“Let’s lift this veil.”

So begins Sunset, the second feature from Oscar-winning director László Nemes, a heady, impressionistic plunge into the streets and parks, palaces and shops of the last days of Austro-Hungarian Budapest. The film follows a young woman’s obsession with her long-dead family that leads her to the very heart of power, and the hypocrisy, corruption, and secrets that reside there.

Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) returns to the city of her birth after many years, seeking a job at the hat shop founded by her deceased parents and now run by the prosperous Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov). Leiter’s, according to one character, is “the height of civilisation”, an oasis of sophistication against the teeming streets outside, and a favoured haunt of the imperial elite. Before long, however, the rumour of an unknown brother, responsible for the fire that destroyed the store and their parents with it, drives Írisz out into the city in an increasingly desperate search for the truth.

As Írisz, much to the chagrin of senior milliner Zelma (Evelin Dobos), and the apparent insouciance of Brill, delves deeper and deeper the mystery of her brother, it becomes clear that Budapest is a tinderbox, and Írisz, somehow, is the spark to ignite it. Much of the tension of the film derives from her journeys from the hattery, all tasteful interiors and whispered conversations, to the web of backstreets and workyards that make up her native city.

Although at times the narrative, especially in the second half, works against clear interpretation (and indeed, sense), in part due to the allusive, riddling nature of Nemes’ dialogue, it’s in the depiction of fin-de-siècle Budapest that the film really succeeds. If the clothing – all sharp silhouettes, long lines and lace – are good, it’s the hats, great confections of feathers and jewels, that really stand out, and the camera treats them with the reverence they deserve. By day, the streets clatter and hum with the sounds of carriages and markets, and by night, the sense of threat is palpable: eyes leer from the darkness, and hands grasp after them.

Much of the credit for this world-building must go to cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, who worked with Nemes on his Oscar-winning debut, Son of Saul. In his hands, the film’s title takes on a literal, as well as figurative meaning – scene after scene bursts into incandescence as Erdély uses the full range of natural light to illuminate his city. Several sequences stand out, but the opening, as Írisz first explores the hat shop where she was born and then steps out into the dazzling heat of a city in summer, leaves the audience wincing in sympathy with the young milliner.

In Juli Jakab, who plays Írisz, Nemes has the perfect foil for his cameraman. Intensely feline, stubborn and inscrutable, for much of the film the camera never leaves her face, blurring out the rest of the world as it swoops around her or fixes itself to her shoulders. This is predominantly her film, and even in the closing stages, where she embraces the fullness of her family’s legacy, Jakab retains enough restraint, enough mystery to prevent the film from collapsing into hyperbole.

Son of Saul had proved how adept Nemes is at evoking moments of immense historical trauma, but what’s so striking about Sunset is how little, apart from a rather unfortunate coda, the oncoming devastation of World War I infringes upon the action. Instead, it functions as an interpretive frame through which we cannot help but interrogate the narrative of Írisz’s katabasis through a world on the brink of disaster.

As the film reaches its conclusion, and Írisz finally connects the dots of her own family history, the shop and the Austro-Hungarian nobility, the film takes a decidedly sinister, occultish turn. As in The Picture of Dorian Grey, there must always be a canvas upon which the evils of society are written, and in this case it is quite literally upon the bodies of women, in this case the milliners who staff Brill’s store. This, as Brill makes clear, is simply how it is, and how it has always been – even in Írisz’s parents’ time. As one character observes, “the horror of the world hides in these infinitely pretty things”. We know, however, that this status quo is working on borrowed time; within five years, the Austro-Hungarian empire will be no more, as the fire that closes the film is multiplied hundreds and thousands of time across the extent of mainland Europe.

Is there, then, hope to be found in the desolation to come? This is the question the film closes on. At a street fair earlier on, a fortune teller invokes T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, perhaps the archetypal realisation of civilisation in terminal decline. Eliot’s poem also ends with the promise of renewal, and the voice of the thunder is one of hope amid destruction, of rain on the ruined land. But first, of course, we must have the thunder.