The Pitch: The Austro-Hungarian empire, 1910 or roundabouts, before World War I arrives and the empire falls in its wake. In Budapest, discontent is already boiling to the surface after years of tension. There arrives Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), a woman in search of anything resembling her home. Her family, once the proprietors of Budapest’s most luxurious hattery, were violently murdered years earlier, allegedly by her brother. She has no other kin, in any place. She’s already withdrawn from her apprenticeship at another hatter to work in the family shop. There is no choice or option left but for her to carry on the Leiter name, as is her right. As she passes through the city, day after day and night after night, drifting along as if a ghost in her own onetime life, she finds herself at the center of secrets, corruption, and questions that offer no easy (or possibly even livable) answers.
On Following: Four years ago, László Nemes made a remarkable cinematic debut with Son of Saul. That brutally intimate Holocaust drama concerned itself with following, as both an act of period immersion and a source of endless, churning fear. There, Nemes traveled closely alongside a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, removing the comfortable disconnect of the past by making the violence of that time as present as it’s ever been on film.
With Sunset, Nemes finds himself following once again, but here the following serves more opaque ends. Irisz spends much of the film as a cipher, particularly in the early going, the heiress to the Leiter name and otherwise a mystery to those around her and the audience alike. This isn’t to suggest that Irisz is a blank slate; in Jakab’s hands, she becomes a woman of multitudes, one whose moral allegiances shift and refract and break down entirely in the face of a changing world beyond her or anyone else’s comprehension.
As with Saul, Nemes spends much of the film’s 142 minutes trailing either immediately behind or right next to Irisz, Jakab often filling the frame as a startling contrast to the chaotic action unfolding near and around her. Nemes and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (who also worked on Saul) use Irisz as a traveling vessel through which they can explore everything from political uprising to the ways in which the sins of the past are always invariably visited upon the future. When she discovers a barracks for political subversives, one which women are forbidden from entering, there’s no question of whether Irisz will. It’s what will happen to her once she does. She is an immovable force, refusing to yield until an answer avails itself to her. She’s not searching for reparations, necessarily, or for anything as simple as justice or revenge. Irisz simply wants to understand, in a world unwilling to avail her of such solutions.
Dual Monarchy, No Heroes: Jakab is the narrative and visual centerpiece of Sunset, and what’s most fascinating about Nemes’ approach to her is his clear disinterest in litigating the ethics and needs driving Irisz through her impossible quest. While Jakab is a boundlessly evocative performer, Nemes frequently leaves the viewer adrift by design, unwilling to assign her anything in the way of direct motive or need. Sunset is instead concerned with the ways in which people adapt to their circumstances, and how the struggle against iniquity can and often does breed its own in turn. Irisz is never entirely good, or entirely bad, and the film is unconcerned with assigning either definition to her.
The Verdict: Compared to the brute-force immediacy of Son of Saul, Sunset works in a far more elusive mode. Yet to consider the film aimless is to fundamentally misunderstand its intentions; Sunset is as much as anything about the specific sensation of knowing something around you is deeply, irreparably wrong without being able to articulate it in any kind of meaningful way. And when the film does eventually build to its revelations, Nemes unpacks these discoveries with restraint, refusing to avail the viewer of his grander intentions in favor of a multifaceted examination of dissociation, grief, and cultural loss.
Sunset is difficult filmmaking, the kind which almost seems impenetrable at times. But if you’re willing to meet Nemes on his level, the film’s rich textures will eventually prove themselves beguiling. This is a film to be digested over time, one built from ideas carrying far greater weight than their specific presentation within.
Where’s It Playing? Limited release, nationwide.