Near the end of László Nemes’s Sunset, there is a tiny ripple of shock. Nothing on the scale of his Oscar-winning debut, Son of Saul, set entirely in Auschwitz, but a shock all the same. What happens is that the camera catches sight of a woman’s footwear: a pair of ornate black-and-white boots laced to the top. For the preceding two hours, the film has been restricted largely to above-the-shoulder close-ups; the cast might have been wearing Crocs for all we know. Those boots are startling because most of Sunset is comprised of faces and hats – so many hats it could have been retitled Who Wants to Be a Milliner?
A hat is one of the first things we see. “Let’s lift this veil,” a voice says, and the dainty black net is removed to reveal Írisz (Juli Jakab), a visitor to Leiter’s millinery in Budapest in 1913. Írisz is not what she seems. For a start, she’s looking for a job, not a hat, in this store once owned by her parents, who died when she was two. The current proprietor sends her packing, the first of several people to do so. A stranger rescuing her from a rapacious gang tells her: “Never come back.” After dancing with her, the creepy Sándor Jakab (Marcin Czarnik) says: “Leave this place. Blood will flow this week.” In fairness, nearly everyone she encounters is cryptic and sinister, among them the brutal von König (Christian Harting) who is terrorising the Countess (Julia Jakubowska), and the intruder who attacks Írisz in the night, muttering something about “the Leiter son”, which is the first she has heard of a brother. “Help me to see clearly,” she pleads. Are you going to tell her it’s not that sort of film, or should I?
Írisz steps in and out of carriages and trams apparently at random, arriving at a funeral or an unveiling here, a garden party or a hat festival there, chasing the rumours that she has a brother who may in fact be a murderer. Hats off to Nemes for sticking to the belief, evident throughout Son of Saul, that wide and medium shots are to be resorted to only in emergencies. This has a budgetary advantage. You don’t have to build sprawling sets if the camera only ever glimpses what is in the actors’ immediate vicinity, and any scenes containing violence and fireworks and galloping horses can play out as a background blur. There’s another reason for the foreshortened perspective: Nemes wants our confusion, like Írisz’s, to be absolute. The gold standard in using the close-up as a disorienting tool, even before Son of Saul, was Elem Klimov’s 1985 masterpiece Come and See, which cleaved to the startled face and dazed sensory experiences of a young Belarusian resistance fighter. Even at our most bludgeoned, we never stopped caring what was happening. In Sunset, we never start.
Nemes’s aim is to unravel Europe’s slide into war but the picture’s lack of specificity, the vagueness of its dread, militates against that goal. All the good intentions in the world can’t compensate for an audience’s alienation, and with nothing to sustain the suspense from one scene to the next, it dwindles away after an hour. There are elements of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in the constant deferral of meaning, or of Phantom Thread in the enclosed and encoded world of fashion, or the original Suspiria in the revelation of an apparent occult conspiracy, though nothing of what made those movies seductive has survived.
Rhythmically, too, the relentlessness exhausts our curiosity. The most effective scene shows Írisz spying on a child who is, in turn, watching a woman (possibly his mother) being attacked off-screen. The act of double-voyeurism keeps horror at arm’s length and releases the action from the tyranny of a claustrophobic point-of-view: Írisz may be taking a breather only to witness another person’s trauma but it’s a breather all the same.
She is warned at one point: “The horror of the world hides behind these infinitely pretty things.” Conceal it too well, though, as Sunset does, and it’s unlikely to retain its malignant charge. “Some people are too difficult to understand,” someone says, shortly before a scene set in a club called – what else? – the Sphinx. Some movies, too.
“Sunset” is in cinemas from 31 May
dir: László Nemes
This article appears in the 29 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Theresa May’s toxic legacy