In Laszlo Nemes’ 2015 Oscar-winning film “Son of Saul,” the Hungarian filmmaker followed a hollow-eyed, bewildered protagonist on a chaotic journey. The audience is plunged into the terrifying world of Auschwitz as a Jewish prisoner attempts to assert a shred of humanity from within a death machine. With his follow-up, “Sunset,” Nemes once again follows another hollow-eyed and bewildered individual on a journey into a heart of darkness, but with less context, more plot and unfortunately, greatly diminished returns.
“Sunset” takes place in 1913 Budapest, in the world of rich, powerful … hat makers? Yes, millinery is the name of the game in this sophisticated city, where nefarious characters jockey for royal favors, sow chaos and enjoy a hedonistic existence in the waning days of peace just before World War I. At the center of it all is a young woman, Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), an orphan who has returned to Budapest to seek employment at the Leiter hat shop, which belonged to her parents before their untimely deaths.
The story of “Sunset” is one of rejection and refusal, as Irisz spends her time pressing herself into places she shouldn’t be, asking questions no one wants to answer. Someone makes a passing mention about a brother, and her quest moves from employment to finding the relative she never knew she had.
She gains entry to the inner world of the Leiter shop, ruled by the shady Oszkar (Vlad Ivanov) and his band of beautiful mean-girl milliners, and even into the palatial estate of an eccentric countess (Julia Jakubowska), who may or may not have known her brother and is currently entangled in an abusive relationship with a sinister dandy from Vienna (Christian Harting).
Eventually Irisz’s quest evolves yet again, as she attempts to uncover what she considers to be a human-trafficking conspiracy involving the royal family and the young beauties of Leiter.
Using a similar cinematic style to “Son of Saul,” Nemes’ camera dutifully follows his protagonist as she’s rushed, pushed and trundled from place to place. This close follow makes it so we only see the environment through the immediate physical space she occupies — there are no establishing shots and rarely a cutaway. There is a sense of immediacy, but physically and narratively it is stifling.
Nemes captures the sense of confusion Irisz experiences, as a horde of almost identical mustachioed men come and go in a parade of physical imposition and near-violence. That confusion is transferred to the audience, and sustained for the entirety. Nemes doesn’t clarify Irisz’s intentions or her state of mind, as Jakab steadily performs her role with a silent consternation.
Themes, metaphors and messages roil under the surface of the film, but rarely emerge fully formed. Below the pleasure, finery and manners of this world, corruption and rot linger, occasionally bursting forth in riotous violence. But Nemes doesn’t explore this beyond indicating its existence. A single shot that serves as an epilogue is the closest the film gets to a message. While the stultifying style of “Sunset” expresses urgency and immediacy from moment to moment, it never, ever elucidates or illuminates.
★★ “Sunset,” with Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov, Christian Harting, Julia Jakubowska. Written and directed by Laszlo Nemes. 142 minutes. Rated R for some violence. Opens April 26 at the Varsity.