Set in 1913 in Budapest during the final years of the Austrian-Hungary empire, the film revolves around a young woman who goes to the city during an upcoming celebration where she goes to a legendary hat store that was once owned by her parents until it was burned down where they claimed her parents when she was only 2 years old. It is a film about this young woman whose surname meant a lot to Budapest as it is known for its elaborate hat designs that posh women wear as she wants to know what happened to her parents as those she meet often turn her away from the truth amidst this growing social turmoil that is set to come. The film’s screenplay is straightforward in its narrative as it follows its protagonist of Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) who has been living in France for a few years as she arrives to the city where her family’s hat shop is at the center of the city which is considered to be the heart of Europe.
Owning the Leiter hat shop is an old family friend in Oszkar Brill (Vlad Ivanov) who is trying to get Irisz to leave the city with many claiming that her older brother was the one who killed her parents. One aspect of the script that is unique revolves around Irisz trying to get answers but either someone doesn’t reveal anything to her or often gives her something cagey along the way she treks throughout the city and areas outside to find out what happened to her parents. Irisz arrives during a moment where the Leiter shop is about to embark on a major event as a prince is set to arrive with his wife to see the new hats but also something much more. Notably as Irisz also notices this air of social turmoil lurking around as she visits an ailing countess and people who follow her brother where there is so much that is happening as she is confused by her surroundings and what is going on as well as this major event that is happening as if this idea of what Europe is finally starting to unravel.
Laszlo Nemes’ direction is definitely entrancing as it play into a period in time where old Europe is thriving and entering into this modern world of high fashion and high culture that is disconnected from what is happening in the lower class as well as those disenfranchised from high society. Shot on location in areas in and around Budapest, Nemes maintains this gaze as it is largely shot from Irisz’s perspective where the camera is often behind her and following her at times with its usage of close-ups and medium shots. Even as there are tracking shots throughout the film where Nemes would follow Irisz as she goes into the town square where there is so much happening as if the city is enjoying this air of decadence unaware that there are dark forces that are lurking. There are some wide shots in Nemes’ direction yet he maintains this air of intimacy but also a sense of claustrophobia in the crowd shots with the shop being a character in the film where it does have this air of beauty as the milliners are largely women as many of them have to have a certain look and wear white.
There is also this air of suspense and tension that looms throughout the film as it relates to the visit from the prince (Tom Pilath) and the princess (Susanne Wuest) where it’s not just about hats but something more that makes even Brill and the shop’s manager Zelma (Evelin Dobos) uneasy. Adding to this tension is what is happening outside of the city in the slums where Irisz gets a closer look into the world of the poor who feel slighted by the royals and the posh people in society as this hat shop as the symbol of this oppression. Even as the hats themselves represent this air of importance in its social status but also as a shield of the dark realities of the world where Irisz is forced to understand about everything Brill, her brother, and others are trying to shield her from. Amidst all of these revelations, Irisz gets a much closer look of a world that is coming to an end as the shop represents this modern idea of old Europe just as the continent is about to fall into chaos. Overall, Nemes crafts a ravishing yet unsettling film about a young woman uncovering the secrets of her family’s hat shop.
Cinematographer Matyas Erdely does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography as its usage of sunlight is key to the film along with emphasis on natural and available light for many of the scenes at night as it is a highlight of the film. Editor Matthieu Taponier does excellent work with the editing as it is largely straightforward with some rhythmic cuts to play into the suspense as a lot of it has a lot of long shots to play into the drama. Production designer Laszlo Rajk, along with art directors Dorka Kiss and Attila Digi Kovari, does amazing work with the look of the shop in its interiors and rooms as well as some of the places behind the shop as it play into this air of secrecy where everything is trying to be concealed.
Costume designer Gyorgyi Szakacs does fantastic work with the design of the dresses of those times along with the suits the men wore while the hats that are created is a major highlight of the film as do play into some of the metaphorical elements of the film. Sound designer Tamas Zanyi does superb work with the sound as it plays into the natural locations and settings as well as scenes involving crowds and some eerie quiet moments in the film. The film’s music by Laszlo Melis is incredible for its serene yet haunting score with its emphasis on discordant string arrangements as well as elements of folk as it adds to the film’s suspense.
The casting by Eva Zabezsinszkij is wonderful as it feature some notable small roles from Enrique Keil as a royal figure wearing a monocle, Susanne Wuest as the princess, Tom Pilath as the prince, Urs Rechn as an anarchist figure in Ismael, Sandor Zsoter as a doctor late in the film who warns Irisz about what is happening, Judit Bardos and Dorottya Moldovan in their respective roles as hat girls in Szerena and Lili who both hope they go to Vienna, Christian Harting as a prominent social figure in Otto von Konig, Julia Jakubowska as the grief-stricken and ailing Countess Redey who had a past with Irisz’s brother, Benjamin Dino as a worker at the store in Andor who knew Irisz’s brother whom he is not fond of, and Levente Molnar as a mad coachman in Gaspar who knew Irisz’s brother.
Marcin Czarnik is excellent in his small role as a mysterious man called Sandor as he is often seen looking at Irisz as if he knows who she is while his motives are ambiguous. Evelin Dobo is brilliant as Zelma as the supervisor at the hat shop as a woman who is trying to conceal things from Irisz but also leave her clues as she also has to deal with a much bigger role she has to play for this upcoming event. Vlad Ivanov is amazing as Oszkar Brill as the owner of the Leiter hat shop who knew Irisz’s parents but also what happened as he is reluctant to divulge any details while he is part of something bigger that he doesn’t want Irisz to know about. Finally, there’s Juli Jakab in a phenomenal performance as Irisz Leiter as a young woman, whose parents once owned a hat shop that is now the center of Budapest’s town square, as she deals with the many secrets about her family as well as the secrets relating to this big event as it would lead to chaos where Jakab maintains this air of calm but also a haunting quality into a woman that is just trying to find answers about herself and her family as it is an unsettlingly eerie performance from Jakab.
Napszallta is a spectacular film from Laszlo Nemes that features an incredibly chilling performance from Juli Jakab. Along with its ensemble cast, ravishing visuals, its disconcerting tone, somber music soundtrack, and its exploration of a world not knowing it’s coming to its end. The film is an intoxicating yet densely-written film that explores a young woman’s search for her identity only to be front and center at an event that would set the stage for what is to come in the history of the world. In the end, Napszallta is a sensational film from Laszlo Nemes.
Related: Son of Saul
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