Laszlo Nemes’ second feature sees him reprise his “Son of Saul” technique—the long-take closeup in shallow focus—on a sprawling period drama, but with varying results.
Dir. Laszlo Nemes
2018 | Hungary | Drama | 142 mins | 1.85:1 | Hungarian
Not rated (likely to be NC16 for some violence)
Cast: Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov, Evelin Dobos
Plot: The young Irisz Leiter arrives in the Hungarian capital with high hopes to work as a milliner at the legendary hat store that belonged to her late parents. Her quest brings her through the dark streets of Budapest, where only the Leiter hat store shines, into the turmoil of a civilisation on the eve of its downfall.
Awards: Won FIPRESCI Prize (Venice)
International Sales: Playtime
Subject Matter: Slightly Dark
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed on screener)
For anyone who has seen Son of Saul (2015), Laszlo Nemes’ astounding first feature film, surely the expectations would have been sky-high for his next work. After all, the Hungarian director’s breakthrough film about one Jewish man’s experience of the Holocaust as a Sonderkommando, shot with a rare intensity and intimacy that sharpened our understanding of the psychological horrors of Nazi death camps, remains to be one of this decade’s most audacious and essential pictures.
In that film, he pioneered (or at least dutifully adhering to it) a technique that privileges the long-take closeup in shallow focus, one that would characterise its entire visual style. With that limited view, what is experienced by the character—the audiovisual immediacy of the environment and how he reacts to dynamically changing circumstances—becomes the raison d’être of the film, and it worked perfectly.
With that context in mind, one would see Nemes’ second feature, Sunset, as a case of trying to impose a so-called proven technique onto another ‘vision’—this time, that of 1910s Hungary. The results are varying, and there are a number of reasons why it didn’t work out as successfully, not to mention, there had been conspicuously less buzz by critics this time round.
Juli Jakab, the protagonist of the film, was chosen among more than 1,000 Hungarian actresses.
Sunset has potentially one of the most intriguing plots of 2018—that of a lady whose unannounced arrival at a famous, high-end store that makes custom-designed hats for the rich sparks a chain of violent events. Her heritage is revealed in an entrancing prologue, played by the mesmerising Juli Jakab.
Nemes’ intention, I feel, for setting this story against a Budapest at the cusp of change (as WWI looms, though war did not quite cross anyone’s mind at that time), and featuring a young female protagonist who must face her fears and chart her own path towards justice and truth, was to give history—inasmuch as it is romanticised for its rich and colourful time—an acute sense of experiential authencity as intense as the much bleaker and disturbing Son of Saul.
The result is a work far too sprawling and technical for me to want to invest in emotionally. It is no doubt breathtaking to see a filmmaker sticking to his guns, but while Sunset is an admirable work in itself, one could argue that Nemes’ technique is not always indispensable to the storytelling.