Mysteries, in film, don’t have to be solved and sometimes shouldn’t be. A mystery plot can be a jumping-off point for more abstract or character-driven concerns, which of course doesn’t excuse the rote and careless incorporation of genre elements into a film. Such is the fatal flaw of László Nemes’s Sunset.
Striving to tell a heady, metaphorically rich tale of corruption and cultural cleansing. Nemes loses sight of the basic mechanics of plot and scene work that are necessary for his film to form a coherent, meaningful whole.
Nemes’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning Son of Saul takes place in the courtly, stratified society of Hungry in 1913, a land abundant in top hats, lanterns, and horse-drawn carriages. Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), young and strong-willed, arrives in Budapest to petition. That for a job at the famous Leiter hat store once owned by her parents. They perished in the fire that burned the store to the ground.
It’s since been rebuilt and restored to its former glory. That by the gray-bearded, buttoned-up, and over-paternal Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov). Intrigued by Irisz’s pedigree, he offers her a position on the spot. So far so good, but that night, a hysterical man breaks into her room and rants cryptically about a lost brother. Sándor (Marcin Czarnik), who she soon discovers vanished years ago after killing a local nobleman.
And so a mystery plot is kicked into motion. Where is Sándor? Why did he do what he did? What will he do next?
And to work through these questions, and to keep us engage and hopeful of answers, Sunset is entirely dependent on Irisz. Nemes makes her the center of every scene. We only experience what she experiences, and we know the other characters only as she knows them. While cinematographer Mátyás Erdély’s camera is fluid, and will occasionally turn in the direction of her gaze, or tarry a moment, or anticipate her. That for the most part it’s content to simply follow Irisz, often in close-up, as she makes her way around Budapest.
There’s grace in the sinuous way that the camera maneuvers through crowds, around carriages, in an out of rooms, up and down stairs, through fields of darkness and shadow. But from a story perspective, our being yoke persistently to Irisz’s side becomes constraining. Nemes allows himself no cutaways, which can make conveying off-screen information a bit of a challenge. As in the few cases where he has to conspicuously resort to having Irisz overhear important information from conversations between bystanders.
This self-imposed limitation to Irisz’s point of view could have been an opportunity for some bravura plotting, but as Sunset develops, there’s little emphasis on fashioning a fiendish mystery.
Clues are scattere around, such us our finding out that Sándor once worked for Oszkár. That the nobleman he murdered was an abusive husband, and that Sándor has made threats against the Budapest elite. But there’s a difficult and exacting art to making these scraps of information build on each other, and the film doesn’t care to practice it. Instead of coalescing, the plot is constantly striking off onto tangents: a hidden room that must be uncovere, a murky secret society. Throughout, there’s less a sense of a picture slowly coming into focus than of a penlight jabbing haphazardly on a dark canvas.
Worse, there’s a lack of conviction to Sunset’s middle section. When the film is lengthily but almost grudgingly occupie with developing its genre elements. Irisz is seen running from place to place, encountering various stock situations: She goes to an orphanage to find out more about her brother, only to be stonewall. And later she pays a visit to a key character at just the precise time that another one happens to show up so that she can witness the pair interact.
These are scenes that in another film might have been used to build suspense, or to establish and vivify characters, or even to simply offer up stylish versions of classic situations. Here, the only real function of these scenes is practical: to move Irisz around the map so that she can collect various bits of information relevant to the plot. Surprisingly little would be lost from the film if her findings were simply provide in an intertitle.
In its final third, Sunset opens up, bending toward the surreal.
The pace quickens as Irisz tracks down her brother, and a coterie of ominous aristocrats arrive on the scene to menace her. Paradoxically, however, as the film is becoming more interesting on a moment-to-moment basis. It signals with all of this commotion that it has no plans to tidily resolve any of the central mysteries on which it’s been spending so much desultory effort.
Here, Nemes is aiming to transfigure his plot into a commentary on, well, several issues: classicism, sexism, decadence, and the looming world war. There’s no reason this can’t work on a conceptual level. But all those themes are overwhelme by the quotidian workings of the mystery plot. They’ve been too muted up to this point to suddenly carry the whole weight of the film’s conclusion. In short, Nemes caps a historical mystery with a 30-some-odd-minute blitz of hypnagogic symbolism. And as neither stretch succeeds on its own merits, Susnet simply feels like two films awkwardly affix to one another.
Rating: R (for some violence)
Directed By: László Nemes
Stars: Susanne Wuest, Vlad Ivanov, Björn Freiberg
Written By: László Nemes, Clara Royer, Matthieu Taponier
In Theaters: Mar 22, 2019 Limited
Runtime: 144 minutes
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
CRITIC REVIEWS FOR SUNSET (NAPSZÁLLTA)
Nothing is ever quite clear – often literally, because Nemes likes to keep the middle-distance out of focus. It was chillingly effective in Son of Saul. Here it’s just deadening.
Maybe doesn’t amount to much, but it’s compelling as all hell, and Juli Jakab is a major find.
Perhaps Nemes was hoping to let the precision of his intricately staged images artfully clash with the absurdity of a chaotic plot. But the result is more tedious than tense.
Oblique, often beguiling, and portentously cryptic, the film offers no satisfying solution.