Juli Jakab, the star of “Sunset,” has remarkable eyes. The way she holds a gaze suggests not just defiance but potentially supernatural powers of perception.
Her character, Irisz Leiter, gazes at many grand and grave things in this film set in 1913 Budapest. It’s the second feature from the director Laszlo Nemes. And as in his first film, the scarily accomplished and provocative “Son of Saul” (2015), which took place in a German death camp (and which Jakab also acted in), the camera most frequently follows its lead character around from behind. These shots are the longest, and they are always elaborately choreographed; the reverse angle reaction shots are mostly static. It’s the cinematic equivalent of what fiction writers call close third-person: not entirely subjective, but substantively immersive.
That style applied to the endless horrors depicted in “Son of Saul” made it sometimes unbearable to watch, which was the point. Here, the technique is applied to an allegory of nearly suffocating self-seriousness, to much less powerful effect. (The screenplay is by Nemes along with Clara Royer and Matthieu Taponier.)
Irisz is the daughter of the founders of Leiter, a high-end millinery. But she never knew her parents; the store had burned down years before, and the girl was raised in an orphanage. Now an adult, she goes to the store seeking a job.
Oszkar Brill (Vlad Ivanov), the new owner who revived the store’s fortunes after tragedy, rebuffs her gently but firmly, sending her to spend the night in the seedy house where other store employees live. Before her first night is through, she’ll hear of a brother she never knew she had. He is described to her as a radical, a killer, a mystery man who has not been seen publicly in years. She is told not to seek him out, so of course she does. She finds him at the end of a tram line, in a compound full of hostile, angry men. As happened at Leiter, she is told this is not a place for her, and the warning is not hollow.
Irisz is advised not to do something and then does it anyway so frequently in this film that it almost generates dark comedy. But no humor is intended here. And while Nemes’s near-subjective technique can generate genuine tension, it more often yields anxious tedium. In one scene, a character walks away from Irisz to speak to someone about 30 feet away, and he goes out of focus. The shot holds as the man speaks to the other person. He then walks back to Irisz — that’s 10 seconds there — and in so doing comes back into focus. He tells Irisz what he was just told. This is, in part, why the movie is a good chunk over two hours.
The final shot, taking place some time after the main action, seeks a character rather than follows one and is shamelessly on the nose in the allegory department.