Drama/mystery, rated R, 142 minutes, in Hungarian and German with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 4 chiles
Hungarian director László Nemes follows up his Oscar-winning Holocaust drama, Son of Saul (2015), with an enigmatic character study set in Budapest on the eve of World War I. Nemes places a fashionable hat store at the epicenter of a story of growing fear and paranoia as the Austro-Hungarian empire loses it grip on power.
Nemes’ film is a bewildering, starkly shot look into the growing unrest. This is an unconventional drama that doesn’t follow a straightforward narrative. There are times when the camera reveals very little, keeping its focus in tight close-ups of the actors’ faces while keeping the audience in the dark. That might be off-putting to some viewers, but it mirrors the byzantine reality of the events at a time when mistrust and confusion reigned.
The story concerns Írisz Leiter ( Juli Jakab), a beautiful young milliner who has a look of innocence about her. She’s come to the city to work at the prestigious Leiter hat store, formerly owned by her late parents. But she’s met with a cold reception by the store’s new owner, Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov).
Leiter’s parents died in a fire on the premises when she was two years old, and she was subsequently raised by a family in Vienna. Suspicions about the fatal fire focused on an older brother she has never met, who she isn’t certain even exists. In attempting to unravel the mystery, she learns that her brother is also suspected of murder and attempted murder.
In her efforts to learn more, Leiter discovers her rumored brother is an alleged anarchist who opposes the Viennese aristocracy — the class to which Leiter herself belongs. And store-owner Brill, who caters to a clientele composed of these very elites, has secrets of his own.
Nemes’ genius lies in never suggesting too much, and never revealing too much. The viewer is mainly treated to a point of view from the perspective of the protagonist. Only bits and pieces can be understood or perceived at a given time, and, like her, our frustration grows. The view we get is partial: Sunset is a mystery with no easy resolution.
But it’s also more. The film is tinged with a pervasive sense of unease that lies just below the surface, like a pot that’s perennially on the verge of boiling over. Nemes casts Leiter as an outsider who can’t possibly grasp all of the intricacies and reasons for the prejudices, class resentments, and distrust in the air. It’s a look into a society in free fall, but seen from the inside out. Aptly titled, Sunset offers a glimpse into a world about to be plunged into a long and relentless night.