László Nemes’ previous film, Son of Saul, was a harrowing and visceral fever dream, dragging the viewer through the charnel house of a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. Much of its power came from Nemes’ strict formal decision to fix his camera upon the face of his lead Saul (Géza Röhrig) for the entire runtime. With his new film Sunset, he relies on the same technique, but with far less success.
That narrow perspective worked perfectly in Son of Saul because it simultaneously minimised exposure to the horrors of the Holocaust, as if averting the viewer’s eyes, and focused on the most humanising aspect of that inhuman place – a man’s agony and longing as he searches for his son. There is no such sweet marriage between form and content in Sunset; if anything, Nemes’ trademark shooting style is the worst possible choice for the story he’s trying to tell.
Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) is the heir to a legendary hatmakers in early 20th century Budapest, though a horrific fire claimed her parents’ lives and left the company in another’s hands. She shows up unannounced, happy to work as a simple designer for the milliner, with a steely resolve and a bizarrely patchy knowledge of her own past. Thanks to a mixture of not wanting to spoil what is essentially a whodunit, and a sheer lack of narrative clarity, I won’t/can’t reveal more. But it’s safe to say a confusing plot is not helped by a directorial style that purposefully limits the action to one clueless character’s perspective.
Jakab is a fierce enough presence to drag the film along, and Mátyás Erdély’s cinematography is a wonder of delicate pastels and violent noir shadows, but Sunset is so messy, long and confusing that you can’t help wonder if Nemes is just a one-trick pony.
CAST: Susanne Wuest, Björn Freiberg, Vlad Ivanov, Juli Jakab
DIRECTOR: László Nemes
WRITERS: László Nemes, Clara Royer
SYNOPSIS: A young girl grows up to become a strong and fearless woman in Budapest before World War I.