“Sunset,” the new film from “Son of Saul” writer/director László Nemes, is an ambitious and engrossing tale.
Intimate in its approach, fraught with tension and mystery, it draws you in and does not let go until its final images and moments.
It can be ponderous at times, and it doesn’t fully reach its considerable potential. But overall it is a captivating and immersive viewing experience.
What’s it about?
“Sunset” focuses on Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), a young woman orphaned at the age of two who audiences meet when she returns to her parents’ world-renowned milliner’s shop in pre-World War I Budapest.
Initially there just in search of work in the place where she was born, Irisz quickly learns much has changed since she’s been gone. A new owner, Oszkar Brill (Vlad Ivanov), runs the Leiter shop, which he rebuilt after a fire and returned to glory as a center of fashion and culture in the rapidly growing city.
She also finds just about all doors surprisingly closed to her, even the ones with her name on them. As people learn who she is or figure out who she resembles, she draws looks conveying everything from pity to suspicion to outright fear.
It turns out the Leiter name earned a scandalous association while Irisz was away, one that Brill has worked hard to wipe away from his business.
While he refuses to hire her for the store, Brill does take Irisz in for one night on condition she leaves Budapest the following day. But she refuses, choosing instead to unravel for herself the mystery behind the sullying of her family’s name.
That journey leads the young woman to discover not only dark secrets about her own family, but also the powder keg of societal tension set to explode beneath the city’s veneer of wealth and sophistication.
Tight narrative focus
Nemes establishes right away in “Sunset” how he wishes to tell this story. He keeps his narrative lens tight near his lead performer at all times, letting her expressions and reactions convey much of the emotion in what unfolds.
Considering this is a sprawling period piece, it’s a fascinating choice to adopt a “less-is-more” approach. For the most part, it pays off: by keeping the camera within Irisz’s intimate space for most of the film, Nemes only allows audiences to see what he wants them to see as Irisz sees them.
The minimalist tact doesn’t just extend to camerawork. Nemes’s script is also relatively sparse for a two-hour-plus film. There’s no exposition here, no fat to trim — just the characters reacting to one another and their surroundings as the world around them slowly, painfully unravels.
Nemes’s approach produces a remarkably entertaining trip down the proverbial rabbit hole. “Sunset” is a beautiful work of film, and that’s in the literal as well as figurative sense — Nemes shot this on physical film rather than in a digital medium.
It’s important to note that not all of it works. Juli Jakab’s work as Irisz feels limited at times in terms of range of expression. As the camera never leaves her side and often focuses on her face, after a while her efforts to wordlessly convey intensity, confusion, or emotional distance all start to look the same.
Perhaps that was Nemes’s intent. If so, it may prove too restrained, too understated to appeal to a wide audience.
Patience is key to getting the most out of “Sunset.” Go in prepared for a slow burn and you shouldn’t be disappointed.
Starring Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov, Marcin Czarnik, Evelin Dobos, and Judit Bárdos. Directed by László Nemes.
Running time: 142 minutes
Rated R for some violence.