In 1913, a young woman named Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) arrives in Budapest and visits a store once owned by her parents. After a bit of confusion, she reveals that she’s seeking work as a milliner. The shop’s new owner, Ozkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov, the creepy abortionist from 4 Days, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), knows who she is and can’t get rid of her fast enough—for one thing, the shop is preparing for a 30th-anniversary celebration, and for another, he is definitely not interested in stirring up the past. Fortunately (or otherwise this would be the world’s shortest film), Irisz is a determined young woman who is done taking other people’s words for anything, so she takes a room in a boarding house and continues to investigate what actually happened to her family (she was orphaned at age 2 and has always been told that her biological family died in a fire).
It’s no accident that the Leiters were high-end milliners, because ladies of the day required elaborate hats in the latest fashion just to be considered properly dressed (one of the many unofficial taxes imposed on women, while men could make do with a bowler on pretty much all occasions). The profession of millinery is a handy example of something that will soon be coming to an end (at least as a mainstream business), with World War I just around the corner. Another, far more major thing upon which the sun will soon set is the Austro-Hungarian empire itself. We know that the social arrangements of the Old World are about to be set on their ear, and the map of Europe rearranged dramatically, but of course the characters haven’t an inkling of this, and thus Sunset takes place in an atmosphere heavy with dramatic irony.
Sunset is an interesting choice of second feature for László Nemes, who also co-wrote the script with Clara Royes and Matthieu Taponier. Nemes rightly earned international acclaim for his first full-length film, the Oscar-winning Son of Saul, and in some aspects the two films are radically different—while Son of Saul takes place in the manmade hell of Auschwitz, Sunset celebrates the opulence of upper-class, turn of the century Budapest. Costume designer Györgyi Szakács, production designer László Rajk, and art director Dorka Kiss all deserve Oscar nominations for their work, and if you’re into hats, this is definitely your movie. On the other hand, not all is sweetness and light in Sunset—as one character puts it, “The horror of the world hides behind these infinitely pretty things”—and violence against women in particular is clearly a fact of life in this society. The cinematic style of the two films also has a lot in common—although Sunset is shot in widescreen and Son of Saul in Academy ratio, in both films the most typical shot uses shallow focus and close cropping. In Son of Saul this was practically a necessity to avoid overwhelming the viewer with horror, while in Sunset it keeps the focus firmly on Irisz and her experiences (Jakab is seldom not in a shot), underlining the fact that we only learn about things as she experiences them.
You need a lot of patience to enjoy Sunset, and not just because of its running time of 142 minutes. It’s about as arthouse as a film can be, withholding the usual pleasures of Hollywood filmmaking (including a clear story line) in favor of creating a specific sort of viewing experience that is deliberately opaque and relies heavily on atmosphere, keeping the viewer in a state of befuddlement similar to that experienced by Irisz herself. So it’s not a film for everyone, but for viewers willing to meet it on its own terms, Sunset provides a richly rewarding experience. | Sarah Boslaugh