10 great films set in hotels

From The Shining to The Lobster, hotels on film are the perfect settings for crime, sex, farce, horror and all kinds of subterfuge. As The Eternal Daughter checks in to cinemas, we celebrate some of the most memorable.

The Eternal Daughter (2022)

“People coming, going. Nothing ever happens,” says Doctor Otternschlag in Grand Hotel (1932), after which – you guessed it – a lot happens. Hotels, under a veneer of frictionless luxury, harbour anonymity that spurs indiscretion.

Illicit trysts flourish behind numbered doors in Brief Encounter (1945), The Graduate (1967) and Up in the Air (2009). A hotel is a haven for gangsters in Key Largo (1948) – crooks often use them as hideouts, enticed by convenience, as in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), or for anonymity, as in John Wick (2014). Just remember to leave a false name at reception.

Other directors opt for abstraction, turning winding corridors and decadent interiors into psychosexual battlegrounds. Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963), Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971) and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974) all lean into Freudian readings. In Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971), another tale of sexual obsession, a stately hotel stands as an elegant monument to bygone times, though there’s a whiff of rot in the Venetian air, and faded architectural grandeur becomes a metaphor for corporeal decay.

With all those liminal corridors and clandestine goings-on, it’s hardly surprising hotels also provide fertile ground for horrors, with The Shining (1980) reigning supreme. The Innkeepers (2011), another solid genre entry, leans into conventional haunts, while Lucio Fulci gleefully turns heads to bloody froth in The Beyond (1981), featuring a hotel with a check-in from hell.

Joanna Hogg’s new film, The Eternal Daughter, stars Tilda Swinton as a middle-aged filmmaker who takes her elderly mother to their former home, now a hotel haunted by their shared past. To celebrate its release, here are 10 other films that find cinematic intrigue in these mysterious spaces.

Key Largo (1948)

Director: John Huston

Key Largo (1948)

The last of four Bogie-and-Bacall vehicles after To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946) and Dark Passage (1947), Key Largo unfolds almost exclusively in the claustrophobic confines of the Largo Hotel, an isolated family-run place in the Florida Keys. The heat is on, and so is hurricane season in this tale of regret and disillusionment in both love and war.

Bogart’s Frank McCloud arrives at the subtropical getaway, only to find it commandeered by mobsters led by the brutal Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), his posse of thugs and his liquor-drenched wife, played with fragile desperation by Claire Trevor (who won an Academy Award for her performance). The isolated hotel becomes a pressure cooker of human desperation, and the storm outside mirrors the tempest within. Just as haunted house horrors hit all the harder by subverting the haven of the home, Key Largo turns the land of swaying palms and piña coladas into a swampy tempest populated with brutes, brutalised Indigenous Americans, and dames who got caught up in the mess.

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

Director: Jacques Tati

Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (1953)

Ghosts, mobsters, alienation, faded grandeur – don’t hotels ever get good rep on film? Happy news: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday depicts easy breezy summer living on an elegant sweep of sand in Saint-Marc-sur-Mer. With friendly guests, gentle waves and sunny skies, there’s nothing but a stiff sea breeze and the occasional snafu courtesy of Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati) to disturb the peace.

Filmed in 1951 as the middle classes rediscovered their cherished rituals after the war, it sees the modest Hôtel de la Plage become a microcosm of postwar France’s burgeoning vacation culture. Largely plotless and thin on dialogue, the film employs much of the same physical humour as the silent era; it’s a form well-suited to Tati’s gangly Hulot. He brings his trademark confusion and overeagerness to please to the proceedings, which, in the formal confines of the hotel, only magnifies his nonconformity. Gentle chaos ensues in this poetic and warm-hearted send-up of the rituals of summer.

