Film Review: Sunset

László Nemes’ Sunset is a captivating watch. The director’s sophomore feature is an entrancing mystery drama.

In 1913, the eve of World War I, the Austro-Hungarian Empire is nearing its end. Írisz Leiter  returns to Budapest, hoping to secure a job a the hat shop which was established by her parents…

Directed and co-written by Nemes (with Clara Royer and Matthieu Taponier), Sunset is a brooding mystery. Part of the film’s beauty is that it maintains this mystery throughout the duration. Coupled with this ambiguity is a constant sense of unease. The two go hand in hand; for a significant portion it is unclear what this dread concerns. This unease can be linked to the film’s wider setting; an allegory for the declining empire and a Europe on the cusp of war.

Nemes drip feeds information in Sunset. This is a very effective device, as it keeps viewers guessing. The viewer follows Írisz throughout, knowing as much as she knows. The initial hostility towards her is intriguing, pointing only to a dark family history. Nemes does not need to spell everything out through laboured exposition. Instead, elements are revealed through an expression, and overheard conversation, a snippet of detail.  

Írisz is a compelling protagonist because of everything that is going on around her. She is a blank canvas, coming to Budapest to work in the shop her parents owned. As the film progresses, there remains a sense of mystery around her. The film returns to the idea of a genetic evil. It seems as if Írisz has two choices; she’s herself is unclear of the path she should take. Nemes explores themes of power and privilege with Sunset. This is conveyed through the royalty element of the narrative, but also with the restrictions placed upon the protagonist. The restraints of the era are made clear by Nemes. 

Sunset is an aesthetically pleasing film as well. Nemes and cinematographer Mátyás Erdléy have created a distinctive, sepia-tinged look. The lighting plays heavily into this, as does the framing. Írisz is frequently framed in a doorway or behind a curtain, giving the sense of a character who is removed and trying to break through. Juli Jakab is bewitching as Írisz. The casting is on point, with many of the players having a distinctive look.

After the critically acclaimed Son of Saul, many may have been concerned that Nemes’ follow up would not compare. Sunset allays these fears entirely. An excellent picture. 

Sunset is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2018.

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