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9 arthouse films about isolation to watch during lockdown

As COVID-19 forces us indoors again, enrich your mind with these movies about life lived in confinement

Be careful what you wish for: there’s finally enough time to catch up on all those movies on your watchlist, and only for the price of human interaction, your sanity, and giving up on everything you had planned for 2020 that didn’t involve staring at a laptop until you’re physically crying, or being so exhausted you wanted to sleep for 20 hours or 20 weeks or 20 goddamn years. That’s right, there’s a second lockdown, and whether you agree it’s correct, or you’re Ian Brown, it sucks. The only consolation is that with a No Deal Brexit shepherded by a Tory government during a global pandemic, it’s actually going to get worse – you might perversely become nostalgic for 2020. Again, everything really, really sucks.

Still, if there’s one thing I learned from lockdown number one, it’s that you should really force yourself to watch proper films. I truly mean this. Movies aren’t just escapism, but medicine for your brain. I made the mistake of binge-watching The OC and Gossip Girl over the summer – they’re both shows I watched for the first time under the guise of comfort viewing, but I actually feel sick thinking of the days I wasted on them. Days!

I could have watched Chantal Akerman’s entire filmography and enriched my soul. And so could you. There’s nothing stopping you – sure, you’ll watch Home Alone on Christmas Day, but what else are you going to do? Refresh social media? Doomscroll until you realise there’s no longer any sunlight for your daily walk? At the very least, when you catch up with friends in 2021, you can casually say, ‘Yeah, I watched everything by Krzysztof Kieślowski, and I now have an entirely new outlook on the human condition. So, tell me, who is Joe Wicks?’

I suggest for at least two hours a day, you treat yourself to some extra screen time. Think about it: your eyesight is already so fucked from a 21st century lifestyle, the damage is already done. Do you work in the living room? Watch a movie in bed. Do you work in bed? Watch What Lies Beneath in the bathtub and pretend it’s Secret Cinema. Whatever you do, be aware that movies are uniquely equipped to tackle loneliness – in 2020 alone, we’ve had fantastic films like i’m thinking of ending thingsSaint MaudThe Lighthouse, and Vivarium, all of which have coincidentally mirrored lockdown.

So here are some films about coping with isolation. Remember, whatever happens, you’re not alone – unless if you live alone, in which case you really are alone. I’m sorry. Maybe get a MUBI account?

THE HUMAN VOICE (dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 2020)

Filmed during lockdown, Almodóvar’s 30-minute short is a direct response to lockdown and the enforced loneliness that comes with it. Mostly, it’s Tilda Swinton as a wronged woman who spends much of it on the phone, angry, in a one-way conversation, pacing around a Dogville-esque soundstage that reminds viewers this was all done with social distancing in mind. Almodóvar’s traditional flourishes – vivid colours, clothes you could never afford, ostentatious credit sequences – are a reminder that life during COVID can still be glamorous, even if you’re only glamorous for an audience of your housemates. The planned theatrical release for November 7 has been postponed; if you didn’t catch it at a festival, the best you can do for now is gawp at the one-minute trailer 30 times in a row.

Lesson: Put your phone away whenever possible.

DOGTOOTH (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009)

Lanthimos’s messed-up breakthrough (which is available through Curzon Home Cinema, whose cinemas are closed, and could really do with your support during lockdown) was meant to be a warning against overparenting, but now resonates for how its young protagonists go crazy due to obsessive home-schooling. Three adult children aren’t allowed to leave their house or garden. What’s the worst that could happen? Well, incest, violence, and offspring who behave like wild animals. If you want a positive spin, it’s Plato’s Cave: convince yourself that everything beyond the garden walls is uninhabitable, and at least there’s safety within your seclusion.

Lesson: Go for a walk now and then.

SOLARIS (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)

Is Tarkovsky’s existential sci-fi odyssey an interstellar trip into the unknown, or a parable about working from home? Kris shoots off to a spaceship where, to his surprise, there are only two other crew members for company – or three, if you include the hallucinations of his dead wife. Steven Soderbergh’s underrated 2002 remake inserts chatty flashbacks on Earth and zips along with a smooth, suave protagonist in George Clooney. Tarkovsky’s long, meandering version, though, conveys the psychological agony of being stranded on a space station; the pacing is so slow and brutal, you feel every lonely, echoing footstep as Kris traipses around the empty vessel and concludes that it’s unhealthy to sleep so close to his office.

Lesson: Set yourself reasonable working hours.

