In his first two feature films, Hungarian writer-director Laszlo Nemes has developed an unmistakable filmmaking style.
In the Oscar-winning “Son of Saul,” Nemes depicted the horrors of the Holocaust through the eyes of one prisoner, keeping the camera fixed primarily on him while atrocities occurred in the margins of the screen, often out of focus. It was a powerful and innovative way to present such upsetting imagery.
Nemes adopts the same technique for his follow-up, “Sunset.” For nearly all of the film’s 144-minute running time, the camera is locked on Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), a determined young woman who has returned home to pre-World War I Budapest to uncover long-buried family secrets.
But the effect works only intermittently this time. Sometimes we feel like we’re seeing the city through Irisz’s eyes as she navigates layers of Hungarian society, from corrupt noblemen to vicious revolutionaries. But other times the technique feels unnecessary and intrusive, like we’re playing a character in a very long, very odd virtual-reality game.
When the 20-year-old Irisz arrives in Budapest, where she hasn’t lived since she was a small child, she heads immediately to the elegant hat shop bearing her family name. But the store is now run by Brill (Vlad Ivanov), and we learn that Irisz’s parents died in a fire that consumed the family home. Irisz was sent off to live with relatives in Trieste, and Irisz learns that she had a brother, who is rumored to have grown up to become a killer.
Nobody seems happy to see Irisz, perhaps because she reminds them of her family’s tragedy. But she’s determined to stay, although her reasons are unclear. Does she want to reclaim the family business? Or burn it to the ground? Jakab’s performance is nearly wordless, expressing a dazed ferocity with her eyes as she wanders from place to place, character to character, disconnected from the city around her.
Eventually, she uncovers several dark threads beneath this genteel society. The young women working for Brill are strangely driven, all eager to be “chosen” for some hidden purpose that Brill won’t reveal. Irisz’s search for her brother takes her to a band of armed thugs who are plotting against the ruling class of the city, and there’s a mounting dread in the film as we know World War I is imminent.
That’s a lot of plot for a movie that relies on a single, silent perspective, and the story requires Irisz to show up at the right place and right time over and over to keep things moving. The filmmaking is undeniably accomplished; a late-night garden party that turns into a horrific massacre recalls the skillful long takes of “Son of Saul.”
But as I was marveling at the fluid compositions of some of Nemes’ shots, which can last several minutes, I realized I was losing interest in the character in the center of the screen. Irisz’s motivations and emotions are too opaque, and Nemes’ attempts to connect her story to the larger historical narrative of pre-war Hungary feel strained. Unlike “Son of Saul,” “Sunset” feels hampered by its own artistic choices.