In my first report from the Venice International Film Festival, I described the excitement of seeing three excellent and quite varied films right in a row, at consecutive early-morning press screenings: First Man, Roma, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. We had to wait a whole two days before seeing what may be the masterpiece of this year’s festival–this year’s Zama , as it were.
I’m sure virtually everyone who attended the press/industry screening of László Nemes’s Sunset was wondering whether it would live up to his first feature, Son of Saul (2015), which won, among other prizes, the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. It’s one of the more deserving winners of that prize in recent memory.
The narration famously concentrates fiercely on the central character, a Hungarian Jew forced to work in a death camp helping to kill and dispose of fellow Jews. The camera follows him from behind or circles to show his face, and keeps most of the horrors occurring around him dimly visible, in the background and on the periphery of the shots, usually out of focus. Mark Kermode  praised the technique as a brilliant solution to the problem of not showing those horrors but seeing them reflected in one man’s attention and expressions. We so much admired this rigorous technique that we incorporated Son of Saul into the new fourth edition of Film History: An Introduction. 
My suspicion is that many present at that first screening of Sunset in Venice were wondering if Nemes could do anything beyond similarly following a single character around, restricting our point of view in a dazzling exhibition of camera choreography centered on a single intense performance. Well, Sunset is based almost entirely on the camera following (below and top) or weaving around the central character, Írisz Leiter, or framing her face in medium close-ups and close-ups.
There are a many of these “nape-of-the-neck” framings, as we might call them, with only Írisz in focus–and not always her. Again, the point of view is highly restricted to what she sees, hears, and knows. She is present in virtually every shot, or revealed to be nearby. The apparent point of view shot into which the character steps is occasionally used in Hollywood and elsewhere, but here it becomes an insistent technique.
I suspect further that, seeing virtually the same device being used again, reviewers dismissed Sunset as a far less original work than Son of Saul. It helped that the latter was a tale of the holocaust and fairly simple to follow.
In my opinion, Nemes has done something extraordinary. He has taken the same basic approach but turned it to an entirely different use. Now the restricted point of view functions to slowly dole out clues in a complicated double mystery plot. The result is complex, tantalizing, and absorbing.
Sunset is difficult to compare with other films or artworks, since it so very original. It is thoroughly modern art cinema. (Nemes worked as an assistant director to Béla Tarr, though neither of his features reflects any direct influence of Tarr.) It also, however, has something of the air of Feuillade serials. Fantômas was made in 1913, the same year in which Sunset‘s action takes place. Sunset deals with an anarchist gang, and at one point Írisz disguises herself as a man and escapes captivity through an upper-story window. There’s also a considerable streak of Grand Guignol (the theatre that was then building to its height of popularity between the two world wars), with actual and attempted rapes, rumors of a grisly murder, and torch-lit attacks by the anarchist gang.
At least two reviewers have mentioned Mullholland Drive as a comparison point. I don’t think the two films have much in common, apart from their pleasantly puzzling aspects. It’s interesting, though, that reviewers grasped at such a comparison as a way of trying to convey the nature of a very unusual film.
In fact, Nemes has said that Blue Velvet was one of his inspirations. That actually makes far more sense to me, with an innocent gradually witnessing unimaginable cruelties.
What just happened?
The film depends heavily on our gradually getting clues and information as Írisz does, and to avoid spoilers I’m going to be vague describing the plot.
The heroine is the daughter of two founders and owners of Leiter’s, a high-fashion hat shop in Budapest. Orphaned, she has learned hat-making in Trieste and returns to Budapest, aspiring to work in the shop and regain what little connection she can with her parents’ heritage. Her application for a job there opens the film, but she is turned down by the current owner of Leiter’s, Mr Brill.
She soon learns that she apparently has a brother, hitherto unknown to her, who has committed a heinous murder five years earlier. While trying to track down the truth about him, she begins to suspect that Brill may be involved in equally hideous crimes. She spends most of the film wandering about looking for clues and trying to make sense of them.
Sunset is not as puzzling or opaque or illogical as reviewers seem to think. One reviewer refers to it as “befuddling,” which it certainly is not, if one pays careful attention. Lee Marshall , one of those who evoked Mullholland Drive, complains that:
Sunset begins to crumble, to offer itself up to scorn and absurdity, once we start asking questions like “Doesn’t Irisz have regular work hours?” or “How come she always manages to get a lift in a coach just when she needs one?”
