“Sunset” is a static exercise in cinema in motion, a dogmatic defense of consistency in point of view.
So even though every frame in László Nemes intimate period piece is a misty postcard to memory, even though there are incidents and encounters aplenty in its sprawling two hours and 20-odd minutes of screen time, it flirts with tedium itself.
The director of “Son of Saul” has attempted a Hungarian blend of Chekhov and “The Third Man” set in Budapest on the cusp of World War I. It’s gorgeous, but the tragedy of “Sunset” is that it washes over you without much of it soaking in.
It’s 1910 when Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) shows up at what used to be her family’s millinery shop in Budapest, looking for a job. But memories are long in the fin de siecle Austro-Hungarian Empire. Tragedy hit her family, costing them the business. And even though he is warned that tragedy could strike again, the owner, Mr. Brill (Vlad Ivanov) takes her in.
Írisz has trained as a milliner, learning to make hats in Trieste. She barely knew her family, and now she’s got lots of questions (in Hungarian, with English subtitles).
“The resemblance is unsettling,” Oszkár Brill mutters, and he’s not alone.
She has, or had, a brother — Kalman. Some awful things are associated with him. And despite whispered warnings, entreaties and threats, Íriszkeeps looking around, asking around, running into old family acquaintances and those who ran afoul of Kalman, including the mourning Countess Rédey (Julia Jakubowska).
And this hat-making business, with its bevy of back-biting beauties (Evelin Dobos, Judit Bárdos, Dorottya Moldován) who do the work? There’s more to that job than Írisz can figure out on her own.
“The horror of the world hides behind infinitely pretty things,” one vulpine Viennese Austrian (as opposed to Hungarian) purrs in her ear. Hats? Is he just talking about hats? We think not.
Nemes rigidly adopts the tactic of chasing/stalking Írisz through this Empire at an End, even if those living in it don’t know it. He sits on Írisz’s shoulder and follows her through the streets, into carriages or trams, into the seedy boarding house Mr. Brill “rescues” her from and into meetings, and meetings and men-only burlesques that deny her entry.
We see and hear — or often overhear — what she hears. She is in natural light, turning to the camera in shadowy closeups, as this or that piece of the puzzle is filled in, for her if not necessarily for us.
Nemes builds his soundtrack with a similar ear for intimacy. Even though Írisz is accosted, bullied, insulted, threatened, manhandled, chased and sexually assaulted, the (looped) voices all speak in a near-whisper — up close, low, as if no one else should be allowed to hear.
I didn’t mind the cryptic efforts to reveal the story, only in murky bits of visual or vocal information. It’s vexing and the story feels incomplete, with pieces missing long before the resolution that is nothing of the sort.
But Nemes hamstrings and hobbles his movie with his refusal to show us anything Írisz won’t have seen or heard, without us really knowing how much she knows before the story begins, without the camera ever leaving Ms. Jakab’s (a good actress and a Hungarian Emma Watson look-alike) side.
“Sunset” was never going to be a thriller, and the Chekhov comparison is mainly due to the Eastern European theatricality of it all. This unfolds like a memory play on wheels, rolling through the cafe society, simmering political tensions and brave new (automobiles, electricity) world heedless that this world is about to end. Suddenly.
And the mystery Írisz seeks to solve? It’s not interesting enough to make us miss the ferment she’s exploring in order to figure it out.
MPAA Rating: R for some violence
Cast: Juli Jakab, Evelin Dobos, Vlad Ivanov, Julia Jakubowska
Credits: Directed by László Nemes, script by Clara Royer, László Nemes and Matthieu Taponier. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 2:22