Sunset screens Wednesday, February 6 at Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of Film Comment Selects

Sunset (László Nemes, 2018)

A young person from the provinces arriving in a big city with naïve ambitions is one of the classic narrative gambits; two recent films take this premise and, in very different ways, explode or unravel it. László Nemes’ Sunset (2018) (screening in Film Comment Selects) opens with a young woman, Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), arriving in Budapest from Trieste in 1913. Orphaned as an infant, she seeks out the legendary hat shop founded by her parents, hoping to find employment there as a milliner. Instead of quietly toiling among the lavish, feather-bedecked hats, she is propelled into a baffling and dangerous quest to find—and then to fathom—a brother she never knew she had. Kálmán Leiter is at first a phantom, the subject of dark rumors. A killer, a fugitive, the leader of a secret society of working class men, he might be a rebel striking at the corruption of the aristocracy, or a psychopath unleashing senseless violence on his chosen enemies. The real mystery, encoded in all the film’s cryptic twists, is Europe’s inexplicable suicide in World War I. Nemes sets out to evoke the feverish danse macabre of a society collapsing from its own inner rot.

From the start, everything about the film’s style is designed to unsettle and disorient. The camera stays largely glued to Irisz, either closely framing her face—a mask of strained intensity, with a grim mouth and laser stare—or fixed on the nape of her neck, shadowing her so closely as she moves through the city that you imagine the cameraman stepping on the hem of her dress. Everything else appears peripherally around her: the city streets, crowds jostling in a dusty golden haze, street fairs, the rich interiors of the shop, dancers at a ball, coachmen in a menacing nightworld at the edge of the city. Tremendous care has gone into period details (the costumes, in particular, are ravishing) that are only glimpsed in a blur. Nemes insists upon a meticulous physical recreation of the past—no digital backdrops or effects were used, and Sunset was shot on film—and at the same time refuses to let the audience bask in the pleasures of turn-of-the-century elegance. The aim of the cinematography is to make the viewer co-experience Irisz’s journey, and the claustrophobia and limited knowledge that it produces fits the story. But the frequent hand-held camerawork, as always, creates a jittery effect so very different from natural vision that it often adds distance rather than visceral immediacy; instead of being immersed in the film world, one is constantly reminded of the camera as a barrier.

Nonetheless, the mood of the film is enveloping, musky with sinister decadence, lurking hysteria, and occult ritualism. Plenty of hints are dropped as to the plot’s allegorical significance. A tarot reader at a street fair prophetically recites lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” the 1922 poem that presents a postmortem for European society in the wake of World War I. Leiter’s hat shop, with its close (if murky) ties to the Austro-Hungarian royal family, and a bevy of gorgeous shopgirls who may or may not also be for sale, is described as representing “the peak of civilization,” and one character, referring to its millinery confections, says, “The horror of the world hides behind these infinitely pretty things.” But Kálmán Leiter, who almost convinces Irisz of the righteousness of his vendetta against the shop, proves to be a sadistic anarchist who “project[s] his own darkness on the world.” In the end, Irisz herself turns out to be the greatest mystery, an inscrutable figure who passes, confused but oddly unscathed, through one violent encounter after another; a black angel who seems to cause the very disasters she tries to prevent.

A Fortunate Man (Bille August, 2018)

“Some people are too difficult to understand,” a rational medical man tells Irisz about her brother. The same might be said of the protagonist of Bille August’s A Fortunate Man (2018), an adaptation of the sprawling, canonical Danish novel Lykke-Per (Lucky Per) by Henrik Pontoppidan. Originally published as a serial between 1898 and 1904, the book probes the rift between a rural world governed by religious authority and a modern, urban world of science and freedom, by telling the story of a man who flees his strict Lutheran upbringing in remote Jutland, only to find that he carries it inside him like a dormant virus. Peter (known as Per) Sidenius (Esben Smed) comes to Copenhagen as a brilliant engineering student with a visionary proposal for a system of canals and waterworks that will advance Denmark as a shipping hub and create renewable energy. With his ash-blond, clear-cut handsomeness; his dingy garret and too-small, poor boy’s suit; his pride and zealous certainty about his plan, he is a charismatic figure who easily charms his way into a wealthy, sophisticated Jewish family with a penchant for backing inventors (“the ill-mannered and failed geniuses you keep bringing home,” as one sister tartly describes them to her brother). Per is also self-defeatingly stubborn, no less intolerant and self-righteous than the devout father he defies, as well as selfish and opportunistic, especially where women are concerned.

