In 1913, Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) travels to Budapest where she hopes to become a milliner at Leiter, the hat store once owned by her parents. She is turned away by its new owner, Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov), then presented with a new, more mysterious connection to her past, Kálmán Leiter, a brother she never knew she had as the world she thinks she knows is approaching its “Sunset.”
With his sophomore film, “Son of Saul” writer/director László Nemes confirms his unique cinematic sensibility with a lone protagonist caught up in ugly historical violence and degradation. This is a film of constant questions but no answers, Irisz buffeted between a debauched nobility exploiting the working class and murderous anarchists targeting the rich, events which catalyzed WWI. As in “Son of Saul,” cinematographer Mátyás Erdély keeps his focus so tightly on the main character, we must often intuit external information from our peripheral vision, the effect keeping us in a dreamlike state which turns into a nightmare.
Our introduction to Irisz establishes her as a character who will be difficult to assess. A black veil is lifted from an extravagantly chic broad brimmed hat revealing a young woman in happy reverie. An unseen showgirl fits others, the last, a masculine looking brimmed and buckled cloche, before understanding that Irisz is not a customer but a job applicant at the luxury shop. Miss Zelma (Evelin Dobos) sweeps her off to meet Brill, who seems unsettled by this ghost from his business’s past (‘Why did you come here after all that happened?’). He claims his positions are filled, but offers her a place to stay. The shop is abuzz with secretive plans for high ranking visitors during a jubilee celebration.
Irisz, who never regains that initial blissful expression, is regarded with suspicion by the female milliners at Leiter, bedding down for the night in a hostile environment. She’s awoken in the middle of the night by Gaspar (Levente Molnár) in what first seems like an attempted rape. The coachman claims he can take her to see her brother.
This is one bold young woman. She crashes the outdoor Leiter celebration, observing the oddly disheveled Countess Rédey (Julia Jakubowska) as gossip swirls. She ventures out at night to connect with her brother, instead findinga secret gathering for men only behind closed doors. Is he an assassin protecting the Countess or the murderous madman Brill eventually describes? And what of the ‘special choosing’ of a female Leiter employee by a Man in White (Björn Freiberg) in service to the Viennese Prince? Irisz inserts herself into these events as well, a phantom Zelig witnessing madness unfold at every turn. She veers between allegiance to her brother’s mysterious rebellion and the family business, her actions increasingly desperate, nothing every becoming distinct in this fog of a pre-war world. Irisz shifts into the male guise hinted at in the opening scene in order to infiltrate Kálmán closed meeting. When we last see her, she is still a ‘he,’ embedded in the trenches of a battlefield.
“Sunset” will likely prove frustrating for many, Nemes’s very particular approach plunging his audience into Irisz’s volatile and unknowable situation, but the filmmaker has captured the uncertainty of radical history with compelling artistic control.
Robin gives "Sunset" a B.
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