(director/writer: László Nemes; screenwriters: Clara Royer/Matthieu Taponier; cinematographer: Matyas Erdely; editor: Matthieu Taponier; music: László Melis; cast: Juli Jakab (Írisz Leiter), Susanne Wuest (The Princess), Vlad Ivanov (Oszkár Brill), Evelin Dobos (Zelma), Marcin Czarnik (unknown brother), Levente Molnar (Gaspar), Julia Jakobowska (Countess Rédey), Christian Harting (Otto von König); Runtime: 142; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Gabor Sipos, Gabor Rajna, Francois Yon, Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, Valery Guibal; Sony Picture Classics; 2018-Hungary/France-in Hungarian and German with English subtitles)

Unsettling old-fashioned atmospheric historical drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The talented groundbreaking forty-two-year-old French-Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes (“Son of Saul”), living in Paris, is the writer-director of this unsettling old-fashioned atmospheric historical drama, that plays out as a gothic mystery in perpetual motion.

It’s shot in a visually stunning dream-like way, following the style of Bela Tarr, who Nemes worked for as an assistant. It uses Nemes’ signature style of long takes and closeups on the lead character’s face, and a shallow focus so that the surrounding reality emerges only intermittently.

It’s a character-driven bizarre modernist period piece of gloom and doom, that’s set on the eve of World War I, in a robust Budapest. The challenging costume drama makes for a long and difficult watch–not an easy film to get into or fall in love with despite its high qualities because so much of it is opaque, told with a minimal and murmuring dialogue, and it presents too many mysteries not resolved. The story was scripted by Nemes, Clara Royer and Matthieu Taponier and is built around the forceful photography of the excellent cinematographer Matyas Erdely.In 1913, the orphan young adult Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), after years of an apprenticeship in Trieste and living with relatives in Vienna, returns to her native Budapest (at the time under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy), after a long absence, hoping for work as a milliner at the famous Leiter department store her deceased parents founded and used to own (her parents died under mysterious circumstances in a fire when she was 2). The slick new owner of the hat emporium Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov, Romanian actor) and his cold manager Zelma (Evelin Dobos) are busy arranging for the festivities at his emporium to celebrate the royal guests arriving from Vienna and try to ignore Írisz. They feel uncomfortable around her and do not hire her, wary of why she is here and they also seem to be intimidated by her presence. She’s only hired later on by the reluctant new owner for no clear reasons. Budapest and Vienna are known at the time as leading bourgeois cities for their wealth, fashion and culture. The streets have classy horse-drawn carriages. The sullen and unsmiling Írisz Leiter seems like a fish out of water in her new gay surroundings. The orphan makes mostly unsatisfactory encounters, like with those in authority who do not take kindly to her return to her birthplace and treat her badly like the dissolute aristocrats do. While others who might be well-intentioned, try to persuade her not to ask direct questions that make those around her uncomfortable and that it will do no good digging up the past. A bearded taxi driver warns her to go home before things will get bloody here. Though made to feel unwelcome in Budapest and told to go back to Trieste, she stubbornly goes on with her search for her mysterious missing brother Kalman ( Marcin Czarnik, Polish actor) she was unaware ever existed until arriving in Budapest. It’s eventually learned through an unreliable coachman (Levente Molnar) that he’s a revolutionary activist and street criminal who killed a Hungarian count five years earlier and has not been seen since. What unfolds is a disturbing story worth telling. It weaves an incoherent tale relating to the rise of extremism in Europe and the downfall in flames of the Habsburg empire. It’s a film from the historical past whose narrative cannot be taken literally, that nevertheless long after the viewing made me rethink things anew about Old Europe, the Holocaust and the current rise of populist fascism in America and Europe. It’s a great film you might not think great at first, that in its own way brilliantly compares the present world to the one depicted in 1913 in Budapest.