László Nemes: Sunset
Sep. 20. 2018.
A girl in a hat stumbles helplessly in the conceited chaos of a decaying world: the big question of Sunset is whether the cinematic magic of László Nemes becomes meaningful once again. A REVIEW BY ZSOLT GYENGE.

Regarding the underlying conflict Sunset can be clearly viewed as the remake of Son of Saul: László Nemes is still interested in the individual driven by a personal obsession and immersed into his or her individual project independently of the surrounding communal, social and historical context, and in total obliviousness of these. We are dealing with a late shadow of the romantic myth of the genius, as the central figures of the films are eccentrics, whose exceptionality remain invisible from the narrow, human viewpoint of their contemporaries, only a higher instance (manifested mainly by the film) is capable of recognizing and revering it. However – and this is where Sunset really begins to intrigue – while Saul’s Antigone-inspired truth relies on the power of law that is thought to be divine, behind the actions of the uninformed and ignorant Írisz Leiter awkwardly in search of the conflicts of the milliner dynasty of Budapest no value system transcending the individual can be discerned.

In the early 1910s a young girl applies for a job in the vintage milliner’s shop, but she soon turns out to be the daughter of the previous owners of the enterprise, who perished in a fire many years ago. Contrary to our initial hunch, she is not after her birth right, but is driven by some curiosity kept in the dark throughout the film, and based on randomly scattered morsels of information the authenticity of which is unverified or even unverifiable, she drifts among the dubious sites and characters of Budapest, a city living the last moments of its heyday. And it is precisely this contradictory experience that the imagery of the film moulds into a motion picture format.

The greatest achievement of László Nemes is that he was able to fill the system of depiction known from his previous work with new meaning. It is important to note that the shallow depth of field, the narrow field of vision and the blurred background and environment do not serve (neither now, nor in his earlier films) to replicate the visual experience of the protagonist, but to visualize her mental state, thus making it accessible.

While in Son of Saul it is the inhumane horror that is pushed into the background for the sake of survival and a personal mission, in Sunset it is through the method we experience the half-blind, purposeless search of Írisz who finds herself in the business, family and social relationships of a totally strange world, and knowing no certainty other than herself, she grasps onto details lifted out of context. In scenes starting in medias res and lacking long, establishing shots we are always left with the feeling of waking from a dream: we need to keep up with the pace, recognize the environment and the characters, and stitch together a coherent narrative from minimal fragments of information, while everything we see through Írisz is unreliable, in other words, out of focus.

And in this framework the star proves to be a good choice. I did not find Juli Jakab’s previous film roles convincing, but this uninvolved, lost insouciance, this attentiveness firing up in the moments of presumed insight only to be snuffed out or be reduced to helplessness in the next moment, this pulsating concentration constantly infusing her presence is a perfect fit to the concept of the film.

In addition to the journey of the individual, the decaying world in which the search goes on also plays an important role in the film despite its blurriness. The opening captions referencing the rhetoric of the silent newsreel and describing the contemporaneous, dazzling Budapest in simplistic, uncritical terms, plus the postcard-like first image evoking the happy years of peace are both quite clearly there with an ironic overtone when viewed from entirety of the film. The story is all about the contrived falseness of the image inside us, and the rot under the surface.

All these considered, however, Sunset is not a good film: even though the intention described above is recognizable, something is amiss. Let us begin with the underlying situation: at the end of the day this family history, Írisz’s search in particular for an assumed brother, who is on a bloody crusade motivated by a mixture of family vengeance, jealousy and perhaps leftist anarchism – well, the search for all that is in essence uninteresting, as it points to nothing beyond itself. As the rather lengthy film progresses, and we are left with a myriad of cognitive and above all sensual impressions, and the “agenda” elaborated above is made clear pretty soon, we find ourselves asking all the more often, why we should care about any of this. Neither the individual (the psychological, mental development of the protagonist), nor the sociohistorical aspect of the story is layered richly enough to provide us with more than the assertion of the aforementioned facts.

Sunset is the ambitious, but muddled work of a director with an incredibly rich and complex bag of tools of cinematic language, who can put these to use in the most exquisite manner. The writer of the present review must admit that the puzzling, unelaborated ending with a perhaps insufficiently considered gender reference leaves him at a loss even after a week of musing. It seems obvious that the farcical disguise twist hinting at the growing insecurity regarding identity can only be handled once we leave the perceptual-realist plane and enter the world of symbolical-allegorical interpretation, but even that insight provides no foothold. But, to give credit where it’s due, the film is an attractive piece of work that is able to captivate the viewer several times with its flashes of the top-hat and flounce tumult masterfully using the modes of expressions provided by the cinema – albeit with less virtuosity in comparison with the previous film. And this experience is in itself the main lesson of the film: the real, perhaps only goal of stubborn survival amid any circumstance is the maintenance of the opportunity to be a witness – Írisz’s last role as an army medic is no coincidence.

Translated by Péter Papolczy