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László Nemes, Hungarian director of the Oscar-winning Holocaust tragedy Son of Saul, now comes to Venice with this lucid nightmare of a film about pre-first-world-war Budapest. It’s a very mysterious and even bizarre film in many ways, shot in what is becoming Nemes’ signature style: long takes, a persistent closeup on the lead character’s face, and a shallow focus that allows the surrounding reality to intrude only intermittently. The dialogue is often spoken in a subdued murmur, as if each speaker is in possession of a secret.
Sunset is an occult mystery drama about the fin-de-siècle anxieties of the dying Austro-Hungarian empire. It takes place in Budapest in 1913, with a distinctly disturbing coda in the wartime trenches, a setting that is itself ambiguously real or imagined. All the fears and premonitions of war and the violent overturning of an old order are projected on to an elegant hat store in the city. There is disorder in the air; the film has something of Conrad’s The Secret Agent and also, in one scene concerning a fortune teller, Eliot’s The Waste Land. I also found myself thinking of the Jonass & Co department store in 1920s Berlin, whose Jewish owners were evicted in 1933 after which the building was the official premises of the Nazis, and subsequently used by the East German communists after the war. (It is now the premises of the Soho House Berlin members’ club.)
Juli Jakab plays Irisz Leiter, a beautiful, intense but haunted young woman (with a faint look of Emma Watson) who has come to Budapest with the intention of applying for a job as a milliner at the celebrated Leiter store, founded by her late parents. They died in a fire on the premises after which the store was rebuilt and re-established as a lucrative concern, keeping the brand name of Leiter by a sleek businessman, Oszkár Brill, played by Vlad Ivanov.
The catastrophe that killed her mother and father happened when she was two, after which she was placed with a family in Vienna, where she has been working with a milliner. But now Irisz has returned, on a mission to find the truth about her brother, whose existence in Budapest is a shadowy and terrifying rumour. He is thought to have caused the fire himself, to have made an attempt on the life of Brill and murdered a certain count whose wealthy but disturbed and drug-addicted widow now hosts fashionable musical soirees for the cream of society.
A coachman called Gaspar (Levente Molnár) knows where Irisz’s brother may be found: he is now involved with a criminal gang of robbers who have what could be anarcho-nationalist or separatist leanings, resenting the haughty German-speaking royalty from Vienna. And the awful truth is that Brill continues to cultivate a special relationship with this alien ruling class. It is not simply that the royals are the most prestigious hat-buying customers; Brill maintains a stable of beautiful young women as his milliners, the most favoured of whom will be selected as an employee of the royals, perhaps as a kind of lady-in-waiting, although Nemes’ drama suggests something more sordid or obscurely sacrificial than even this. As someone says to Irisz about the Leiter hats: “The horror of the world hides beneath these infinitely pretty things.”
Irisz and Nemes’ camera move through the city and through the drama as if in a dream. The film does not have the traditional structure and variation of pace that might accompany a conventional drama about a woman – or indeed a man – progressively discovering the truth. Irisz and her brother are maybe not so very far from Holly Martins and Harry Lime in The Third Man.
Nemes shoots the city in bleached-out colours, a kind of sepia style, and Budapest is brought to life as if in one of the picture postcards of the era. There are some wonderful set pieces, particularly a little party that Brill puts on in a park to advertise the store, complete with hot-air balloon. But beneath this outward display of celebratory prosperity there is something dark, fetishistic and mad: a premonition of tyranny and war. An entirely absorbing film.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Sunset review – intrigue and terror as the shadow of war falls on Budapest | Venice film festival 2018