There are few art forms which cater to a nostalgist’s longing for the “good old days” as effectively as cinema. The best historical dramas offer viewers a chance to vicariously revisit the past, experiencing the sights and sounds of times gone by. Such a deep immersion is the highlight of “Sunset“, which sees Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes skillfully transporting audiences to early 20th century Budapest.
“Sunset” is told through the eyes of a young woman named Írisz Leiter. Following the passing of her well-known parents, she seeks to carry on the legacy of their beloved hat store. Her family name, however, has little sway over the new owner, who initially rebukes her interest in being a milliner. Determined to make her own way in the world, Írisz remains in Budapest. As she subsequently navigates the busy streets and palatial halls of a society on the verge of collapse, dark secrets begin to rise to the surface. And these tensions of impending war begin to hit close to home, as her own family history is inextricably linked to her society’s inevitable downfall.
Indeed, the spectre of World War I looms as the haute bourgeoisie unsuspectingly faces the end of an era. Like the calm before the storm, we witness their last hurrah, the hat store coming to symbolize a dying culture. Introducing us to this world in his inimitable style, Nemes repeats the first-person visual perspective which made “Son of Saul” such a visceral experience. This time around, however, he replaces the melee of the Holocaust machine with a symphony of street chatter, horses, carriages, trains, and classical music. Meanwhile, the remnants of old world opulence and fashion make for a truly eye-catching spectacle.
But the ornamental elegance of the setting and its hats proves to be a fragile facade. As one character retorts, “the horrors of the world hide behind these pretty little things.” And while this realization dawns on Írisz, the screenplay teems with a mystery that is sometimes hard to follow. But thanks to the immaculate production values and the palpable sense of unease, “Sunset” keeps you thoroughly engaged with Írisz’ search for the truth.
The film’s premise may not be as instantly familiar as the horrors of his acclaimed debut feature, but the class conflict, toxic patriarchy, and moral decay resonate deeply. Like its beguiling lead actress Juli Jakab, “Sunset” is enigmatic, beautiful and full of grace. But as its powerful final scene cautions, there is often a price to pay for these lavish displays of civility. After all, even the most beautiful sunset is followed by darkness.