SUNSET is the latest offering from the gifted and refreshing Laszlo Nemes, Hungarian director of the multi-award winning Son Of Saul (2015) – a film about Saul Auslander, a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz concentration camp.
Sunset is a deliberately complex film – a ‘labyrinth’ according to Nemes – that is set in Budapest in the run up to the outbreak of the First World War and the imminent break-up of the commanding Austro-Hungarian empire. It’s also ‘audacious and ambitious’ (Ian Haydn Smith, hugely respected editor of Curzon magazine).
Some will love it, but others for sure will find it frustrating and perplexing which no doubt will please Nemes – after all, he does not aim to pander to his audiences but to get them thinking independently and their minds working overtime. Mesmerising one moment, rather maddening the next.
The film’s central character is Irisz Leiter (a beautifully fragile Juli Jakab) who travels to Budapest – a City awash with wealth, horse drawn carriages, lace and hats – in the hope of getting a job as a milliner at the store that her parents ran until they died in a mysterious fire on the premises.
The store is now owned by a ruthless and driven businessman Oszkar Brill (Vlad Ivanov) who is happy to pander to the empire’s monarchy and their every wish – even allowing them to pick off his most attractive employees for their own use (work or pleasure). All suspiciously sordid.
Irisz, we learn, was only two when the fire happened and was immediately packed off to Vienna and foster parents. But she’s very much in the family tradition (a skilled milliner) and her mission is not merely employment at Leiter. She wants to find out whether there is any truth in the rumour that it was her brother who caused the fire – as well as attempt to murder Brill and kill the husband (a count, no less) of a seriously disturbed (and drug dependant) widow – excellently played by Julia Jakubowska.
Through Irisz’s search for her brother, the viewer is drawn into the City’s dark underbelly where anarchists appear intent on making the ruling class’s lives sheer hell. There is murder, robbery and much more besides. Throughout the carnage, the chaos and all the skulduggery, Irisz remains remarkably calm – even when accosted by coachman (Levente Molnar) in her hotel room.
It’s all rather difficult to fathom out and the film’s ending – depicting Irisz in a battlefield trench – is as baffling as it is disturbing. A premonition of an impending catastrophic war and a change in the world order? As Nemes would say, it’s for us to work out – ‘you don’t tell the audience what to think’ (his words when answering questions from an audience at Curzon Soho in London earlier this month).
Sunset is beautifully shot on 35 millimetre film and the camera work of Matyas Erdely (much of it hand-held) is to be admired – as is the musical score of Laszlo Melis.
This is a film that will divide opinion. But it confirms Nemes’s brilliance. A director who will simply not compromise his cinematic principles.