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A hat is a covering for the head; whether decorative or practical, by its very nature it obscures. Appropriate, then, that this prettified, disorienting second feature from Hungarian film-maker László Nemes (known for 2015’s Oscar-winning Son of Saul) takes place in a millinery.
In Budapest, a year before the start of the first world war, 20-year-old orphan Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) arrives at the hat shop her parents once owned, looking for a connection to her past. Leiter’s has been taken over by the slick, bearded Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov), who insists there are no positions for our behatted heroine, and so Írisz must find a family connection elsewhere. When she hears a rumour that she might have a brother named Kálmán, she sets about finding him – a trickier task than it sounds, given that he’s disappeared after supposedly (and brutally) murdering a count. Decadence, a dismembering, secret societies, not to mention the hats: on paper, the film’s plot sounds baroque, but its tone is severe.
Írisz investigates a palace later invaded by anarchists, hitches rides with dodgy coachmen, finds she is nifty with an oar; her delicate features and paranoid breathlessness disguise a keen survival instinct. Her search for Kálmán is admirably dogged but increasingly difficult to follow as Nemes introduces characters without clarifying how they might relate to one another.
If this withholding was a dramatic device that built to a revelation, fine, but he is more interested in creating an atmosphere of sludgy terror. This is emphasised by Mátyás Erdély’s intimate, handheld cinematography; the camera stays close to Írisz, fixing on the back of her neck and swirling around her as violence and sexual threat loom out of focus at the edge of the frame. The film’s formal qualities obscure Nemes’s intentions instead of illuminating them. It’s all too vague to function effectively as either a commentary on the build-up to the Great War or as the story of a woman looking to find her place in a city predicated on rigid, gender-determined hierarchies.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Sunset review – murky Hungarian drama | Film