Film Review: ‘Sunset’

The nightmarish vision of 'Son of Saul' is used with far less resonance in László Nemes’ sophomore feature, which impresses visually but seems to revel in befuddlement.

László Nemes
Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov, Evelin Dobos, Marcin Czarnik

2 hours 20 minutes

Expectations were always going to be too high for “Sunset,” László Nemes’ follow-up to his extraordinary Oscar-winning “Son of Saul.” Given how his first feature re-invented the Holocaust film genre, jettisoning the usual sentimentality for a terrifyingly immersive plunge into hell, it was natural to think he’d take his next subject, Budapest on the brink of World War I, and show a refined world careening towards chaos. Alas, the chaos is there but without the coherence necessary to balance sensorial turmoil with genuine meaning.

In terms of pure visual impact, Mátyás Erdély’s 35mm camera impresses with bravura agility, wandering through the impressive sets with Kubrickian urgency, yet the befuddling story of a young woman encountering seething violence while searching for her brother destabilizes without making any situation or character either real or interesting. Sales have been brisk in the lead-up to the Venice premiere, yet distributors like Sony Pictures Classics (who has U.S. rights) will have a difficult time finding patient audiences satisfied only with the notable mise-en-scène.

We know from his debut that Nemes is unafraid to tackle big themes, and the period just before the epoch-changing moment when the “Guns of August” plunged Europe into a bloody conflagration certainly fits the bill. His aim is nothing less than to capture with disorienting images the moment when Europe committed suicide. “This suicide remains a mystery until this very day,” he’s quoted as saying, yet calling the causes of World War I a mystery is ridiculous, on any level, and certainly doesn’t help our understanding of one of recent history’s most troubling watershed moments. “Sunset” is his flip-side to Murnau’s “Sunrise” (why oh why do so many directors feel the need to appropriate the 1927 masterpiece?), yet that film was grounded in human emotions buffeted by modernity, whereas Nemes jettisons all but a simulacrum of humanity in favor of a questionable subjectivity.

Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) arrives in Budapest from Trieste looking for work at the city’s most renowned millinery establishment, which not coincidentally bears her name. Orphaned in mysterious circumstances (never revealed) at the age of two, she’s trying to connect with her legacy through the shop her parents once owned, but the new proprietor Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov) sends her away, clearly threatened by her presence. Stepping out of the boutique’s rarefied atmosphere into the cacophonous streets of 1913 Budapest thrusts her into the jarring hubbub of modernity and affords Nemes the kind of sudden transition he does so well. At a boarding house she’s attacked by Gáspár (Levente Molnár), an unstable coachman muttering something about the Leiter son; Irisz knows nothing about a brother, so tries to find some answers.

The information she gathers is fragmentary and troubling: Kálmán was accused of murdering and dismembering Count Rédey, whose semi-mad widow, the countess (Julia Jakubowska), remains in full mourning five years on. Brill and his staff are organizing celebrations for the 30th anniversary of Leiter’s shop and don’t want to be bothered by Irisz’s inquiries, but she persists in her search, full of strange encounters with menacing figures who hint at things without ever revealing anything substantial. Given that the film is shot like a dream-state, clearly we’re not meant to question how she gains access to various locales such as the Rédey palace, where she sees the countess being brutalized by Otto von Koenig (Christian Harting), a sadistic arrival from Vienna.

By now, it becomes obvious that narrative coherence isn’t what Nemes or his two fellow scriptwriters are aiming for, and making heads or tails out of how people are connected, and why, is a lost cause. Is Kálmán the bearded man calling himself Sándor Jakab (Marcin Czarnik), who menacingly tells Irisz to leave the city? Is he the hidden leader of a group of anarchists gathering at night who seem to be preparing for some action around the time of the celebrations at Leiter’s? Irisz keeps moving between the refined yet tense atmosphere of the millinery to the threatening world outside, searching for answers neither she nor the audience ever find.

The mystery around this air of dread becomes so perverse that one half-expects Irisz to be taken in by a coven, à la “Rosemary’s Baby,” especially when she appears at the palace of an unshod prince (Tom Pilath) and is terrorized by the nobleman and his associates. Unlike Nemes’ claim to the eternal mystery of the causes of World War I, the mystery here is in what’s happening rather than why. “Sunset” aims to create a destabilizing atmosphere in which the decadent upper classes indulge in perverse machinations while the city around them seethes with discontent and violence, leading to an inevitable clash that Nemes makes unnecessarily obvious with a final shot in the trenches. Unlike the elegant complexity of his countryman Miklós Bánffy’s masterly trilogy of novels covering the same period, “Sunset” is all smoke and mirrors leading to a facile reflection on the carnage that marked the start of the modern era.

