László Nemes is a filmmaker who keeps his friends close and his cameras closer. The Hungarian director’s devastating 2015 debut, Son of Saul, distinguished itself not just by sticking right next to its main character but virtually breathing down his neck — the fact that our guide was a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, grimly trying to survive a waking nightmare, only heightened the effect. The actor Geza Rohrig’s face took up most of the frame’s real estate and blocked out the horror you could hear happening offscreen; it also made the sheer weight of the sorrow and the pity feel extremely personal. It was a first-person tour of hell, both aesthetically impressive at a distance and overwhelmingly immersive in the moment.
The stakes are nowhere near as high in Nemes’ follow-up, Sunset — how could they be, really? But there is life, glimpsed in the periphery as folks walk down a crowded street in Budapest in the 1910s, the Austro-Hungarian empire still in effect and World War I still waiting patiently on the horizon. And there is death, both the legacy of it and threat of it as an era of European history is about to come to a close. Most of all, there’s the same emphasis on putting viewers claustrophobically near the facial pores of a protagonist, a young woman called Írisz (Juli Jakab). It’s the surname of this person who’s returned to the city from some place far away, however, that startled residents are focusing on: Leiter. That’s the moniker on the millinery where she tries to get hired for a job and get face time with the current boss, Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov). It’s a reference to her parents, the previous owners of this hoity-toity hat shop and who perished in a fire. And it’s become synonymous with Írisz’s brother, the boy who allegedly started that blaze. “It took me years to ensure that the name Leiter no one longer called to mind a killer,” Brill tells her, sternly.
Still, Írisz has come back to Budapest during the jubilee week, in search of her sibling and some answers. What she’ll find — and given that Nemes once again keeps his cameras either right over Jakab’s shoulder, a few feet in front of her or right up in her face, what we will find — is a decadent aristocracy high on its own exhaust fumes, a dangerously unstable mob, so many predatory men and an empire on the brink of decline but already neck-deep in moral rot. This is a movie that literally begins with a veil being lifted from someone’s eyes, and for as much as the filmmaker plays games with how much audiences know at any moment (we don’t even find out Írisz’s full name until close to a half hour into the 142 minute running time), he’s blessed us a work filled with reminders and revelations. Many are narrative-based, especially before mystery gives way to outright tragedy and then righteousness. Some involve the notion that, as history and the present keep engaging in a conversation we too often choose to ignore, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. And other revolve around the fact that a certain type of arthouse cinema — the ambitious, vital, foreign-language kind that offers up both bleak outlooks and opulent period-piece production design — is still alive and well and occasionally showing up at theaters near you.
It also underlines the idea that coming out of the gate with a film that instantly makes your name can sometimes count against you. If Sunset doesn’t hit with nearly the impact that Son of Saul does — and it doesn’t — his look back at the chaos before the storm solidly establishes Nemes as a major world-cinema voice. His notion of grafting you on to the perspective of the protagonist via extreme proximity no longer seems like a simple choice but a consistent sensibility: We are all culpable. (Give cinematographer Mátyás Erdély a hand and a cigar as well.) His ability to find actors capable of handling such close-up scrutiny and emotional heavy lifting is borne out by Jakab, who keeps things moving even when story strolls into confounding detours and dead ends; you leave feeling like her face means so much to the camera, to the filmmaker, to us. (A shout-out to Ivanov as well, Romanian cinema’s stalwart bureaucrat/bad guy.) When the heroine we’ve been doggedly following finally steps out of focus, we understand why it means something. A coda suggests Írisz is the ghost of old, dead Europe, slouching into a 20th century that will strip so much of it away. Evil hides behind pretty social facades and in plain sight. The sun has set on so many empires. It will continue to set on so many more.