SUNSET – movie review

SUNSET (Napszállta)
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for & by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lázló Nemes
Screenwriter: Lázsló Nemes, Clara Royer, Matthieu Taponier
Cast: Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov, Evelin Dobos, Marcin Czarnik, Levente Molnr, Julia Jakubowska
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 1/31/19
Opens: TBD


The 1950s in America may be looked upon as perhaps the dullest decade of the 20th century but it was also the most prosperous. Politics then were relatively stable. In fact the biggest complaint about the two major political parties is that they were so much alike you could not tell them apart:like tweedeledum and tweedledee. How we wish that were true nowadays when not only the U.S. is divided (Obamacare passed without a single Republican vote), but also Europe with its Brexit, the rise of extreme nationalism, the politics of hate. With “Sunset,” Lázló Nemes unfolds an epic tale about even worse divisions in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, placing the drama in 1913 when the world’s first all-encompassing war was brewing. While the tale, told exclusively through the eyes of Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), tunes us into both the active and brewing violence in Budapest, we in the audience cannot be blamed for being confused as to the motives of the gun-wielding participants. At first we figure that the mayhem is based on class warfare: the masses of have-nots resenting the upper-bourgeois merchants whose products cater to the tastes of the aristocracy in the Austrian capital of Vienna. However, given that director Nemes’ previous offering, “Son of Saul,” opened through the point of view of inmate Saul, an Auschwitz prisoner made to bury the bodies of the murdered Jews, we can surmise that there is a Jewish theme in “Sunset” as well.

Here’s why. The backstory of “Sunset,” or “Napszállta in the original Hungarian, is that a high-class milliner’s store is burned to the ground, its two owners perishing in the flames. This looks like a foreshadowing of the Kristallnacht, when in 1938 Nazi thugs broke windows of Jewish-owned businesses, torched synagogues, raided Jewish homes and killed one hundred German-Jewish citizens. You may, of course, have a different interpretation: Nemes, not one to spoon feed the audience, will never tell.

Because of the director’s regard for the intelligence of his audiences, he gives us but an outline of the activities and bursts of anarchy in Budapest on the eve of war. At the same time, given that the film is 144 minutes long, coupled with that deliberate lack of clarity as to motivations of the warring groups, some prospective filmgoers will be exasperated. And others, like me, will be absorbed throughout.

As Leiter (a predominantly Jewish name), Jakab performs as a woman alone traveling from Trieste to Budapest in search of employment in her parents’ store but also following up a rumor that her brother Kálmán (also a Yiddish given name shortened from the Greco-Jewish name Kalonymos, or קלונימוס) can be located there. She never smiles but wears a fierce, determined look as anyone would while negotiating through the personalities of several men, in one instance almost the victim of gang rape. She seeks employment in the millenery establishment that had been owned by her parents but is now under the proprietorship of Oszkár Brill (the Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov). Though Brill does not hire her, he takes her under his wing as the city faces raids by outlaws, though most of the beatings and shootings take place off the set. (Correction: the action does not take place in a set as the director, fearing the loss of individuality and even a humane-ness in our digital world, refuses to use such a convention favored by current filmmakers.) Each time she mentions the name of her brother, it’s as though she has uttered an obscenity worthy of 50 lashes.

Though warned to stay close to the shop, she wanders off, crashing into what we today would call chaotic neighborhoods, including a look at Countess Redey’s (Julia Jakubowska) palace. The countess was allegedly driven mad by her husband, whose had implanted her back with evidence of severe whippings. Continuing to wander about she runs into more parlous situations, hopping a tram now and then, not deterred even after she is almost raped. At this point we surmise that the director, using a script from Clara Royer, Matthieu Taponier and himself, is using Írisz as an Everyman—the suffix “man” applicable to her given her androgynous look and our vision of her in a concluding scene surrounding by men in trenches.

Györgyi Szakács’s costumes are a high point. Women wear hats that could be used by discus throwers given the size of the head coverings, just as American men in the 50’s all wore Fedoras. Mátyás Erdély films in Hungary, specifically in Budapest and Iszkaszentgyorgy, the dust in the air rarely settling as though the town is a pre-war Beijing. Pay close attention, as though you were Írisz Leiter herself, looking in astonishment at a civilization in decay, preparing for a war that will break up the Austrian Empire, a prelude to the last strains of civilization.

