5 classic isolation movies recommended by a film scholar
As a film scholar, I am constantly being asked if I am enjoying the lockdown because it has given me more time to watch films. My answer is not simple. Yes, it is good to catch up on some films I missed at the cinema, or finally get around to rewatching Berlin Alexanderplatz.
But, for someone like me, who finds social isolation very difficult, watching movies alone can be a painful reminder of what a communal activity cinema-going usually is, as this research from Essex University has found.
So I have started to watch films that reassure me that I am not the only one feeling lonely and going stir crazy. Here, then, are five great films about being stuck indoors or in forced isolation. Some of these may not be for the faint-hearted, but they are all well worth watching.
Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
Rear Window may be the definitive lockdown movie. The story is simple: Jimmy Stewart’s adventure-seeking photographer finds himself trapped in his apartment with a broken leg. He begins to semi-innocently spy on his neighbours until he becomes convinced that one of them may have murdered their wife.
The film is both a mischievous examination of the voyeur in us all, and a cautionary tale about the devil making work for idle hands. It is also a testament to the power of imagination. We might not be able to have meals, complete with champagne, delivered to us by Grace Kelly, but we can make up stories about what that strange man across the street is up to. It will help pass the time. And you know he’s doing the same about you.
The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962)
Buñuel’s surrealist masterpiece remains cinema’s definitive portrait of societal breakdown, and 90% of it takes place in one room. Following a lavish dinner party at one of their houses, a large group of aristocrats find themselves inexplicably unable to leave the drawing room. The longer they remain there together the more the thin veneer of civilisation cracks.
First the servants leave and the guests are reduced to using antique vases as toilets. Soon the food and water run out and precious medication is stolen. The elderly and frail start to die. Some respond by indulging their hedonistic desires, some resort to prayer and calls for sacrifice, others kill themselves in despair. This might sound unbearably bleak, but Buñuel plays it all for the most mordant kind of comedy. Six decades have not blunted the fangs on this one.
This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi, 2011)
In late 2010, Jafar Panahi, one of Iran’s greatest filmmakers, was sentenced by his government to six years in prison and a 20-year ban on making films for allegedly conspiring to produce “propaganda against the Islamic Republic”. Awaiting the final verdict under house arrest, Panahi did what any good dissident would do: he made a film.
Shot on an iPhone and a digital camcorder, This is Not a Film shows Panahi going about his daily routine, speaking to his lawyers, acting out scenes from a film he expects to never make, talking about his previous work, and interacting with a few neighbours and workmen.
The result is a powerful riposte to state censorship and a sly work of meta-cinema typical of its maker. But the film also has an incredible urgency about it. It is as if Panahi had to make the film simply to stay sane. A timely reminder that you don’t need expensive equipment or money to make great art, and that sometimes the best work comes out of crisis and restraint.
Housebound (Gerard Johnstone, 2014)
It is easy to see why Peter Jackson went out of his way to champion this low-budget effort by first-time writer-director Gerard Johnstone (the famed New Zealand director called it “bloody brilliant”). Like Jackson’s own early films, Housebound shoots for a difficult balance of irreverent comedy, suspense, and splatter, and somehow pulls it off.
The story revolves around a 20-something tearaway named Kylie who placed under house arrest in her childhood home, which her mother casually insists is haunted. At first Kylie thinks her mother is just dotty, but when she is also confronted by mysteriously opening doors, disappearing objects and noises in the night, she begins to wonder.
Essential viewing for people with old, noisy houses. Extra points for the probation officer who reveals himself to be an amateur ghost hunter, and the very plucky female protagonist whose response to encountering a creepy doll is to smash its face in.
Crowhurst (Simon Rumley, 2017)
Independent British filmmaker Simon Rumley’s retelling of Donald Crowhurst’s disastrous attempt to sail solo and non-stop around the world in 1968, which ended in his disappearance and probable suicide, offers a masterclass in low-budget filmmaking. A good deal of the movie consists of Crowhurst (played by the excellent Justin Salinger) alone on a very small trimaran. Rumley, however, puts the viewer squarely inside Crowhurst’s head as his loneliness, isolation and fear of failure slowly cause him to crack.
This is not a movie for everyone. It is intense to say the least, and the more unhinged Crowhurst gets, the more self-consciously raw the filmmaking becomes. The fact that it was championed by Nicolas Roeg, the late, great maestro of mind-bending British cinema, will be the ultimate recommendation for those looking for something more adventurous.
This list is hardly exhaustive. There are many more films about isolation to watch while in isolation: from Persona to Safe, from Repulsion to Right at Your Door. I just wanted to guide people to a few lesser-known films alongside a pair of classics that worth revisiting now more than ever.
Stay safe and happy viewing.