Disorienting history lesson trades clarity for chaos
Directed by László Nemes
Cast: Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov, Levente Molnár
Our central focus here is Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), a bold 20-year-old orphan who arrives in 1910 Budapest looking for work. She’s not after just any job, mind you. This laser-focused gal wants to work at the renowned millinery shop started by and named after her parents (who died under mysterious circumstances when she was a baby). The current owner (Vlad Ivanov) is reluctant to bring her on board for various reasons (partially, of course, because she might have a claim on the business). She also discovers that she may have a long lost brother—who may have brutally murdered a local nobleman.
For those unversed in history, 1910 Budapest finds the Austro-Hungarian Empire perched on the knife-edge of World War I. (Spoiler alert: That little dustup didn’t work out so well for that particular chunk of Europe.) The country’s monarchy is corrupt and crumbling. Class warfare is brewing in the streets, stripping away the remaining vestiges of 19th century civility. Anarchists are meeting in shadowy locations, plotting explosive action. Amid all this upheaval, Írisz is determined to figure out what happened with her missing brother.
Nemes (with an assist, no doubt, from cinematographer Mátyás Erdély) has a Kubrick-like confidence in his camera work. The film’s visual focus is dialed down almost exclusively on Írisz. Shot in a string of intimate close-ups with the backgrounds blurred by the soft-focus of a shallow depth of field, Sunset follows dutifully after its heroine, often looking over her shoulder from behind as she navigates the tumult-filled streets of Budapest. The agility of Nemes’ 35mm camera (actual film, not digital) as it sticks like glue to the back of Írisz’ extravagant hats is impressive.
Jakab herself makes for a mesmerizing leading lady—which is a good thing, as she’s on screen for nearly every scene. She says little over the course of the film, but expresses much—thanks largely to her arresting facial features, which seem somehow larger than her actual head. Appropriately for the temporal setting, she’s got the look and feel of a silent film star. Without her as our guide, we’d be considerably more lost in this darkly impressionistic world.
Over the course of Nemes’ long perambulation, Irisz’ meandering, dreamlike journey takes in a city (and a country and, by extension, a world) churning with chaos and violence. She meets various menacing figures (everybody in this place seems on the verge of attacking, killing or dismembering somebody)—none of whom provide her with any concrete or satisfying information about her family or her brother’s brutal crime.
Ultimately, Sunset isn’t about answers—which, for many, will make this a frustrating 2-hour-and-22-minute mystery. Instead, Sunset plays out as a string of unanswered questions and nightmare scenarios. It doesn’t take a lot of cogitation to figure out that the random chaos and disorder of Nemes’ storytelling is meant to serve as a metaphor for the building anarchy and pandemonium of the impending World War. But just how deeply Nemes’ metaphor digs is questionable. “War is chaotic” and “terrible things take place behind beautiful facades” seem like shallow observations, really. Anyone with a strong understanding of the art of film will recognize that Sunset is the work of a master filmmaker. But by digging into his country’s complicated history, the filmmaker—much like his camera—may be a little too close to the subject to offer a particularly clear perspective.