The unfortunately ambiguous title of Sunset refers to the European aristocracy in the years before World War I. The point of view character is Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), a young woman who has returned to Budapest, Hungary, from her boarding school to get a job in the high-end millinery shop that still bears her family name. Her parents died mysteriously long ago; the hat shop has an impervious new owner. Írisz soon learns she has a brother she didn’t know about, and he’s some kind of criminal or anarchist, and she starts searching the dark reaches of the city to learn more.
She wanders for most of two hours and twenty-two minutes, returning often to the socially symbolic millinery, and the camera never leaves her. It follows her like a shadow, peering over her shoulder, taking her point of view or skittering backwards in front of her as she walks, fixed on her face. The long, smooth, unbroken handheld tracking shots take viewers into complicated and richly imagined spaces but rarely give them a chance to orient themselves.
This filmmaking style will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Son of Saul, the first feature by Hungarian director László Nemes. Set in a World War II death camp, Saul presents its horrors through the subjective experiences of its main character, and it won worldwide acclaim and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film three years ago.
Sunset achieves a similar feat with the unrest of 1910s Hungary, where royals and aristocrats exploit the poor for their pleasure with no awareness that it’s all about to come crashing down. Saul was a nightmare, while Sunset is more of a fever dream. It’s generally mesmerizing, and lead actress Jakab holds the audiences’s attention as she goes out on her usually unexplained explorations. The growing chaos and a series of disturbing, violent events are portrayed as sometimes out-of-focus backdrops for Írisz’s search for herself.
It’s pointless to try to summarize more of the plot because much of it remains ambiguous. Everyone in Sunset peppers everyone else with questions, and never are any of them directly answered. Some information is meted out visually — what does that prince really want with the shopgirl? what are the anarchists planning? — while other plot holes remain unfilled to the end.
Sunset is a movie that favors craftsmanship over storytelling, mood over clarity. Its other recent parallel is Roma, since both movies stage grand, historical events involving dozens or hundreds of extras that are filmed from a detached, often distant point of view in long, unedited shots. Both films appeal primarily to viewers who will appreciate the craft and forgive a certain emotional distance.
But while Roma remains meticulously grounded — in one well-delineated family and an adherence to a kind of hyperrealism — Sunset weaves a dreamy tapestry of impressions and inference. Viewers who can detach themselves from the need for resolution may be swept up in Nemes’s richly imagined world of dread and doom and beautiful hats.
Grade: B. Rated R. Opens May 10 at Grail Moviehouse.
(Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)