Against the backdrop of fragile nationalism in Budapest on the eve of the First World War, Sunset is a dream-like mystery wrapped in intrigue, with little momentum but beautiful cinematography.
The story is told from the perspective of Irisl Leiter (Juli Jakab), a young woman who returns to the milliner that was owned by her parents who died in a fire when she was only two years old. The flames consumed both her family and the secrets that they took with them. Upon returning, she uncovers a past that perhaps she would have preferred to not know. As vague as this description sounds is as vague as the film eventually turns out to be.
Duplicity and misidentification play a role from the offset. Upon Irisz’s return to her parent’s shop (a well-established brand called Leiter’s) she is mistaken for a customer as opposed to a prospective employee. The new owner, Oszkar Brill (Vlad Ivanov), has kept the shop name in order to maintain business but wants no part of what remains of the Leiter dynasty. Indeed, he warns Irisz away from Budapest, “You are not cut out for this city.” In fact, it seems no one is. Sadness is infused in almost all the characters from the employees who still work at Leiter’s – an endless rotation and collection of young women – to the Coachman who reveals to Irisl she still has a brother. It is this revelation that propels the plot forward as he is revealed as a potential terrorist and arsonist.
We are guided scene to scene through the eyes of Irisl. We have both an insight into her perspective yet also remain entirely disconnected from her. Mysterious characters weave in and out of the plot revealing fragmented truths. We, as the audience, believe we will gain further understanding on as the narrative progresses. We do not. Instead, we are sent on a sometimes outrageous tour of the not-so-hidden underbelly of Budapest. We never quite leave this periphery of chaos nor do we feel the release of the tension. The narrative is characterised by political conflict, potential coup d’etats and mostly a lot of mad shit. That being said, whilst still standing slightly too long at just over two hours, it is an enjoyable historical escape.
A facet of particular note is Matyas Erdely’s cinematography (shot on a hazy 35mm lens). Irisl stands out in her pale blue dress against a backdrop of earthy reds and gold. The blurring of colours and shapes with streamlined early 20th century dresses are indicative of Impressionism. Certain scenes almost carry a resemblance to a painting by Monet, and we often only get an impression of the narrative itself.
Director Laszlo Nemes is perhaps best known for the Oscar-winning Son of Saul, which has been noted as an original and, of course, harrowing retelling of the Holocaust. A follow up to an Academy Awarded production is often a daunting task. Indeed, the comparisons, expectations, and often disappointments are inevitable. Whilst Sunset does not necessarily live up to expectations, perhaps this is a good thing. To expect a director to continually replicate their art is derivative and Sunset is a strong film in its own right. It is a film worth watching simply for an immersion into a beautiful but dislocated world.
by Catherine McNaughton
Catherine McNaughton is currently studying at the University of Manchester. Inspired by feminism and Debbie Harry. Her favourite films include Amelie, Before Sunset and Moonlight. You can find her on twitter: @__CatherineMac