In ‘Sunset,’ a world waltzes on the edge of an abyss
Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes’s hallucinatory, vaguely allegorical period picture “Sunset” takes place in Budapest, a flourishing hub of the multicultural, multinational Hapsburg Empire, in 1913, a year before the outbreak of World War I. Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” plays on the soundtrack, underscoring the mystery of why a civilization would welcome the embrace of its own destruction. The music also refers to Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab, whose truculent demeanor is similar to that of Emma Watson), a young woman who has returned to her home city to learn the truth about her family, even though it could lead her to a fatal revelation. Oblique, often beguiling, and portentously cryptic, the film offers no satisfying solution to either enigma.
Irisz first visits the hat store once owned by her deceased parents and which still bears the family name. The natty, gray-bearded, and aloof Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov) has since taken it over. Nobody there is happy to see Irisz, especially since Kálmán, a brother previously unknown to her, had murdered a local count, chopping him to pieces and forcing the man’s wife to watch. After committing this heinous crime, Kálmán disappeared.
At this point a sensible person would take the next train back to Trieste, and though offered a first-class ticket by Brill, Leiter decides to stay, and is allowed to board in one of the squalid dorm rooms for the firm’s female milliners. It’s a homecoming of sorts, because the room is in the now-dilapidated former residence of her family.
A stranger, Gáspár (Levente Molnár), roughly awakens Irisz in the middle of the night and insists on taking her away to meet her brother. The landlord rescues her, drives Gáspár away, and tells her that the man is crazy and she should ignore him. It’s not the last time that Irisz must be rescued from assault by men, and each time she gets another tantalizing clue about her brother. It seems like she is not so much seeking him as he is seeking her, as if he is the spirit of murderous anarchy who wants her to join the war against the decadent ruling order. As one of the anarchists remarks about Brill’s ornate hats, “The horror of the world hides behind these infinitely pretty things.”
Nemes employs the same relentless point-of-view style that made “Son of Saul” (2015), his documentary-like tale of an inmate at Auschwitz, almost unbearable to watch. That film won the best foreign language Oscar. Here the entire film is from the perspective of Irisz, with tracking shots following her as she explores the cacophonic streets of Budapest, or close-ups of her face as she reacts to what she sees. Much of what happens is horrible, as it is in “Son of Saul,” but in that film nothing is hidden. In this film the outbreaks of violence are caught mostly in fleeting images, usually out of focus, or are offscreen and only heard. Their significance is elusive. It all seems like a nagging, well-furnished nightmare, until the ever-moving camera halts in the flooded trenches of World War I.
Directed by László Nemes. Written by Nemes, Clara Royer, and Matthieu Taponier. Starring Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov, and Levente Molnár. At Kendall Square. 142 minutes. R (some violence). In Hungarian and German, with subtitles.