Sunset (Napszállta)

Hungary (2018) Dir. László Nemes

It is important to know where we come from as people and as such, we are fully entitled to want to embrace our heritage. Modern genealogy research is likely to reveal hidden secrets about one’s family but this is historical and it’s too late to do anything about it. But imagine if you discover something shocking in the present day, it should be easier to get answers – should be…

Budapest 1913 and Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) has arrived in the capital from Trieste with a desire to work for the milliner’s store founded and built by her family, who died when Irisz was just two. However, the new owner Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov) isn’t enamoured to see Irisz and sends her away. Defiant, Irisz stays at a cheap inn where she is attacked at night by crazed coachman Gáspár (Levente Molnár), demanding to know where Irsz’s brother is.

This is a huge shock to Irisz, as she had no idea she had a brother, but in trying to find out about him, nobody is willing to talk. Eventually she leans his name is Kálmán and is accused of killing the Count Rédey, whose widow the Countess Rédey (Julia Jakubowska) is still in mourning. Irisz continues to seek the truth about her brother but the further she pursues the matter, the more dangerous things become.

A pre-World War I setting, a country on edge due to the behaviour of the upper classes, and a mystery involving feuding secret factions – all the elements present for a stirring and evocative historical drama. So why is it that Sunset is a dense, crashing 136-minute bore? Okay, maybe that isn’t entirely true but by the end of it, I not only had no clue what was going on but I didn’t care either.

László Nemes made his debut in 2015 with the horrifying holocaust drama Son Of Saul to great acclaim, including winning an Oscar, which meant expectations would be high for his follow-up. Now, I know that others will see something more in this film than I did, and I can see way too, but if we were to compare Sunset to Son Of Saul, it would be by describing the former as comparatively flaccid.

Nemes replicates the same pseudo POV perspective from Son Of Saul here – pseudo in the sense that we do see Irisz’s face, the camera follows her around and hovers just behind her shoulder – and again makes this an immersive experience. Via this technique we are very much in the same location as Irisz for much of the film, thus any surprises that may leap out in front of her will be as felt by us effectively in real time too.

However, in this instance Nemes and co-writers Clara Royer and Matthieu Taponier have chosen to take this first person immersive feeling a step further by keeping the audience as in the dark as much as Irisz is. Usually in a mystery, as the pieces of the puzzle are being collated the audience is privy to certain information the protagonist isn’t, serving either as misdirection or to tease what is yet to be discovered, but with nothing revealed to Irisz, we are left as ignorant as she is.

Whilst many will see this as exciting and different in keeping them intrigued in how this will develop, it backfires in that it soon becomes frustrating that for the first hour or so, Irisz is repeatedly told nothing or advised to return home. To go this long without any hint of where the story will go isn’t much of an incentive to stay invested and knowing there is another 76 minutes left, ennui begins to set in.  

I must confess I probably missed something during a crucial moment due to the density of the script, as I read another review which proffered details I don’t recall coming up, or at least not with any clarity. I did at least gleam that Kálmán’s actions were rebellious rather than sociopathic and aimed at the social elite, hence the likes of Brill being wary of Irisz when she first arrives.

Eventually it seems that Irisz does make contact with people fighting for the same cause as her brother, but again, the inherent shadiness of everyone makes it difficult to fathom which side is the one we’re supposed to root for. For the most part, Irisz is neutral in this dispute, wanting only to go about her business as a milliner but as much as she tries to stay this way, circumstance keeps pulling her into the thick of it.

Juli Jakab as Irisz is barely off the screen, usually during the shots where the camera is directly relaying her perspective, and to that end does a good job in holding everything together as the film’s one constant. However, she sports just one facial expression which is “intense”, and never relents, making her as mysterious as the melee she is caught up in. The rest of the cast get to do much more, thus prove the more interesting ones to follow.

Sunset might be Nemes over stretching himself for his second feature or it might be me that is at fault here. I wanted to enjoy this film beyond the immersive experience on an emotional level but never got that far, only appreciating its artistic merits. It is well made, well acted, and boasts wondrous cinematography that demands HD treatment (this is a DVD only release in the UK), but also feels wilfully ponderous, lacking urgency.

As blasphemous as this sounds, had Sunset been a tighter, less obtuse 90-100-minute film, it’s impact and resonance would have been felt much harder and longer; instead it is hard not to shake the feeling this is an “art for art’s sake” type project, and like the various groups exiling Irisz, wants only to appeal to those on Nemes’ wavelength, which in this instance, doesn’t include me.  

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