In short order, László Nemes has established himself as a director fascinated by creating for the audience disorientation within a physical space and historical context. His Oscar-winning debut Son of Saul tightly followed an enigmatic protagonist in the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, keeping the horrors of the Holocaust on the fringes of the frame as it examined the personal void of despair. His follow-up Sunset maintains that tightly framed hounding of his central character, but virtually none of its impact or balance between disorientation and complete perplexion at what we are watching unfold.
Sunset is outright shocking in its refusal to assist the audience with necessary information, a high-risk dramatic gamble that doesn’t pay off. Instead, Nemes presents a vision built to confuse with condescension, one that effectively isolates but struggles to function as anything but a labored temporal exercise. In every way that Son of Saul was a visceral and illuminating experience, Sunset aggravates by becoming a distancing and goofishly incomprehensible one.
The film carries an undeveloped sense of coming cataclysm, set in the days before the onset of WWI. The young Íritz Leiter, played by the methodically stoic Juli Jakab) arrives in Budapest, hoping to return as a milliner to the upstanding hat couturier formerly owned by her family. Met with unwavering hostility and knowing resentment by the city, Íritz remains to uncover her familial ties, revealing a rot at the core of this high society both named and unnamed. Don’t expect the allegory to illuminate beyond “structured, fragile chaos as cultural concept”.
Jakab (quite arresting in her brief scene in Son of Saul) is directed into rigid vacancy here, scarcely registering Íritz as a woman with any discernible traits – Nemes isn’t satisfied to distance us with the composition of the film, he also demands a central performance that gives us nothing to cling to. Not only is Íritz seldom more than a cipher, but Nemes stages her to snoozily wander through his cityscape without expression. The ensemble around her is a confusing assemblage of indistinguishable sophisticates both bearded and corseted, but all with the same scorn. All textures blend together into one flat tapestry of elusiveness.
Nemes has delivered a follow-up that almost immediately devolves into a quagmire of pretentious affectation. It becomes a laughable display of grimaces shot exclusively in close-ups, like watching pissed off housecats approach eachother in a standoff for two hours. Or like watching someone else play the kind of video game where you can approach any random townsperson and they knows all of your business but remains nameless. It’s like the dreariest pose off and the category is Fascism.
Tonally, it’s easy to see the kind of wide cultural behavior Nemes wishes to explore here. While he effectively creates that disposition, it lacks depth when there is such thin narrative context to explore it in and stretched to lugubrious length. It’s even meticulously crafted to no rewarding end – more conceivable in its detail than realized, we get the sense of a fully assembled stage that Nemes plops us into without ever understanding the space we inhabit. Sunset leaves so much to our imagination – the political, the physical, the emotional – that it becomes the most frustrating of head-scratchers. It’s never entirely absorbing, never entirely astute, and it’s seldom convincing.
Perhaps time and context will help reveal Sunset‘s potential wisdom, but it stands currently as a cynical misstep on narrative clarity and a very blunt instrument in portraying a widespread cultural disease in our history. Worse yet, it makes you question our response to the director’s previous work. Maybe Nemes’ stellar debut only made sense because of the known information we as an audience brought to the table.