144 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+


THE GUARDIANS (Les Gardiennes)

Music Box Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Xavier Beauvois
Screenwriter:  Xavier Beauvois, Frédérique Moreau, Marie-Julie Maille, based on the novel by Ernest Pérochon
Cast:  Nathalie Baye, Laura Smet, Iris Bry, Cyril Descours, Gilbert Bonneau, Olivier Rabourdin, Nicolas Giraud
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/22/18
Opens: May 4, 2018
The Guardians Poster
How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm/ After they’ve seen Paree!

The World War I song (1918) does not represent the women doing the farming in France after their men take off for the war.  They’re as likely go on a world tour with Maupintour as go to Paris.  How ya gonna keep ‘em on the farm?  Simple: without their work the land goes kaput, and that’s the last thing these women—call them Rosies the Riverters based on the land rather than in factories—and subtracting a couple of decades.

Xavier Beauvois directs this epic style picture (when he is not performing in an array of other pictures), a man known for his “Of Gods and Men” about Trappist monks in Algeria who must decide whether to stay or leave when that country is threatened by terrorists.  By contrast the women in “The Guardians” have no place to go as they must keep up the acreage they own when their men are off to war.  “The Guardians” is a women-centric work done in a classical style, lots of long takes so that we in the audience can register the emotions of women who worry daily that their men may not return and who take out their anxieties in part by some awfully hard farm work.

Under the supervision of Hortense (Nathalie Baye), the women get around on horse-drawn wagons when they are not leading oxen to harvest the land.  They feed and milk the cows, grind the wheat, and are unable to take advantage of much in the way of modern harvesting machinery—though in one scene an older man demonstrates a coffee-making machine to a group of Americans assigned to the farm while awaiting orders to fight.

As the family matriarch, Hortense is desperate for help but where are the men when you need them?  Instead she hires a twenty-year-old pretty orphan, Francine (Iris Bry), discovers that she’s as good as any man in the field, and retains her beyond the harvest season with a one-year contract at forty francs a month.  Everything was just fine with this working relationship—though perhaps Francine would be on borrowed time when Hortense begins using tractors and other modern gear—until Francine meets Hortense’s handsome and caring son George (Cyril Descours) who is on leave and pursues her around the farm and later with correspondence.  (Early on, Georges tells Francine that he is leaving for the front tomorrow and may never return, which in some American movies serves as a “line” to get some action at home.)

Now and then, women are told that their husbands or sons will never return, the news spread by a man wearing a suit and tie as opposed to the current method here of being greeted by two Marines knocking on the door.  The bad news arrives for Hortense who need not see a man in military uniform to know that one of her sons is dead, while later, another woman using Francine’s services is given the same awful message.

A major change occurs when Francine is fired, despite being the best worker that 40 francs a month can buy, a traumatic event for Francine that occurs during the time that Americans, treated here as stereotypical wise guys, are introduced.

This is a film by a male actor-director who apparently knows how to assure us that women are as good as men, the script adapted from Ernest Perochon’s 1924 novel “Les gardiennes frenchz,” which surprisingly is unavailable at Amazon despite the potential tie-in with the film.  I can’t say, therefore, that the book is better than the film or vice versa, but given the vistas captured by Caroline Champetier in widescreen lensing, we get at least as good an idea what of farm like was like in Europe during the early part of the 20th Century.  At the same time, the long takes gives us in the audience time to concentrate on the emotions of the women on the farm as shown subtly in their expressions.  Iris Bry makes her successful debut as a woman troubled by her status as an orphan while Nathalie Baye in the principal role clues us in to the hard life of an older woman with demanding physical work, who must at the same time suffer emotionally when dealing with sons that appear to have P.T.S.D.

Iris Bry  performs Alexandre Trébitsch and Harry Fragson’s 1899 song “Les amour fragile” to wrap up the story, looking at first sadly at the plight of young lovers whose passion does not last while at the same time showing us that she has emerged as a strong woman.  Give the song a listen at

Rated R.  138 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+