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Director: Andrzej Wajda

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Ashes and Diamonds is the final, and arguably finest, of Andrzej Wajda’s war film trilogy (following A Generation and Kanal). It’s loosely based on Jerzy Andrzejewski’s 1948 novel of the same name, but where the book overtly supported postwar communism, Wajda’s adaptation depicts the clash of the personal and the political via Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski), an underground anti-communist revolutionary who increasingly questions his cause.

Cybulski brings Hollywood-esque swagger to the role (he’s been called the Polish James Dean), blending youthful rebellion with fatalistic romanticism; themes served well by cinematographer Jerzy Wójcik’s arresting imagery. Rubble-strewn streets, partially destroyed churches and the ornate rooms in the once-grand Hotel Monopol bring shabby glamour to this tragic tale of heroics and defeat. A later shot of the hotel’s banquet hall, with cigarette smoke and streamers still hanging in the air, reverberates with the memories of revelries past. It’s an elegiac ending that speaks to the sad beauty of life’s transient passions, and there’s surely no better setting for this than a grand old hotel set amid ruins.

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Director: Alan Resnais

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

‘The woman’ (Delphine Seyrig) and ‘the man’ (Giorgio Albertazzi) discuss whether they had an affair, or contemplated one, the year prior at a similar resort. She claims not to know him, so he attempts to remind her of their past. Puzzling? Yes, and that’s not the half of it. Alain Resnais’ enigmatic Last Year at Marienbad turns the labyrinthine corridors and salons of a palatial hotel into a metaphor for the unknowability of the human mind.

Penned by Alain Robbe-Grillet, the film weaves memory and time into the hotel’s opulent, yet eerily sterile spaces. Characters move through the grounds like spectres, or else pose like mannequins, their gnomic conversations more like echoes in a dream than grounded events. The grandiose hotel, with its endless hallways, baroque shadows and ornate gardens, seemingly traps its inhabitants in a surreal, timeless loop in which gradual revelations uncover, among other things, a rape: a well-judged scene depicted as a series of striking over-exposed close-ups of Seyrig’s smiling face.

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

Director: Peter Bogdanovich

What's Up Doc? (1972)

In What’s Up, Doc?, chaos unfolds almost entirely within the confines of the Bristol Hotel, a setting that, with its garish decor and cheap furniture, suits its larger-than-life petit bourgeois characters as they clash in an attempt to locate, swap and steal one of four identical plaid bags ensnared in a mix-up. Barbara Streisand plays the charmingly manipulative Judy, who adds to the chaos when she sets her amorous sights on the bookish Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal), who’s engaged to the neurotic Eunice (Madeline Kahn).

Screwball comedies fell out of popularity decades ago, but Peter Bogdanovich’s adoring homage to the genre manages to feel both fresh and true to its predecessors, notably Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938), who provide the prototype for Judy and Howard. It went on to be the third-highest-grossing film of 1972, and solidified Streisand’s on-screen credentials.

The Shining (1980)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

The Shining (1980)

What’s the scariest thing about The Shining? There’s the father (Jack Nicholson) inexplicably filled with murderous rage. There’s rivers of blood tumbling from a lift, the isolated mountain location, the nauseous decor and Stanley Kubrick’s mind games. Then there are the ghosts: the woman in the bathtub, leering Lloyd the bartender (Joe Turkel), Grady the butler (Philip Stone) with his chilling “I corrected them”, and the ‘corrected’ daughters (Louise and Lisa Burns) lying in a bloodied heap in the hallway. Arguably most frightening of all, though, is the hotel itself.

A twisted mass of impossible corridors with horrors lurking behind doors and bends, it lures its dwarfed inhabitants deeper into its mad bowels. Jack isn’t the mastermind here; it’s the Overlook Hotel causing chaos. With trademark iciness, Kubrick makes an antagonist of the building with a haunted past, reducing every flesh-and-blood character to inconsequential bugs scuttling through the hotel’s yawning lobbies. Villains are easier to manage when we can rationalise their behaviour. There’s no reckoning with a malignant hotel.

