With Son of Saul, the Hungarian writer/director László Nemes not only won an Oscar with his very first feature, but created one of the definitive Holocaust dramas. It was a staggering achievement; but how on earth do you follow it?
If there was any pressure, it doesn’t show. Sunsetis another ambitious, distinctive and supremely confident film, with a fairly similar dynamic, as it follows a young woman searching for her brother in a city that is a powder keg of revolt.
It’s 1913. Budapest is a gleaming capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, yet only a year from war. The enigmatic Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) arrives in town, seeking work at the renowned hat shop that her late parents founded, years before. But new owner Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov) is none too pleased that the namesake has returned. As he turns her away, Irisz learns of an older brother she never knew she had, who recently disappeared in controversial circumstances, and determines to find him.
What follows is an atmospheric mystery that plays at times like a warped fairy tale, involving a “slaughtered count”, his distraught widow, shady insurrectionists and a disturbing pact between Brill and the aristocracy.
Shooting in 35mm, Nemes and cameraman Mátyás Erdély repeat their immersive approach from Son of Saul, using shallow focus and a mobile camera to keep the attention squarely on their main character. And with her broad face and intense eyes, Jakab (who had a memorable cameo in the earlier film) is amazingly watchable, lending this story much of its urgency.
It’s gorgeously shot and designed, offering a powerful sense of place – from the ornate interiors to the bustle of the dusty thoroughfares and the seedy menace of secret meeting places. The style may be disorientating at times, preventing certain characters from making an impact, but for the most part it’s fascinating, thrilling, intoxicating. A coda in the WWI trenches underlines the sense that we’ve been watching a way of life that’s about to self-destruct.
This review first appeared in The List