With Son of Saul, Laszlo Nemes explored the very darkest chapter in Hungary’s history, and for his follow up film, Sunset, he looks at the moments before its death as a world power. Set in 1913, it’s filled with anxiety and premonitions of doom, exploding into life with destructive set-pieces that slowly bring Budapest to its knees just a year before the First World War put the nails in the coffin of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s a strange offering, both immersive and alienating, with a central conspiracy story that never reveals itself.
Though it’s less laser focused than its predecessor, Sunset will draw comparisons to Son of Saul for its commitment to having one single character at its centre at all times. This is Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), an orphan who returns to Budapest after decades away to uncover the mystery of the death of her parents in a fire and the rumours that she has a living brother. Nemes’s script is so completely opaque, though, that this story is impossible to untangle, and you’ll spend a good deal of Sunset stuck in a confusion as to what exactly is going on and why. Though Jakab gives a spirited performance, it’s hard to believe in Irisz as a character when her motivations and plans are so foggy.
With its mystery centring on a milliners, there’s also the problem that a lot of the revelatory and political rants and speeches repeatedly contain the phrase ‘hat shop’, which rather detracts from their seriousness. There’s a revolutionary group who pop up occasionally to wreak havoc, reminiscent in their impact of the Young Bosnia group who would go on to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand and inadvertently set in motion the events that killed Old Europe. Obscured as they are by the film’s steadfast refusal to be comprehensible, though, they add little of substance.
Technically, Sunset is wildly impressive, utilising similar agile camera tricks to Son of Saul and sticking with Irisz as she navigates various chaotic set-pieces. There’s an extraordinary amount of movement and detail in the backgrounds and locales of every shot of Sunset, and the stuffy but glamorous Ancien Regime splendour is skilfully recreated. But all this hard work is in the service of nothing in particular, with a deeply frustrating script refusing to make logical sense and lacking the intellectual chops to tackle the monumental questions it asks about the end of an era of civilisation.