well-known events. However, the same approach does not match the Sunset storyline.
Sunset aims to show us a world on the brink of tragedy, the final moment before the end of civilisation. Nonetheless, the viewers are not as familiar with the twilight era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as they are knowledgeable about the Holocaust. The audience is craving for a proper introduction into this world. Instead, it only ends up in the middle of a turmoil with no clues and even fewer answers. The movie aims to capture a particular time and place. But it fails to deliver on its premise when it only refers to things instead of showing them.
The plot is hard to follow, dramaturgy breaks down several times, and the storyline misses internal logic. In this dreamlike flow of events, we as viewers have no idea how Írisz gains information on people’s whereabouts. We don’t know how she enters closed up locations or moves around the city in carriages. Clocking in almost two and a half hours and using an incoherent narrative Sunset demands the audience’s complete engagement, which results in a frustrating watch for many.
Playing the lead Juli Jakab is mesmerising on screen. Once lose ourselves in the mise-en-scene and follow her, she will guide us all the way. But presence is itself not enough, and Juli Jakab’s Írisz doesn’t get to have a character arc or a motivation. The heroine is stubborn, driven and haunted in nearly perpetual motion. Despite following her for many days in story time, we don’t learn much about the lead during her journey. Írisz Leiter doesn’t change, and it is unclear if she has learned anything by the end of her odyssey.
She follows unreliable characters, constantly chases clues, putting herself in one dangerous situation after another. During her investigation after her brother, Írisz ends up in a maze where every encounter means only hints and further mysteries without ever revealing anything substantial. Despite the physical constraints of the movie that we closely follow the lead to everywhere, Sunset loses its audience, because the main character is not diverse and fully-framed enough and the supporting ones are not that interesting either. We are never sure who is on which side, what the characters want or why.
Sunset set out to showcase an era: pre-first-world-war Budapest. But with its distinctive cinematic style and weak narrative coherence, we only get fragments of the truth, bits and pieces of the catalyst factors. Ultimately, it is not revealed how the pieces and people are connected to each other. Sunset is ethereally beautiful, but nothing more than smoke and mirrors presenting only an impaired reflection of the events leading to the start of the modern era.
Source of Featured Image: Sunset (2018)