With Sunset, the Oscar-winning director of Son of Saul (Son of Saul, a grim out-of-body experience at Auschwitz — a film review) returns with another subjective cinematic experience. However, whereas Son of Saul dwelled on a claustrophobic perspective presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio with shallow focus, Sunset is much grander. The shallow focus is still present, but this time, it’s wider in scope to present many beautifully composed shots in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Set in an earlier period with incredible detail, it’s hardly a glamorized affair, however. Also, once again, Hungarian writer-director László Nemes has chosen to focus on one person’s perspective.
Orphaned Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) returns to a bustling Budapest on the verge of World War I to claim her position as a milliner at her family’s luxurious department store after a long apprenticeship in Italy, following her parents’ deaths in a fire. When she isn’t greeted with the assumed respect and prestige her last name carries and denied the job she was once promised she resigns herself to a sort of internship at the shop. However, information comes to light that the Leiter name has been tainted by a murderous brother she never knew she had. She takes it upon herself to find the man. What follows is a sort of decent into a nightmarish world of the brewing angst that speaks to the early 20th century turn to violence to “resolve” differences.
For all of its horrors and grand expression of oppression, particularly against a woman, Sunset is a beautiful film, once again shot by cinematographer Mátyás Erdély. The movie’s warm lighting is established early on during its simple opening title sequence, as a painting slowly turns from day to dusk, a sort of magical illusion. Throughout the film, there are many scenes shot during the so-called “golden hour” of sunset. It’s an ironic presentation of the images, as a time of luxury and indulgence for the upper class lies on the verge of collapse for the tenuous Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Sticking with Írisz’s perspective is a limiting experience as far as information goes. When men choose to speak to her, it works as exposition, creating an ironic form of cinematic mansplaining that reveals clues to her finding her brother. She goes to places where she shouldn’t be alone as the threat of brutish men often descends on her. Meanwhile, the powder keg that culminated in World War I is all around her, from a newspaper boy announcing the construction of a battleship to a horrific terrorist attack at a luxurious soiree. Almost two and a half hours in length, it’s a long time to be in this subjective experience, and it will test the patience of the audience, but there also hasn’t ever been such an unnerving experience of what it may have been like to be a second class citizen during a time when gender decided your place in society.
Sunset runs 142 minutes, is in Hungarian and German with English subtitles and is rated R. It had its Florida premiere at this year’s Miami Jewish Film Festival.
Screening update: Sunset opens at both Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale and Cinema Paradiso Hollywood on Friday, May 17.
Earlier: It opens theatrically this Friday, April 26 at the following South Florida theaters :
PALM BEACH COUNTY:
Later, on May 10, it will play at the Cosford Cinema on the Coral Gables of the University of Miami. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link and select “theaters.” Sony Pictures Classics loaned us a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.