Six of the Best... isolation films
During the first lockdown I had no interest in watching anything which spoke to our current predicament. Dystopian sci fi and claustrophobic thrillers just felt redundant, and apart from Twin Peaks: The Return (which was strangely comforting, mainly thanks to Dougie Jones) a good deal of my viewing consisted of gentle cartoons and 30s comedies.
We have just reached the (possible) half-way mark in England's second lockdown, and this time I've been more prepared to embrace the darkness. Halloween sparked a whole week of horror, including the joy of introducing my kids to Get Out. I've also had a lot more time for the cinema of isolation, and films which deal creatively with confinement in different forms. This is a world with plenty of room for paranoia (Rear Window, The Thing) and perversity (Dogtooth, The Lighthouse), but most of the choices below are designed to be a little more reflective. In different ways they deal with characters being cut off from the world, and how this can heighten our imagination and our awareness of nature.
The Red Turtle
(dir: Michael Dudok de Wit, France/Japan 2016)
A Studio Ghibli film but not as we know it, this wordless wonder starts out as a desert island movie and then takes an unexpected turn into surrealism. An international team of animators and sound designers do an amazing job of conjuring up the island's flora and fauna, from curious crabs to sudden rain showers sweeping through the forest, while our castaway's vivid dreams may bring back lockdown memories for some. We previewed the film at Flatpack 2016, and the subsequent Q&A with Michael Dudok de Wit is still one of my all-time festival highlights.
Available via Amazon and Youtube.
(dir: Chris Newby, UK 1993)
An anchoress was a woman who committed herself to a life of isolation from secular society, often confined to a cell built into the wall of a village church. After a series of experimental shorts Chris Newby made his feature debut with this tale of Christine (Natalie Morse), a peasant in 14th century Europe who takes the anchoritic vow - as much as anything to escape her parents (Pete Postlethwaite and Birmingham's own Toyah Willcox) and the miserable marriage they have planned for her. Michel Baudour's Dreyeresque black-and-white photography makes the film, perfectly capturing the way that sunlight plays on the cell floor.
Available via BFI Player.
A Man Escaped
(dir: Robert Bresson, France 1956)
Confinement of a less voluntary kind here, and the spiritual grandaddy of all prison movies. Robert Bresson was detained in a Nazi labour camp during the war, and the story of A Man Escaped - as well as the actual prison location - is drawn from the experiences of fellow Resistance fighter André Devigny. Over several painstaking months Fontaine (played by young philosophy student François Leterrier) plans his escape, using a spoon to burrow away at a wooden door. As with the two films above the dialogue is sparse verging on non-existent, and words struggle to do justice to the film's mesmerising minimalism. (I first discovered it thanks to Alex Cox's Moviedrome series, a free film school for many 80s kids.)
Available via Curzon.
This is not a Film
(dir: Jafar Panahi, Iran 2011)
In December 2010 Jafar Panahi was sentenced by the Iranian authorities to six years under house arrest and banned from filmmaking for 20 years. While preparing his appeal Panahi used a small camcorder and an iPhone to create this 'non-film'. Filmed in his apartment over the course of a few days, we see the director chatting to his lawyer, hanging out with his pet iguana and grappling with boredom and loneliness. He attempts to act out an unproduced script, and eventually ends up revisiting some of his old films and delivering an impromptu commentary. A moving snapshot of creativity against the odds, This Is Not a Film was smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick hidden inside a cake and premiered at Cannes in 2011.
Available via Amazon.
Two Years at Sea
(dir: Ben Rivers, UK 2011)
I think Ben Rivers saw this whole pandemic thing coming a mile off. Many of his early films combine the pastoral and the post-apocalyptic, solo-shot 16mm portraits of figures on the margins of society. This reached its zenith with Rivers' first feature, created in collaboration with Jake Williams. Williams lives in splendid isolation in an Aberdeenshire pine forest and is shown having a shower, bringing down a tree, rafting, reading, and just generally being in the world. I'm not sure how well it will work for you on a laptop, but the rhythm, look and sound of the film can be really spellbinding if they catch you at the right moment. Rivers talks to Gareth Evans about the film in this LRB event streamed back in May.
Available via BFI Player.
Mary and Max
(dir: Adam Elliot, Australia 2009)
Mary is a bullied young girl in suburban Australia, with a birthmark on her forehead and eyes the colour of muddy puddles. Max is an atheist ex-Jew in New York with Asperger's syndrome and an appetite for chocolate hot dogs. Their unlikely pen-pal relationship is the heart of this hand-crafted claymation tale, by turns bleak, grotesque and heart-warming. See Adam Elliot's own isolation picks here.
Available via Amazon.
(dir: Antonio Mercero, Spain 1972)
I have tried to steer clear of anything too traumatic or claustrophobic in this list, but this is the exception. I was nearly kicked out of the house after sharing it with my fellow inmate during the first lockdown - so be warned.
(dir: Satyajit Ray, India 1964)
Two housebound boys encounter one another across the class divide in Ray's 'film fable'.
In My Room
(dir: Mati Diop, France 2020)
Diop weaves together audio recordings of her late grandmother with footage filmed from her Paris high-rise during lockdown. Funded by Miu Miu, so it features a few self-consciously gratuitous clothing shots.
...And talking of 'in my room', let's play out with the Beach Boys.