SUNSET (2019, László Nemes)
Once again shooting exclusively in his patented follow-cam, Nemes has utilized his claustrophobic style to much different effect. With SON OF SAUL, what started off as a harrowing, nearly unwatchable exercise in cinematic torture became more understandable as it went on, despite maintaining its grip as a nightmarish descent into the Holocaust. But somehow SUNSET starts off alluring, then becomes increasingly frustrating, myopic, and self-satisfied.
Perhaps what made SON OF SAUL such a perfect match of form and content was that a singular point of view and feeling of an unbroken pursuit fits well with an amusement park ride through the hellscape of Auschwitz — that is, if your style is visceral, it feeds off built-in stakes and a story predicated on action. SUNSET takes an opposite mode: it’s a mystery, and mysteries beg to be tempting and revealing. Nemes does neither. He gives us no reason to care about Irisz or her family secrets, nor does he show much interest in the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He just dangles a few soft-focus glimpses of chaos in the back of his narrow-depth-of-field lens, instead making Michael Mann jealous with the amount of time devoted to the back of his lead’s neck and ears. As Irisz, Juli Jakab (not to be confused with the actress who plays the countess, Julia Jakubowska; I bet those call sheets were annoying) holds down the fort admirably, but is given very few notes to hit. We are only sure of what she wants when she asks so many questions, but then doesn’t do much with the info she gets anyway.
Nemes is more interested in his beautifully constructed camera movement (it’s so impressive how things and people in the scene are only revealed when Irisz’s gaze turns to them thanks to movement by someone else in the shot) than he is in conveying any sort of coherent thesis. It doesn’t matter who Kalman is, what is happening to the girls who get sold, or why this anarchist group is uprising against the royalty. All that matters is we see things through the eyes of the protagonist. And when this protagonist is so focused on muddled pursuits, we’re left adrift in the Danube.