László Nemes follows up his harrowing Son of Saul with a languorous, but gripping tale of woe and mystery.
It’s hard to believe that László
Part of me wonders if Nemes conceived of the tone and themes before the story, as they come far higher than any of the plot does. His script, written with Son of Saul co-writer Clara Royer and editor Matthieu Taponier, plays like a spiritual predecessor to the director’s debut. Set in the gauziness of 1913 Budapest, Sunset follows Írisz (Juli Jakob). She’s incredibly passive when we first meet her: “I’m actually here for the position,” Írisz mutters in a hat shop as a worker measures her. “Why didn’t you say so?” the latter scoffs. But even though Írisz’s late parents once owned the store, the new management rebuffs her so they can cater to royalty. With no job and no family since the age of two, she crosses paths with a man named looking for one Kálmán Leiter. Apparently, this Kálmán is her brother, and with nothing to lose, Írisz tries to track him down to resolve her past and solidify her future.
What begins as a war-torn melodrama then unveils a massive list of inspirations. It’d be easy to call Sunset a spiritual prequel to Son of Saul, and while that still feels like the case, it’s a more of a labyrinthine take on the works of Kenji Mizoguchi and Pawel Pawłikowski. The plot somehow manages to take the backseat while also driving its emotions forward, but technical filmmaking carries the most weight here. Mátyás Erdély’s cinematography vividly captures the sepia-toned mood of pre-World War I Budapest, while Viktor Lente’s sound editing feels like the entire world whispering in your ear.
It’s when these aspects take center stage that Sunset really shines. Nemes and Erdély actually seem to be having some fun in how they play with flat and dynamic images, with sequences trading off between the two. The same goes for the sound: it’s at times heightened like a society on the edge of its implosion; it’s sometimes realistic, feeling coy in comparison. And while the film may waver stylistically, Jakob internalizes her character’s conflict in ways that are visible yet aloof. It doesn’t matter just how much we understand of her surroundings because we know what she’s feeling, and those feelings are can be as universal as they are grandiose in context. These all propel the film into success when Nemes lets the plot take a back
It’d be easy to call Sunset a spiritual prequel to Son of Saul, and while that still feels like the case, it’s a more of a labyrinthine take on the works of Kenji Mizoguchi and Pawel Pawłikowski.
That said, the script makes some clever decisions that play with our expectations in how its structure loops in on itself, and while most filmmakers would make this feel forced, Nemes feeds these ideas right into the themes. It’s a surprisingly cynical film, one that looks at the (in)significance of family with a nigh-absurdist execution all too grounded in reality. And when the lead-up to the World War I reaches its peak and the dust begins to rise, Sunset finds an unorthodox way to stick what could be a hackneyed ending. I could have done with more of the feminist themes in how Írisz plays with her androgyny, but all of the seeds are so clearly there that it’s impossible to feel cheated by the payoff. And only a very talented filmmaker land that.