In fact there is nothing mysterious about either point. The film makes it quite clear that Írisz is not hired by Brill, even though she offers to work for free. She has no “regular work hours” because she has no job. Brill offers to let her sleep in the Leiters’ rundown house where the store’s milliners live, but he clearly is trying to control her attempts at investigating the dual mysteries. He assigns her tasks to keep her busy, but Zelma, the store’s manager and possibly Brill’s mistress, pointedly tells her when giving her a little task to do, “It doesn’t mean you’re hired.” Another task that he assigns her ends up having to be executed by the other milliners, as Írisz constantly defies Brill by leaving the store and dorm at every opportunity. When Leiter and Zelma tells her not to leave without permission, she inevitably and defiantly departs on another investigative foray. Brill’s description of her as stubborn is a considerable understatement.
As for coaches, Írisz’s brother seems to control an anarchist gang consisting largely of coachmen, some of them with motives to drive Írisz to various destinations. Brill uses his coach to fetch her back to the store and as a setting for lecturing her about not defying him by trying to find her crazed, violent brother. Coaches become another way to try and control her movements.
Such mechanics of the plot are consistently motivated, whether we catch the motivation or not. The script is extraordinarily unified and tight, despite its complexity.
After two viewings, I was glad to discover that I had understood the basic plot on my initial one, although many subtle points were filled in.
Clues–but to what?
The narrative is structured through a chain of clues, which we learn only as Írisz does. Írisz is told something–initially, that she has a brother Kálmán. She tries to follow up that clue but is thwarted for a time. Eventually, wandering about or while accompanying the milliners of the shop to various celebrations of the store’s 30th anniversary, she bumps into people who provide her with new clues. Coincidental meetings and overheard conversations are rife here, but as David has pointed out , that’s how narratives work. If there’s one tradition that Sunset doesn’t belong to, it’s realism.
The other tradition it doesn’t belong to, of course, is classical filmmaking. In a Hollywood film, one clue would lead the protagonist to another and that to another, building the chain that resolves the mystery. The action would move steadily, even when obstacles that thwart the protagonist must be overcome, creating suspense. In Sunset, a clue may intrigue the heroine, but she finds no way to follow up on it. There is a frustrating pause another clue crops up. The sense of progression is thus sporadic and somewhat random, rather than linear and strictly causal.
The overarching ambiguities of the plot arise from the fact that Írisz frequently receives contradictory clues and is unable to decide whether Kálmán and Brill are heroes or villains. At one stage Írisz thinks her brother is a sadistic murderer, but later she begins to suspect he is a hero–and still later she again believes him to be a monster. A similar series of reversals happens with Brill. Thus we may conclude that we understand where the narrative development is headed, only to have our expectations reversed. It also takes quite a long time before we realize that the Kálmán Leiter mystery and the Brill mystery are connected, at which point we must rethink them both.
In a few cases we must even infer a clue that Írisz has been given in the interval between scenes. I must admit that on first viewing I was puzzled as to how Írisz finds where a key player in past action, Fanni, lives. Seeing it again, I realized that the scene where Írisz asks Andor, a young servant at Leiter’s, where she can find Fanni ends with Andor asking eagerly, “Can you make him come back?” He’s referring to Kálmán, whom Andor secretly idolizes. A cut begins a new scene with Írisz approaching the building where she finds Fanni. When she again sees Andor in the following scene, he asks, “Did you find the girl?” Thus it is clear that Írisz told Andor she would try to bring Kálmán back, as she may intend to at this point, and that he gave her the address. It’s not easy to grasp moments like this on the fly, but it’s far from impossible.
The decision to restrict our state of knowledge so thoroughly to that of Írisz, pushing the story to the edge of comprehensibility, was deliberate. In an interview Nemes, he says, “We had an overall strategy: the viewer should go into the labyrinth of the story with the protagonist, in order fo feel the disorientation and defencelessness the protagonist experiences. This subjective aspect is what connects ‘Sunset’ with ‘Son of Saul.'”
Rory O’Connor, writing on The Film Stage, caught the labyrinthine spirit of the film better than have the other reviewers I have read. He realized and accepted that one must re-watch the film in order to appreciate its complexities:
Sunset is a film awash with such delicious ambiguities, almost to the point of damaging its basic cogency at times (not least in simple geographical terms). That said, however disorientated I became while watching Sunset, I never grew frustrated. I did, however, begin to backtrack and second-guess myself just a little, which somewhat diminished the experience (and from speaking to other critics, I was not the only one). Yet the ambiguous will always face such early criticisms–just look at Mullholand Dr.–and I not only plan on seeing Sunset again; I will relish the challenge.
This is exactly what great art films can do: make us relish the challenge.
Seeing and yet not seeing
The film is easy to relish, given its original, systematic stylistic elements.
The cinematography has been widely admired, even by those who otherwise dislike the film. The long takes with the camera moving smoothly along with Írisz through crowded streets or circuitous interiors are virtuoso shots, justifying the use of consistently handheld camera as few films have done.
