AFI Fest 2018: Sunset, by David Bax
If, at any point in the years since 2015’s Son of Saul, you’ve found yourself thinking, “I wonder if László Nemes still likes close-ups,” then I can confirm, having seen his newest film, Sunset, that he does. He also maintains an affinity for shallow focus and extravagant costume and production design and for staging large scale scenes with scores of extras. These technical highlights, though, aren’t the only traits Sunset solidifies. It’s also, like its predecessor, fueled by an enormous self-regard and an affected gravity that may have been fitting for Son of Saul‘s Holocaust drama but can only come off as pompous in a story about an aspiring hat-maker.
Of course, I’m being facetious here. Sunset eventually has a larger story than the trials and tribulations of a wannabe milliner but it takes its time revealing it, far too often feeling like it’s treading water on the way to justifying its nearly two and a half hour runtime. Juli Jakab plays Írisz Leiter, the surviving daughter of pre-World War I hat shop owners who died tragically when she was two. Raised as an orphan in Trieste, she’s now come back to her parents’ hometown of Budapest to get a job at their old company. What she finds is that she’s not as welcome there as she hoped she’d be and that her family’s history runs deeper and darker in the city than she could have imagined.
Jakab, like Géza Röhrig in Saul, has to hold the frame with just her face for nearly the entire movie. Her Emma Watson-esque visage–youthful but contemplative–is well-suited to this level of attention. Her performance is both still and suggestive. Nemes’ returning collaborator, cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, is another strength, especially in his use of darkness; pause on any frame and it would be difficult to discern whether Jakab is emerging from it or being sucked into it. The celluloid blackness has a presence all its own.
Together, Jakab and Erdély bring a considerable beauty to Sunset, in strokes of grace that Nemes does his level best to obliterate with his bullheaded solemnity. The unrelentingly graveness of every situation in which Írisz finds herself becomes laughable, especially in scenes like the one at a sort of company picnic, where no one has much reason to be grave. Sunset begins to feel like nothing but a parade of ominous looks, as if Írisz has engaged in a 150-minute staring contest with everyone in Budapest. They all refuse to answer her questions, too, which gives the impression that they are all employed as characters in a Universal Studios haunted maze attraction (further solidified when one of them sternly warns her to “Leave this place!,” a suitably antiquated-sounding variation on “Get out!”). Nemes’ tactics here and his slavish devotion to a limited point of view also force him to once again rely on the crutch that was Son of Saul’s most glaring weakness, exposition shouted by unseen characters from out of frame like bad ADR.
In 2015, Nemes made a film about one of history’s most incomprehensible atrocities and was heavily awarded for it. This time, he seems to have cut out the middleman and made a film that serves nothing so much as his own ego.