Throughout the film, the moments that stand out most strongly are transactions of stinging cruelty, usually inflicted by Per, which hurt all the more because they are done coolly and with the conviction of being right. He refuses to accept the heirloom pocket-watch that his father offers him; he asks his waitress girlfriend to pretend she doesn’t know him in front of his new rich friends, he breaks off an engagement publicly in a restaurant, telling his fiancée with brittle calm that they are too different and wouldn’t be happy. All the violence here is emotional, but it is no less real, and some is self-inflicted too. A Fortunate Man is far more traditional in its narrative structure, and in the somewhat sugar-glazed prettiness of its period settings, than Sunset, but it too revolves around a thornily ambiguous central character. The mystery here is why a man who has gotten everything he wanted would throw it all away.

A Fortunate Man screened as the closing film of the 2019 New York Jewish Film Festival, and it presents a fascinating inversion of the premise in another title in the festival, E.A. Dupont’s silent The Ancient Law (1923). That film follows a young Orthodox Jew (Ernst Deutsch) who leaves the shtetl to follow his dream of acting, finding fame in Vienna; in order to escape the insular, tradition-bound village for a broader, more modern world he has to break with his rabbi father and turn away from his Jewish faith. In A Fortunate Man it is the opposite: Per tells the beautiful, dignified, and intelligent Jakobe Salomon (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal) that his home in Jutland filled him with a sense of “shame and eeriness,” that his family shut out the world while the cultured, progressive Salomons are open to it. Initially put off by his rough edges and arrogance, Jakobe is seduced by his implacable determination and moved by the realization that he has struggled up from the stony soil of poverty. Soon Per has a rich fiancée and backing for his grand scheme; but then, returning to the open, marshy landscape of Jutland for his mother’s funeral, he suddenly decides to return to his homeland and his roots. In a crisis of identity, he winds up betraying everyone, including the simple country girl he marries, and betraying his own dreams. Like an automaton designed to self-destruct, he falls to pieces before our eyes.

As it spans the decades, the movie (even at 162 minutes) shows the strains of adapting a fat novel into a feature film; but perhaps no amount of explanatory prose could make it easy to understand a protagonist who chooses hermetic solitude, deprivation, and hopelessness. The story ends with reconciliation and seems to embrace Per’s “heroic isolation,” as he stands framed on a windswept bluff. In a sense, this film illustrates how hard it is to stop admiring and romanticizing this type of man—tormented, uncompromising, at war with his world. But it succeeds to the extent that it allows its anti-hero to be unlikeable, contrary, and impenetrable; and it does so largely thanks to Smed’s performance, which is strung as tightly as a piano wire, but also gives this domineering man an affecting vulnerability. Despite his fine features, he is believable when he tells Jakobe that he feels like a hill troll that crawled out of its hole to be with people and found the light too bright.

Perhaps Per and Irisz are both defeated by the city itself, or by the maze of human complexity that it represents. László Nemes has said that the seed of Sunset was the idea of “a woman, alone, lost in her world, a world she tries but ultimately fails to understand.” A coda that flashes forward to the trenches and zeroes in on Irisz’s accusing gaze, overtly connects her failure to find her way out of her “personal labyrinth” with the failure of well-meaning people to prevent Europe from stumbling into a catastrophic war. But it is the simple focus on a failed character—not just someone who fails to achieve an end, but someone who fails, or refuses, to be a satisfying and coherent character—that gives both of these films their prickly fascination. As Virginia Woolf wrote, “The streets of London have their map, but our passions are uncharted. What are you going to meet if you turn this corner?”

Imogen Sara Smith is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City and Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy, and has written for The Criterion Collection and elsewhere. Phantom Light is her regular column for Film Comment.