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Depicting civilization on the brink of catastrophe as the 20th century begins (the setting is 1913 Budapest, one pregnant year before World War I), director Laszlo Nemes’ sophomore film Sunset (Napszallta) weaves a fascinating atmosphere of menace around stalwart young heroine Irisz (Juli Jakab), but its heavy symbolism and penchant for creating unresolved mysteries drives it far from the poignancy of Son of Saul, which launched Nemes’ career with the Cannes Grand Prix, a Golden Globe and the 2016 Academy Award for best foreign-language film.
Clocking in at almost two and a half hours and shot with a growing intensity that demands the audience’s full engagement, it will be a tiring, frustrating watch for many. The strong critical support that bolstered Son of Saul’s brilliant career is unlikely to repeat itself here.
Another consideration is the apocalyptic subject itself, which could be argued to be ever-timely (aren’t we always on the eve of destruction?) but has much less hold on the popular imagination — outside the comic book renditions — than the Nazi concentration camp of the first film. Though Nemes pumps the anxiety level high in both stories, pre-war Budapest remains an abstraction that doesn’t touch the heartstrings.
Undeniably, Sunset is an impressive piece of filmmaking, and from a technical point of view it stirs memories of the boldly shot Hungarian cinema revival of the 1960s. The spirit of Stanley Kubrick certainly haunts the film. Nemes ends with a startling homage to Paths of Glory and the master’s long p.o.v. shot of Kirk Douglas stalking through the trenches as shells burst overhead. There is also a whiff of the creepy masked sex party in Eyes Wide Shut when, in her fearless and foolhardy way, Irisz gatecrashes a pair of aristocratic gatherings to see for herself the horrors she is told not to look at.
But what exactly are these horrors? Raids by outlaw bands, shootings and whippings take place chaotically in the dark or offscreen. The screenplay, penned by Nemes and Son of Saul co-writer Clara Royer along with editor Mattieu Taponier, appears to deliberately blur the meaning of these scenes, privileging atmosphere and letting the viewer’s imagination supply the rest.
In a postcard Budapest ruled by Francis Joseph’s Austro-Hungarian empire, the city is booming and now rivals Vienna, we are told. Irisz Leiter (Jakab) arrives in town after resigning her job as a milliner in Trieste. Her eyes calm and her bearing regal, she applies for a job making hats in the fashionable Leiter hat store that her parents once owned, before they perished in a fire and left her an orphan. Throughout the film, Irisz and those around her make so much of her name that one wonders if the Leiters were Jewish, casting a dark shadow over the burning of their shop. But this is never explicitly stated in the film and remains only a possibility.
The store’s new owner Oszkar Brill (authoritatively played by Cristian Mungiu’s regular actor Vlad Ivanov) makes a lame excuse and denies her a job. But Irisz is not a woman to be shaken off lightly. She throws away the first-class train ticket he offers her back to Trieste and turns back to the city, determined to investigate the rumor she has heard from a servant that she has a brother, and he is the devil incarnate.
Eventually Brill takes her on at the store under the jealous gaze of his favorite young manager, Zelma (Evelin Dobos). Ordered to remain on the premises, she slips the leash constantly to follow up clues, putting herself in one perilous situation after another. At one point she sneaks into the palace of the half-mad Countess Redey (Julia Jakubowska), whose cruel husband her brother is supposed to have killed. She sees the countess’ back has been scarred by the whip.
Even worse is the fate awaiting the girl from Brill’s store who is “chosen” by the decadent aristos to bring the Princess’ hats to the palace. Eventually Irisz discovers the sickening fate of the milliner Fanni, one of the chosen ones.
Rather repetitively, in the second half of the film she goes dashing off in trams and carriages to look for her phantom brother, who is reported to be the ruthless leader of a band of outlaws who are bent on burning down the hat store and destroying the civilization it represents. She witnesses a strange ceremony at the end of the tram line but is denied entrance to a guarded building reserved “only for men.” Warned to go home after she is almost gang raped in a terrifying scene, she jumps off the tram taking her to safety and comes back for more. In the end, Irisz seems to leave the flesh-and-blood world behind her and becomes the wide-eyed symbol of human determination to bear witness at all costs.
The story is told entirely from her viewpoint, which becomes more pronounced as we trail behind her in the long tracking shots without cuts that Nemes prefers. Jakab projects dignity and determination far beyond her years. Her boyish face and androgynous body are those of a modern fashion model, and they come in handy later in the pic when she is forced to masquerade as a boy.
All the other actors seem like ghosts from a dream. Lenser Matyas Erdely, who shot Son of Saul, again privileges Nemes’ stylish signature of short focus close-ups of faces and blurred background figures, reinforcing the film’s feeling of dream and nightmare.
Both Laszlo Rajk’s production design, filled with smoke, dust, crowds, horses and confusion, and Gyorgyi Szakacs’ costumes are quite stunning, dusting off the period and giving it an unfamiliar, modern look. The pretty shop girls, for example, are uniformly thin and flat-chested, making them very graceful and stylish in lace dresses and high collars.
Composer Laszlo Melis racks up the tension with frantic violin strains that are most effective.
Production companies: Laokoon Filmgroup, Playtime
Cast: Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov, Evelin Dobos, Marcin Czarnik, Levente Molnar, Julia Jakobowska, Christian Harting
Director: Laszlo Nemes
Screenwriters: Laszlo Nemes, Clara Royer, Matthieu Taponier
Producers: Gabor Sipos, Gabor Rajna, Francois Yon, Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, Valery Guibal
Director of photography: Matyas Erdely
Production designer: Laszlo Rajk
Costume designer: Gyorgyi Szakacs
Editor: Matthieu Taponier
Music: Laszlo Melis
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: Playtime
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