When László Nemes burst onto the scene with his debut feature Son of Saul, he was met with overwhelming critical acclaim that culminated in an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language category. One of the aspects of Saul that was praised was the use of shallow focus lensing and a muffled audio landscape to mirror the inner world of the protagonist, a Sonderkommando doing the dirty cleanup work for the Nazis in Auschwitz’s gas chambers. The intense camerawork that never let Saul out of sight, often coming up close behind him, created an atmosphere of claustrophobia that didn’t make for pleasant viewing but formed an uncompromising marriage between form and content, a grim look into the soul of a broken human being.
In his second feature Sunset, Nemes employs the same visual technique of closely following his protagonist, though with decidedly less success. While the handheld camera that follows the main character around like a fly to some extent enhances the urgency felt in actress Juli Jakab’s portrayal, it is the events portrayed that make you question where said urgency comes from. Jakab plays Írisz Leiter, a young woman returning to Budapest on the brink of World War I to find employ in an exclusive and legendary hat store that once belonged to her now deceased parents. The owner (Vlad Ivanov), a man by the name of Brill, turns her away, but her persistence leads him to later welcome her into the fold. Before Brill’s change of heart a mysterious man tells Írisz that she has a brother, Kálmán, of whom she had no prior knowledge. Írisz tries to follow the footsteps of this Kálmán to figure out her unclear past, and this entangles her in events that would eventually lead to the start of World War I (in part instigated by the Austro-Hungarian empire of which Budapest was obviously an important part).
The problem is that while doing all this, Írisz also has a plot to follow at the hat store, which is in preparation for a visit from an Austrian princess (it is not quite clear which historical ‘princess’ this is). The arrival of such a prominently political figure inevitably means the two storylines will converge, but they never really gel. Nemes wants to at once tell a very personal tale about a young woman with no past on the search for an elusive brother who can help her find it, as well as portray the end of an era and the downfall of a society. But as Írisz has no personal connection to the political events other than a never-shown Kálmán seemingly being a leader of a political underground, her inner turmoil and the turmoil on the streets of Budapest coming together feels forced.
It is not clear what, if any, point Nemes is trying to make here. The political machinations are too unexplained and only seem dragged into the story to give Írisz’s quest more heft. Far reaching decisions by those in power have devastating consequences for common people, but after Nemes delved into the depths of the human psyche in his debut, Sunset offers far less insight into the effects of such decisions on Írisz. Jakab certainly gives it her all, and Írisz continuously seems on the verge of exploding, but what she mostly acts out is her despair in the search for her brother and her past. The other events do not seem to affect her as much and are only a hindrance in the quest for Kálmán. Jakab is in virtually every frame of the film, and her eyes, face, and body language display every withheld emotion in raging calmness, in a performance that holds the film together.
These emotions are the results of personal circumstances though. As such, the effects of Mátyás Erdély’s camerawork are confusing. Eschewing the shallow focus of Son of Saul (though inexplicably used in a few instances), the ‘close quarters’ type of shooting keeps us close to Írisz’s state of mind but is not always congruent with what she witnesses. This robs some scenes of their importance and only creates chaos, both in the frame and in the viewer’s mind. In itself the cinematography is tremendous, and the use of light (artificial or otherwise) and darkness outstanding, but thematically it does not always make sense, which is a shame after the on-point work in Saul.
The consequence of working on the two different planes of Írisz’s personal story and the society-changing events taking hold of pre-war Budapest, yet also trying to tie the two together, is that Sunset feels like two films stuffed into a bloated short selling of either. That may sound like a contradiction, but after well over two hours the film has told us very little about Írisz’s background or the lead-up to one of the bloodiest conflicts in history. The screenplay, written by Nemes together with Clara Royer (also a co-writer on Son of Saul) and Matthieu Taponier, is high on events but low on relevance. Mystery is woven into the story but never solved. This leaves us with a film that doesn’t have a lot to say, which is a disappointment after Son of Saul‘s poignant comment on the human soul at the base of what it means to be human. Sunset is an empty film, pretty to look at (costume and production design are expectedly sumptuous) and with a strong central performance, but with very little lingering thought.