Budapest, in director László Nemes’ most recent film “Sunset,” is a yellow city drenched in light. Often bathed in hues from tawny to lemon, the Baroque buildings glow, making for an ephemeral and dream-like cityscape. “Sunset,” like the city it portrays, is visually stunning, but the film uses this luminescent backdrop solely as an accessory to what is ultimately a confusing, labyrinthine plot with little to be found at the end of the maze.
Nemes sets the scene in 1913, directly into the bustle of coaches and railcars crisscrossing the cosmopolitan Hungarian capital. The story follows Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), a young woman who has recently returned to Budapest after spending her childhood elsewhere because of an unclear series of events. Írisz appears one day in a local millinery seeking a job, and though the establishment bears her family name, no one recognizes her. This sets off a chain of intrigue and misplaced motivations as Írisz then pursues a missing brother who is somewhere in the city.
Ostensibly, this would all make for an interesting quest narrative of sorts, but the film is so hands-off in its plotline that each scene only gets more and more muddied. Characters come in and out without explanation, and no one’s motives are clear at any point, including Írisz’s. Where did she come from, why is she doing what she does, how do these people factor in? All these questions go largely unanswered, addressed only in her perpetual hard-eyed stare and furrowed brow.
Most of “Sunset” follows Írisz in close proximity, the camera trailing the back of her neck as she furiously scours the city for some sign of the mysterious brother. It’s a claustrophobic style that gives the feeling of being in Írisz’s perspective in a literal sense but lends little understanding of her emotions or of the external situation.
That being said, the film does have a few moments of coherency, particularly when it slows down to take in its setting and characters. The opening scene of the film, as Írisz returns to Budapest and her family’s business, is promising in how it patiently unravels details, taking in the world around along with her. These moments are few and far between, however, and get lost in the events that unfold.
The vague plotting and intense camerawork do, however, achieve the film’s goal of creating tension. Because the film is depicting Budapest in the moments leading up to World War I, there is a feeling that the city is a tinderbox, ready to erupt at any moment into conflict. It’s difficult to appreciate this tension, however, in the vacuum of a coherent plot. Even as this existential drama is building successfully on the peripheries of the film, it isn’t attached to anything concrete, making it difficult to get invested in the narrative.
Shot on film, the visual aesthetic of “Sunset” is its strongest point, living up to its namesake to portray a city on the cusp of tragedy. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély deftly shifts its buttery light tones to shadows creeping in on the sides as the whispers of war tersely become louder into the alleyways and streets of Budapest. Its stylistic elements are also commendable, with sumptuous costuming and period-appropriate set designs. The Leiter millinery is one of the best parts of the film, where the turn-of-the-century hat designs are a character of their own, concealing the identities of those who wear them and serving as arcane markers of style and class.
“Sunset” is a film stuck in perpetual motion, approaching an impending sense of doom both for Írisz and Budapest itself. As the fleeting light starts to dim, however, there isn’t much there to continue looking for, as there is little connection or actual investment made to the characters or story onscreen. Where it succeeds in creating a sense of tension, it leaves no room for a payoff, only moving forward into unknown narrative darkness.