Sunset is a monumental achievement by a director who has already made a name for himself in recent art cinema. Laszlo Nemes’ first film, Son of Saul, demonstrated the visceral and atmospheric possibilities of the Holocaust subgenre. It was excruciating to watch, but as profound a look at human evil as has ever been put on screen. Now with Sunset, Nemes has confirmed that the overwhelming atmosphere and formal innovation of Son of Saul was no fluke. Instead, he proves that he has invented a new mode of historical cinema.
Set in 1910 in Budapest, Sunset follows Írisz (Juli Jakab), a young milliner who returns to Leiter’s, a hat store her parents had built years earlier. Her parents had died in a fire in that very milliners shop years earlier and she was orphaned at young age, only now to return to the city where she was born and demand a job at the store that bears her name. She’s rebuffed by the new owner, Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov), but she’s persistent and doesn’t leave the city. However, as she works to get a job at Leiter’s, she learns that she has a brother who’s responsible for a series of crimes against the city’s aristocracy. She seeks to find her brother, but the search uncovers a sinister underworld of men committed to fighting the aristocracy and plunging the city into chaos.
Although the plot description of Sunset makes it sound like Hungary’s answer to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, the film’s focus is not on hat making or the ins-and-outs of the fashion world at the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Instead, the film is a nightmarish exploration of the chaos and dysfunction that swirled beneath the surface of that empire and that would soon erupt into the death and destruction of World War I. The film bears more resemblance to Darren Aronofsky’s controversial mother! than most historical dramas, as it plays as more horror movie than tasteful period piece and uses a radically limited perspective of the time period to explore its multitude of themes.
The filmmaking here is breathtaking from start to finish. Nemes conjures such a convincing portrait of life in 1910 Budapest that I’m half-convinced he simply travelled back in time to shoot the film. As he did in Son of Saul, Nemes uses mostly close-ups to tell his story, focusing on the face and eyes of the remarkable Juli Jakab as she moves throughout the world of Austro-Hungarian Budapest, crossing class lines and uncovering whispers of secrets and betrayals that threaten to tear the city apart.
Nemes shoots the film in long takes where the camera stays fixed on Îrisz’s face, depicting the flurry of movement in the city out of focus and in the margins of the frame. Whether she moves into opulent palace halls or delves into the depths of an underground tavern, Nemes keeps his approach consistent, refusing to give us (or Írisz) the context to the events she’s witnessing. In this way, Nemes takes a radical approach to historical drama and creates a new method of historical storytelling. Instead of treating the past as a fixed object that we can comprehend objectively from the present, he uses the film’s form to allow viewers to experience a highly-subjective view of the historical past. By doing so, he helps us comprehend the contradictions of the past and experience the chaos of history as an emotional journey rather than a historical footnote. Thus, all the half-glimpsed madness moving about in the margins of the frame become stand-ins for the forces of history stalking Írisz like a shadow.
A bravura sequence an hour and a half into the film confirms that Nemes would likely be the best horror director on the planet if he wished to pursue that genre. But he’s too fixated on the failings and history of his homeland and the larger European world to limit himself to simple scares, even if his films are more existentially disturbing than any horror film. He’s attempting to answer the question of how the decadent heights of the Austro-Hungarian Empire could lead to the horrors of World War I, but he explores this question through an intense and emotional filmmaking style that denies any of the intellectual distance that most art films afford their viewers.
At its basest level, Sunset is an odyssey of a young woman caught up in the maelstrom of her age. It’s breathtaking and unbearably tense, but it’s also relevant beyond the margins of its subject matter. That we too are living in a time of uncertainty and boiling political chaos that may precipitate a wholesale collapse of civilization only adds urgency to Nemes’ stunning vision. It makes Sunset not only a masterpiece of filmmaking, but also a vital statement on the chaos of modern existence.
9 out of 10
Sunset (2018, Hungary)
Directed by László Nemes; written by László Nemes, Clara Royer, and Matthieu Taponier; starring Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov, Evelin Dobos, Marcin Czarnik, Levente Molnár, Julia Jakubowska.