Sunset (2018)

Sunset (Napszállt) by László Nemes is must-see, tour de force, immersive filmmaking that captures a chaotic watershed in 20th century European history.

Twilight of the Godless

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

In 1913 Hungary the atmosphere is febrile, as the old order of the Austro-Hungarian empire is on the brink of destroying itself in World War One.

Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) is a young milliner who returns from Trieste to a chaotic Budapest seeking a job at the high-class millinery store, Leiters, that her parents used to own, and that still bears their (perhaps Jewish) family name. It burnt down and they died in mysterious circumstances when she was two. Now she searches for the long-lost brother she hadn’t been sure existed.

Everywhere she goes people are hostile and tell her that she should not have come back, but they won’t tell her why. The current owner of the store, Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov), who knew her family, tries to get her to leave Budapest, for reasons he doesn’t explain, but he relents and lets her work there under the eye of his strict manager Miss Zelma (Evelin Dobos).

People’s reactions to Írisz are determined by their feelings about her brother. He may be in Budapest as leader of either an underground or a criminal movement and he may have committed crimes so terrible that no one will talk about them.

Her dreamlike search for him takes her through the volatile crowds milling in the streets, to dangerous places where secret societies meet, and to decadent aristocratic soirées in opulent villas that erupt with sudden violence by protestors. There’s an abused countess and a royal visit by the Austrian Prince and Princess.

As in his previous film Son of Saul, director László Nemes has shot Sunset entirely from the central character’s point of view. Írisz is in constant motion around a city in ferment and the camera is always either in close-up on her determined or anguished face or at her shoulder seeing only what she sees, with the events surrounding her as disorientatingly out of focus as her grasp on them.

Like Son of Saul, Sunset is a visceral, immersive nightmare. As viewers, we are put in the middle of deliberately unexplained, confusing experiences, just as Írisz is. There are no real conversations to help: the dialogue is questions that aren’t answered, bald statements or confrontations. The colour palette is dark and murky, creating a sense of unease. The massive crowd scenes are superbly handled: clearly the film’s budget was huge.

We first see Írisz in a showroom trying on hats. She’s told to lift the veil as she looks in the mirror. That’s what the film itself does to the society it portrays. Europe is approaching the end of an era where pretty things are used to cover up the horror, one character says.

Leiters, the exclusive milliners where the film is set, is the physical metaphor for the frivolity – symbolised by the expensive hats – that covers up a society in turmoil, its corruption and the brewing revolt. And the workers who make the hats are ripe for fin de siècle exploitation – its owner, Brill, may be corruptly pimping his young female milliners to the doomed royal court in Vienna.

What is the mystery and what is the truth about Írisz’s brother Kálmán Leiter and his secret activities? There’s a coda that may clarify this, though it could be real or imagined. Írisz herself is a blank canvas, an observer trying to make sense of what’s going on around her: what she sees is the chaotic ending of an era. The film may not be entirely successful, sometimes it may be overly confusing, but that really doesn’t matter, it’s brilliant, exciting filmmaking, with images and emotions that disturb and don’t leave you.

Sunset screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 31 May 2019 in the UK and on demand.

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