Beyond that, though, the tactic of throwing most planes of the scene out of focus is used in nearly every shot, so that we are forced intensely to concentrate on Írisz. This way we actually see even less than Irisz does, but we are not distracted from the dogged obstinacy and reckless courage of her quest.
The minute control of planes of action is masterly (above and below).
Throwing certain planes out of focus can become a motif (if one watches closely enough). Zelma is often seen out of focus in the backgrounds of scenes. In the frame at the top of this entry, she escorts Írisz to meet with Brill in the opening scene, when Írisz is applying for a job at Leiter’s. Zelma hovers in the middle ground in the frame at the top of the this section; in the frame just above, she’s in the distance, greeting the royalty from Vienna. She is seen for the last time disappearing into a soft, distorting view (bottom of the entry), going to either a posh job attending royalty or a grim fate. As usual, we have no way of knowing which, though we may suspect. The composition hauntingly recalls the early shot of her escorting Írisz, at the top.
I spotted only one shot where Írisz is wholly absent, late in the film, and that is a single tracking movement in the street inserted between two scenes. Nothing is in focus. By following Írisz we may not see everything, but without her we see even less.
Interestingly, Nemes and the cinematographer, Mátyás Erdély, originally intended to try and find an approach quite different from that of Son of Saul:
When we finished ‘Son of Saul’ and began to talk about ‘Sunset,’ we definitely wanted to do something that was very different. For example, if the aspect ratio was 1:1.37 in ‘Son of Saul,’ then it should be anamorphic 1:2.39 in ‘Sunset’; if ‘Son of Saul’ was to be photographed with a handheld camera, then let’s use the dolly for ‘Sunset.’ We made a mood test film, but the camera was in my hands already for the second shot. We realised that the kind of approach that László likes and that matches ‘Sunset’ requires that the camera be hand-held. We decided in advance that there would be dolly and anamorphic, however, in vain–in the end, it was 1:1.85 and a hand-held camera.
The film was shot in 35mm, with the final shot that constitutes the epilogue being set apart by filming on 65mm. Some release prints are available on film, and that’s what we saw in Venice. It was one of only two films shown on 35mm (the other being Vox Lux). See it on film if you possibly can. It’s gorgeous.
I unfortunately haven’t seen Son of Saul on the big screen, but Sunset is clearly a very different sort of film, much more epic in scale. It had a considerably bigger budget and is an historical piece about a beautiful, crowded city. The central set, Leiter’s Hat Store, depicts the luxurious goods that the upper classes and even royalty purchase. The filmmakers built Leiter’s in a vacant lot in a small street in Budapest’s Palace District, behind the National Museum. That way characters could exit the store and be followed by the camera into the bustling street lined with buildings that existed in 1913. As László Rajk, the production designer, says,
The space of ‘Son of Saul’ is an enclosed universe, the strict but also intimate world of the concentration camp. ‘Sunset,’ on the other hand, takes place in an open world, with all the sounds and noises of a big city. This means that in this film we–sound designer and production designer alike–had to create a completely different, open and noisy universe which reflects much less intimacy.
The amazing thing is that the designer took all this trouble and expense even though the lack of focus meant that most of the surroundings, both the built hat store and the real streets, would usually be only dimly visible to the audience. As Rajk adds, however, “those who played–and practically lived–their parts within [the store’s] walls had to believe every single second that they were in the year 1913, in Budapest, at its most elegant hat store full of secrets.”
We do occasionally see the store’s interior in focus, as in this, one of the two true point-of-view shots I spotted in the film:
Still, I would be hard put to figure out that layout of Leiter’s Hat Store or guess where the house where Írisz and the other milliners live is in relation to it.
If there’s one thing that reveals the vast difference between Son of Saul and Sunset, it’s that in the former we dread to see the offscreen, out-of-focus, peripheral things that are happening. In the latter, we yearn for a view of the crowded streets of Budapest and the splendid decor of Leiter’s Hat Shop. We are frustrated, channeled into watching Írisz but having a constant sense of the city which we glimpse occasionally in focus and more frequently in an evocative haze.
I look forward to relishing a third viewing.
As always, thanks to Paolo Baratta, Alberto Barbera, Peter Cowie, Michela Lazzarin, and all their colleagues for their warm welcome to this year’s Biennale.
Many thanks also to Michael Barker and Allison Mackie of Sony Pictures Classics for their help in preparation of this entry.
My quotations come from the interviews with the filmmakers in Hungarian Film Magazine (Autumn 2018), pp. 10, 11, 16, 17, 21. Nearly all of this issue is devoted to revealing interviews with the director, star, cinematographer, set designer, costume designers, and sound designer. In Venice, this issue was provided to the press, and it is available in its entirety online here .
Some photos from our Venice jaunt are on our Instagram page.