Lost in Translation (2003)

Director: Sofia Coppola

Lost in Translation (2003)

The hushed, gleaming interiors of Tokyo’s Park Hyatt Hotel are a luxurious prison for two lost souls: Bill Murray’s fading movie star, Bob Harris, and Scarlett Johansson’s listless newlywed, Charlotte. While many films set in hotels make a muse of alienation, Sofia Coppola’s odd couple find solace in shared insomnia and whispered conversations over drinks in the hotel’s dimly lit bar. Despite drawing close, theirs is a chaste encounter that gains greater intimacy for remaining unmuddied by sex.

The film’s take on East Asian culture hasn’t aged well (Japanese customs form the butt of several jokes), but Murray’s shaggy-dog performance of a man in his later years filled with regret and bemused by life at large makes for entertaining viewing. Ever the master of mood, Coppola creates a swooningly romantic world of neon lights glimpsed through car windows and jet-lagged eyes, while the film’s soundtrack – featuring the impressionistic fuzz of My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain (among others) – only adds to the bittersweet yearning.

Winter Sleep (2014)

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Winter Sleep (2014)

Filled with quiet mystery, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s epic drama narrates the tale of Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a retired actor who claims the ethical high ground while neglecting his own moral responsibilities. Having inherited a hotel from his parents, he delegates odious rent collection and financial management to others, leaving him ample time to pen a self-indulgent column for the local paper. Aydin’s guests seem perpetually on the verge of departure, eager to escape his self-aggrandising tales; it’s a luxury his sister (Demet Akbağ) and young wife (Melisa Sözen) are denied.

With the glacial swell of an Antarctic wave, each interaction unveils revelations of character – though this vast wave stops shy of breaking, lest each speaker reveal their own vulnerabilities. Pathos and pain blend with the austere, eternal beauty of the Anatolian steppe. The hotel setting with its ebb and flow of guests merely gives the illusion of movement; these cyclic human dramas are as enduring as the primal rockscapes outside.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Director: Wes Anderson

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel was Wes Anderson’s first film to win Oscars (four of them). It’s also a quintessentially ‘Wes’ film, offering an elegant tableau of pastels, pleasing symmetry and physical comedy – but there’s a hidden thorn. The story follows concierge Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes) and his lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) who set off on a goose-chase to clear the former’s name when he’s framed for murder. Meanwhile, fascists close in. The opulent hotel is a final bastion of a bygone era, standing defiantly against the tides of change that characterised 1940s Europe and its encroaching darkness. It’s within these grand walls that the characters seek solace in the beauty and the quaint rituals of the past, even as they face an uncertain future.

With its fairytale-like Mitteleuropa setting, The Grand Budapest Hotel is, from the beginning, suspended in time: a Keatsian paradox that’s both beautiful for being unchanged, yet more beautiful for being perched on the bittersweet brink of loss.

The Lobster (2015)

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

The Lobster (2015)

Yorgos Lanthimos’s dystopian allegory unfolds within the confines of an austere hotel – a purgatorial space where single people are obliged to find a mate within 45 days or be transformed into animals. This Kafkaesque setting is both a prison and a playground, where the absurdities of societal norms around love and relationships are amplified to surreal proportions. Words like ‘love’, ‘sex’ and ‘killed’ are delivered as flatly as a bored hotel waiter reading the specials, while couples pair up based on mutual handicaps – a requirement taken in the film’s final scene to a squirm-inducing extreme.

Wandering forlornly over thick patterned carpets, Colin Farrell’s performance as David brings a dryly comic edge to this tale of enforced conformity, as does the sterile hotel setting. Its early 2000s conference centre interiors sit jarringly at odds with the inhabitant’s more primal challenges, as well as with the exterior’s rugged stone walls and verdant surrounds. Outside seems much better, or so David thinks. Alas, in this world of brutal binaries, ‘freedom’ is just as punishing.

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