BFI LFF Review: Sunset (2018)

Sunset is tour de force, immersive filmmaking in which László Nemes that captures a chaotic watershed in European history.

Twilight in Europe

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

In 1913, a young woman searches for the long-lost brother she never knew existed as the old order of the Austro-Hungarian empire is on the brink of destroying itself in World War One. Juli Jakab is Írisz Leiter, a milliner who returns to Budapest seeking a job at the high-class millinery store that her parents used to own, and that still bears their family name, before it burnt down and they died in mysterious circumstances when she was two.

For reasons she can’t understand, everywhere she goes, people are hostile and tell her that she should have come back but never tell her why. The current owner of the store, Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov), who knew her family, tries to get her to leave but relents and lets her work in some capacity, under his stern manager Miss Zelma (Evelin Dobos). People’s reactions to her are coloured by her relationship to her brother, still in Budapest, who it appears has committed some terrible crimes.

Like Son of Saul, Nemes has shot Sunset entirely from the central character’s point of view. Írisz is in constant motion around the city and the camera is always either on her determined or anguuished face in close up or at her shoulder seeing what she sees, with the surrounding action disorientatingly out of focus. We first see her trying on hats, when she’s told to lift the veil as she looks in the mirror. That’s what the film itself does.

Írisz is confused by the situation she finds herself in. Being an orphan, she’s compelled to find the only relative she has and her quest takes her through the crowds milling the streets, to places where secret societies meet and she’s in danger and to aristocratic soirées in opulent villas that erupt in violence. There’s an abused Countess, a royal visit by the Austrian Prince and Princess to Budapest and the mystery about her brother Kálmán Leiter and his activities is slowly revealed.

Sunset is a visceral, immersive nightmare. As viewers, we are put in the middle of unexplained, confusing experiences just as Írisz is. Its director says that’s deliberate. There are no real conversations, rather dialogue that’s questions that aren’t answered, bald statements or confrontations. The colour palette is dark and murky Europe is approaching the end of an era where pretty things are used to cover up the horror, as one character says.

Leiters, the high-class milliners, is a metaphor for the frivolity, the expensive hats, that cover up a society in turmoil, its corruption and brewing revolt. Its owner. Brill, may well be regularly pimping his young female milliners to some unspecified fate at the court in Vienna. The several massive crowd scenes are superbly handled and clearly the budget was huge.

Secrets come out, but very slowly so it’s frustrating and well as confusing and there’s a coda that maybe dots the Is and crosses the Ts retrospectively. Írisz is blank canvas, an observer of what’s going on around her, and what she sees is the beginning of the end of an era. The film may not be entirely successful, sometimes its cuts may be overly confusing, but that really doesn’t matter, it’s a wonderful piece of filmmaking.

Sunset premiered at the Venice Film Festival, screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 15 and 16 October 2018.

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