Bewilderment and decadence in pre-1914 Budapest
- Sunset review by PD
László Nemes’ film is set in Budapest on the brink of World War I and depicts a refined world careering towards chaos - his aim being to capture with disorienting images the period just before Europe’s leaders committed collective suicide. Some reviewers have suggested that “Sunset” could be his flip-side to Murnau’s “Sunrise”, a film similarly tackling human emotions buffeted by modernity, but for me I was more reminded of Holly Martins’ flailing attempts at constructing meaning in post-war Vienna during his search for the ‘third man’.
Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) arrives in Budapest from Trieste looking for work at the city’s most renowned millinery establishment, which not coincidentally bears her name. Orphaned in mysterious circumstances (never revealed) at the age of two, she’s trying to connect with her legacy through the shop her parents once owned, but the new proprietor Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov) sends her away, clearly threatened by her presence. Stepping out of the boutique’s rarefied atmosphere into the cacophonous streets of 1913 Budapest thrusts her into the jarring hubbub of modernity. At a boarding house she’s attacked by Gáspár (Levente Molnár), an unstable coachman muttering something about the Leiter son; Irisz knows nothing about a brother, so tries to find some answers. The information she gathers is fragmentary and troubling, but she persists in her search, which is full of strange encounters with menacing figures who hint at things without ever revealing anything concrete.
By this time, it becomes obvious that script narrative coherence isn’t what Nemes is aiming for, and making sense out of how people are connected Dickens-style is something of a lost cause. But in terms of sheer visual impact, Mátyás Erdély’s screenplay impresses, wandering through the impressive sets with a dreamlike episodic quality worthy of Kubrick, as Irisz keeps searching for answers neither she (nor the audience) ever find. The mystery here is in what’s happening rather than why - the film creates a destabilising atmosphere in which the decadent upper classes indulge in perverse machinations while the city around them seethes with discontent and violence. This is all of course leading to an inevitable clash, which Nemes (perhaps unnecessarily obviously) thrusts home with a final shot in the trenches, which is presumably a premonition of an impending catastrophic war and a change in the world order, a bleak reminder of the carnage that marked the start of the modern era. Nemes pointedly uses an array of ultra-splendid hats as symbols of extravagant uselessness soon to be tossed onto the bonfire begun in Sarajevo, although here they remain objects of beauty rather than something, aka ladies’ day at Ascot, merely something to be ridiculed.
Jakab is barely off screen, often seen from behind as the camera prowls near her neck much as it trailed Géza Röhrig in ‘A Son of Saul’. And Erdély’s screenplay is used to disorientate, to deliver a deliberately convoluted narrative of a disconnected nightmare. As a result, the film will divide audiences, and many will find it totally unwatchable, but as long as you can cope with the lack of a conventional narrative thread, there’s much to admire here.
2 out of 2 members found this review helpful.
Fascinating, but not for everyone
- Sunset review by JB
László Nemes has created an intoxicating film here... I found it completely absorbing and almost hypnotising although I understand why some find it dull and incomprehensible. But there's clearly nothing like it.
Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) is quite a blank central character. Which can be frustrating, particularly because she's barely ever offscreen. From the opening minutes, it looks like she will spend the course of the film pounding the streets of pre WW1 Budapest trying to locate the brother who she's only just discovered exists and become less opaque. But it becomes apparent that director Nemes is more interested in finding out about the soul of Budapest and Hungary... And exposing the corruption of the elites and the simmering tension on the streets. The blankness of Irisz then makes more sense... She's an everyman type, and a focal point the events can reflect off. This becomes particularly clear when we see the unsettling relationship between the millinery company she initially wants to work for and the royal court.
This makes it all sound horribly dry but I'm pleased to say it's really not. What makes it work is the atmosphere, the glorious costumes and sets, the epic setpieces we only glimpse (the fair/festival in particular), the camera work, the point of view it's all told from. Like Son of Saul, Nemes' camera stays in tight close shot to the protagonist. It's history from an incredibly intimate, human vantage point. We see the grime on the otherwise glorious period costumes as they sweep across the dirty city streets. We see the frustrations in the eyes of the workers.
Perhaps it's too long, perhaps it did need a stronger backbone of plot. But taken on its own terms, it's unique and kind of wonderful.
2 out of 2 members found this review helpful.
- Sunset review by as
It was always going to be a hard act to follow up the exceptional 'Son of Saul'. Whilst beautifully filmed with some lovely contrast scenes between the light and dark. I am afraid that the film, starts off with a story, it then looks like the rest was patched up as it went along which leave the viewer or me anyway, completely baffled as to were it was going and sadly before the end not caring.
1 out of 1 members found this review helpful.