Dir.: Laszlo Nemes; Cast: Juli Jacob, Oszkar Brill, Evelin Dubos, Marcin Czarnik, Julia Jakubowska, Christian Harting, Susanne Wuest; France/Hungary 2018, 142 min.
Director/co-writer Laszlo Nemes follows his Oscar-winning triumph of Son of Saul with a reconstruction of a world that has disappeared: Set in Budapest in 1913, it shows a city of complex contradictions: there are the cultural and aesthetic high points of fashion, architecture, music and philosophical ideas which gave Budapest the name of “Paris of the East” – but next to it existed another world: violent nationalism, which would erupt in in Sarajewo with the shooting of Emperor Franz Ferdinand in 1914, changing the face of Europe forever. Against the backdrop of this pre-war cauldron a girl is growing up.
A long opening shot leads us into this labyrinth of enigma, intrigue, hostility, greed and lust. Arriving from Triest, young Irisz Leiter (Jacob) guides us through scenes of ravishing elegance and cataclysmic violence. What seems utter chaos, gradually becomes more clear, as Irisz infiltrates the spider web, trying to piece together the answers to her own life.
An orphan, she left Budapest at the age of two after her parents’ death in a mysterious fire at their famous Leiter hat atelier, now run by the enigmatic manager Oszkar Brill (Ivanov). He rebuffs her plea for a job at first, but she inveigles her way into the company, aided by Brill’s haughty assistant Zelma (Dubos). Irisz uses the Leiter hat saloon as a base to look for her enigmatic brother Kalman, who has joined the Hungarian nationalists and is in hiding, purportedly having murdered Count Redey. Irisz discovers that Countess Redey (Jakubowska) was the victim of her sadistic husband, whose brother is still torturing her. But when she finally catches a glimpse of Kalman during a street riot, she is appalled to to find out he is the gang-leader in a group of violent mobsters, and tries to kill him. But Brill is equally guilty: Irisz discovers that he has been grooming his milliners to serve as courtesans to influential clients at the Vienna court – Zelma is intended to be his next victim, because she knows too much. But before he can realise his wicked plan, Kalman Leiter and his nationalist are on the rampage. Sunset ends in the trenches of the First World War, in a 65 mm epilogue, a tribute to Kubrick’s Paths of Glory.
Nemes pays homage to the late Gabor Body whose Narcissus and Psyche, echo in Sunset. On an historical level Mathias Erdely’s images conjure up the fin-de-siecle fragility in the same way as Gabor’s masterpiece. In contrast, Nemes sets his epic in Budapest (and not in the countryside) conveying the crumbling decadence in the urban splendour There is surreal horror in the street scenes – characters spring out of the shadows like animals – or even vampires. After dark utter chaos rules. As daylight dawns, the Habsburg police try to enforce order. Irisz emerges as ‘Alice’, but her wonderland is uncertain and menacing. Courage and a strong sense of her innate dignity will see her through, but her place in the world will be destroyed forever in a narrative that very much chimes with today’s sense of cultural identity. Sunset is an everlasting testament to the past, the present and our own uncertain future. A masterpiece that might need more than one viewing. AS/MT
ON SCREEN AND DEMAND AT CURZON FROM 31 MAY