Hat Trick

Sunset (Napszállta, Nemes László, 2018)

I saw the start of this film twice, as the Curzon screwed up the subtitles: a painting of the kind of four or five storey streets we associate with nineteenth century Vienna or Budapest or Paris, with the light fading to night and electric interiors coming into view. To be precise, it is 1913 Budapest, the other capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire and a young woman is trying on hats, barely acknowledging the helpers, staring indifferently into mirrors. Again, with sound — the newest model, the oldest, the most à la mode — and then she announces she’s there for a job.

Her name?

Írisz Leiter (Jakab Juli)

And the shop is Leiter’s.

What we don’t know then is this focus on her face is unusual, although a handheld feel will become familiar. Much of the film is shot from behind her, over of shoulder — get used to the back of her neck — as we follow her around the outside and into buildings, into carriages, on trams, across parks and down rivers. Virtually every male character will tell her to stay there.

She doesn’t.

She has a secret, and it is almost as if this is a Wilkie Collins novel transferred to Hungary and fifty years later and without the boyfriend going to South America.

Two decades ago, Leiter’s millinery shop burned down, with the owners inside, and Lil Orphan Írisz was sent to train at a hat business in Trieste. Now she is back, on the thirtieth anniversary of the shop (now rebuilt), and they are hardly pleased to see her. In fact, they want her to go away.

But — and we get into spoiler territory — the past may be catching up with her, as she may not be the last of her family, as she learns of the murder of a count and begins to suspect that Leiter’s hides a secret that goes to the very top of the royal family. She witnesses violence and rape and may or may not take matters into her own hands.

Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov), who has taken over Leiter’s and has a line in grunting, first sends her away, then sends her away again, then eventually won’t let her go and puts her in charge of a plastered up room where the empress had once tried on hats and lost a hat pin. You do begin to wonder whether the imperial hat pin is the gun over the fireplace that will assume final act significance — for that matter there is a gun she seems to acquire and doesn’t put down at a shooting gallery. She has also lost her suitcase, although her dress seems to change from blue to white and back about an hour in.

At the same fair, an unseen tarot card reader is able to quote from The Waste Land, eight years too early.

We are increasingly disconcerted as she seems almost to be switching places with the lost relative and you begin to wonder how far the evidence of your eyes can be trusted. The final sequence, post what was surely a terminating fade to black, is extraordinary and puzzling in equal measures. The film seems simultaneously gripping and alienating, liable to create nausea and ennui in equal measures. And it is never quite clear how far she is in charge of her destiny or stumbling along.

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