Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
This weekend brings another session of Scarecrow Academy, where we’ll consider Hiroshima, Mon Amour, the landmark film directed by Alain Resnais and written by Marguerite Duras, in our ongoing look at the movies of 1959. That’s 1 pm, Saturday 4/27 at Scarecrow. See you there?
The weekend also brings an Oscar-winning filmmaker’s sophomore effort.
László Nemes’s Son of Saul was one of the best films of 2015, a startling example of a filmmaker identifying a single, relentless stylistic concept for a movie and playing it out to its logical conclusion. In that case, the approach consists of keeping the camera as close to the head and shoulders of the main character as possible for the entire running time.
What’s devastating about this is that the main character is a Jewish prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp; we might infer that the horror of his life there (a life extended by his status as a member of a Sonderkommando, a unit that helps dispose of the thousands of corpses created by the extermination) has narrowed his frame of reference to the space immediately around him. Anything beyond that has become impossible to see. It’s a daring device, but it feels appropriate.
The film won the Best Foreign-Language Oscar. Now Nemes returns with his second feature, Sunset, a film with an entirely different setting: pre-WWI Budapest, where a young woman, Irisz, returns to stake a family claim. Her parents founded an elegant couture store, but lost the business and their lives when she was a child. Now she wants to work at the place, a prospect that brings up uncomfortable ghosts for the current management. Plus, she’s got a brother running around town, and he’s involved with some kind of radical movement making mischief in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many other highly melodramatic plot turns ensue; the film’s 142 minutes have the we-dare-you-to-believe-this brazenness of a thick romantic novel.
But the strange thing is that Nemes employs the same stylistic device he used in Son of Saul. The camera has slightly more flexibility, but it generally doesn’t stray from the immediate vicinity of Irisz’s body. This strikes me as an enormous mistake. What worked brilliantly as a sustained way of operating in the charnel house of Son of Saul grows tiresome after 20 minutes or so here. Equally problematic is that Nemes has overestimated how compelling his lead actress is. In her very first close-up, Juli Jakab has the dazed look of someone recently smacked in the head; she carries this expression through the remainder of the film, as her character blunders into situations she’s been specifically warned to avoid. These miscalculations result in a movie that, while very handsome and crammed with ideas, grows more tedious by the minute.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.