I’ve always hated the term “sophomore slump” because I’ve never found the second of anything to be all that disappointing. When it comes to doing things a second time, it usually turns out to be easier and more fulfilling. Even reheated pizza has a special form of satisfaction that you don’t get the first time around; different, but still very much enjoyable. With Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes’ first film, Son of Saul, I was left with a quiet devastation.
It had a pain that lingered inside of you long after the film was over. I’m not much into sadomasochism, but mixed inside of the pain was a profound pleasure the film leaves you with, mainly because it made you feel at all. That is the true testament of a film. Whether it leaves you feeling like absolute trash or in an elated state of ecstacy, the mere fact that it left you feeling anything at all proves the power of the filmmaker. Nemes accomplished this in his first film, but like Icarus, he flew too close to the sun and crashed when it came to his sophomore entry, Sunset.
After the monumental success, critical acclaim, and Oscar win of Son of Saul, the skies the limit for Nemes. Sunset is not only significantly more ambitious in terms of filmmaking, but the runtime alone (almost 2 and a half hours) is meant to mark how grandeur the storytelling would be this time around. With his Son of Saul co-writing partner Clara Royer, the story in Sunsetfeels like two narratives at war with each other. Both working concurrently, but rarely ever together or in any sort of harmony.
At a surface glance, this story follows Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) as she returns home only to discover that she has a brother she knew nothing about. Aside from trying to reconnect spiritually with her dead parents through the company they built, Írisz searches for her long lost brother who is now a fugitive. As if that weren’t enough, another layer is added to the story involving a dark conspiracy affecting the women of Budapest. On top of that, bubbling beneath the surface until the film’s climax, we see the embers that lead up to the first World War.
Even by the standards of a film trilogy or saga, this much story in one film is more than just ambitious, it’s reckless. Nemes and Royer create an over-encumbered plot that shifts the focus in so many directions that it leaves the viewer essentially cross-eyed. Not to mention the unnecessary length, which fights a losing battle just for our attention. There is nothing worse than a film that has too many focal points yet still manages to keep us bored by the slow-pacing and cryptic chicanery.
The massive scope of Sunset’s aspirations weren’t without some successes. The recreation of Budapest in the early 1900’s is a feat worthy of recognition. Everything from the architecture to the costume design makes Sunset able to holds it own with some of the greatest period pieces. The atmosphere created both adds to the films beauty and mystery. Although you might never know what is truly going on, and although you might give up trying to figure it out part way through, there is enough visual opulence to keep your eye fixated to the screen.
Nemes has proven that he likes to take a close-up approach to his subjects, and Sunset in not the exception. He keeps every shot tight and intimate, fixating on Írisz’s face so that we can not only see every emotion, but also hopefully feel them. This works to a certain extent, allowing us to feel the anxious paranoia of the subject, but little else. Being this close to a subject tends to have the adverse effect of blurring everything else around it. This is great news for Juli Jakab, who radiates throughout, breathing life into what would otherwise be a tedious affair.