Since no character feels real, perhaps it’s unnecessary to complain that Jakab, so affecting in “Son of Saul,” is made to register but two emotions: tense and intense. She’s barely off screen, often seen from behind as the camera prowls near her neck much as it trailed Géza Röhrig in Nemes’ debut. The great difference however is that Erdély’s unbearably claustrophobic lensing brilliantly matched the “Son of Saul” storyline, whereas here its admirable boldness is unattached to a decipherable narrative. Heaping praise on the visuals doesn’t compensate for the film’s significant flaws, unless reproducing a disconnected nightmare is a sufficient goal. Costume designer Györgyi Szakács and the team of milliners deserve recognition for the splendid hats; Nemes pointedly uses them as symbols of extravagant uselessness soon to be tossed onto the bonfire begun in Sarajevo, but they remain objects of beauty.

Film Review: 'Sunset'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 2, 2018. (Also in Toronto, London film festivals.) Running time: 140 MIN. (Original title: “Napszállta”)

Production: (Hungary-France) A Laokoon Filmgroup, Playtime production. (Int'l sales: Playtime, Paris.) Producers: Gábor Sipos, Gábor Rajna. Co-producers: François Yon, Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, Valéry Guibal. Executive producer: Judit Stalter.

Crew: Director: László Nemes. Screenplay: Nemes, Clara Royer, Matthieu Taponier. Camera (color, widescreen): Mátyás Erdély. Editor: Taponier. Music: László Melis.

With: Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov, Evelin Dobos, Marcin Czarnik, Judit Bárdos, Benjamin Dino, Balázs Czukor, Christian Harting, Levente Molnár, Julia Jakubowska, Dorottya Moldován, Sándor Zsótér, Móni Balsai, Zsolt Nagy, Péter Fancsikai, Enrique Keil, Tom Pilath, Susanne Wuest. (Hungarian, German dialogue)

More Film

  • David Crosby and Cameron Crowe'David Crosby:

    Cameron Crowe Picks Five Favorite Underrated David Crosby Tracks

    “Music is love,” as David Crosby once sang, and nothing breeds deeper love than a sense that something is overlooked. So that’s why Variety asked Cameron Crowe to dig deep into the Crosby canon and pick not just a triad but five favorites from among the CSN singer’s most underrated tracks. Crowe, of course, has [...]

  • Halloween

    New 'Halloween' Movies Set for 2020, 2021

    Universal Pictures has unveiled back-to-back “Halloween” sequel movies that will open in 2020 and 2021. The studio made the announcement Friday, noting that last year’s “Halloween,” starring Jamie Lee Curtis and directed by David Gordon Green, went on to become the highest-grossing installment in the horror franchise at more than $250 million worldwide. The first [...]

  • Above the Shadows

    Film Review: ‘Above the Shadows’

    Grief-fueled romantic fantasies can be tricky for filmmakers not named Wim Wenders. Everyone aspires to make “Wings of Desire” with its stirring immediacy, beautiful imagery and pressing poignancy, but most wind up delivering something closer to its decent but dreary American remake, “City of Angels” — which could also be said for writer-director Cynthia Myers’ [...]

  • Crawl Movie

    'Crawl' and Other Disaster Movies Pose Unique Obstacles for Production Designers

    The rampaging fires, earthquakes and storms of disaster movies present unusual challenges for a production: On top of the normal work of creating a film’s lived-in and realistic locations, designers must build sets that the forces of nature can batter, flood and ravage into something completely different. Take “Crawl,” in which a Category 5 hurricane [...]

  • The Lion King

    'The Lion King' Tops $130 Million Overseas

    Disney’s “The Lion King” has roared past $130 million in international ticket sales ahead of its domestic debut, led by $76.6 million in its first week in China. Other markets began launching Wednesday, led by France with $8.3 million in its first two days with the second-biggest opening day for a Disney movie after “Avengers: [...]

  • The Lion King The Gift

    Album Review: Beyoncé’s 'The Lion King: The Gift'

    Before touching down on what Beyoncé has called her “love letter to Africa,” it’s important to see what may have brought her to the mother of mankind, with its wide vistas and sonic planes, for “The Gift” in the first place — beyond, of course, voicing Nala in the film and whatever international marketing tie-ins [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content