SHAKING TOKYO (dir. Bong Joon Ho, 2008)

10 years of toilet roll tubes and pizza boxes adorn a one-man flat: this is how the hikikomori of Bong’s 30-minute short lives. “Defecating with the door open, I don’t care,” the anonymous loner sighs. “Falling asleep while defecating, I don’t care.” The word hikikomori refers to the estimated 1.15 million people in Japan who, pre-COVID, chose to withdraw from society. As Bong is a visual stylist, the cramped home becomes an accidental art gallery with each room decorated with the remnants of a hoarder not expecting any company. In many ways, it’s a prototype for the secret basement in Parasite – Bong told Dazed last year that he originally envisioned the second half of Parasite to tackle the hikikomori phenomenon with the poor family voluntarily locking themselves up in their new home.

Lesson: Throw out your pizza boxes.


HOME (dir. Ursula Meier, 2008)

There are lots of metaphors for where your home is, but, ultimately, it’s the building you’ll be stuck in for the next few weeks, whether you like it or not. For Isabelle Huppert and her family, home also happens to be a house next to a disused motorway. When traffic resumes after years of silence, the noise is deafening enough that Huppert bricks up the windows and soundproofs the walls. Inside, it’s sweaty, claustrophobic, and tense; the family members eat tinned food and gradually turn into a gang of Jack Torrances. It’s absurd, hilarious, and gorgeously shot by Claire Denis’ regular cinematographer, Agnès Godard.

Lesson: Open your windows.

MUSTANG (dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)

When five young sisters in northern Turkey are caught flirting with boys in public, their strict grandmother forbids them from leaving the house until they agree to arranged marriages. It may sound a little like The Virgin Suicides, but Ergüven declared the more apt comparison to be Escape from Alcatraz: the teenage protagonists (four of them were first-time actors) bond in the boredom but plot separate breakouts as their siblinghood is gradually broken down and an uncle is revealed to be abusive. The coming-of-ager was Oscar-nominated and a sensation at the César Awards; the conservative backlash in Turkey, though, led to Ergüven doubting she’ll work in the country again. In 2016, she told Dazed: “Turkish cinema is quite homogenous… Mustang is almost like a punk band compared to that.”

Lesson: Fight against the patriarchy in your downtime.

THIS IS NOT A FILM (dir. Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, 2011)

Panahi, the brilliant Iranian auteur behind Offside and Crimson Gold, was midway through shooting his sixth feature in 2010 when he was placed under house arrest and handed a 20-year ban on filmmaking. His alleged crime? “Propaganda against the system.” In response, Panahi, ambling around his living room, describes and performs dialogue from his unrealised film into an iPhone, while also documenting his daily adventures (chatting to a neighbour, chilling out with his pet iguana). Though Mirtahmasb is the off-screen figure holding the camera, this is a Janar Panahi film: the artist, once again, defies censorship and conventions, transforming his Big Brother lifestyle into a cinematic protest. Best of all, the film was smuggled into Cannes via a USB stick hidden inside a cake.

Lesson: Try creating art to pass the time.

NOBODY KNOWS (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2004)

While Shoplifters did substantial business for Kore-eda in the UK, Nobody Knows is, in many ways, a much darker, more politically biting depiction of a family facing poverty. In Tokyo, a mother lives in cramped accommodation with four children, three of whom must be hidden (even crawling into suitcases) from authorities. When the mother disappears for months, the children are stranded and risk starvation as no one realises they exist. Frighteningly, the story is loosely based on a real incident known as the 1988 Sugamo child abandonment case, and Kore-eda unspools how easily those in need can go unnoticed. At Cannes, Yūya Yagira, who was then 14 years old, became the youngest-ever Best Actor prize-winner, although the entire ensemble are on point and will leave you in tears.

Lesson: Check up on your loved ones.

THE HOLE (dir. Tsai Ming-Liang, 1998)

An ultra-slow, ultra-boring drama about two loners killing time in separate homes? Or an emotionally stirring, idiosyncratic romcom that pushes filmmaking boundaries to detail existential crises amidst a global pandemic? A little bit of both, but it’s not like you had much else to do. In Taiwan, a deadly virus, possibly originating from cockroaches, is wiping out citizens, but a man and woman choose not to flee the city: one lives above, the other below, and a hole in the floor connects the pair. The hypnotic pacing and soundscape of rainfall lull the viewer into a trance that’s only broken by musical interludes. One simple but effective match cut demonstrates the duo eating noodles in identical positions without the other knowing. It’s a remind that whoever’s on the other side of your living room wall knows how you’re feeling and could even be your soul mate. Not really, because you don’t live in a movie, but they could be worth shouting to from your doorstep.

Lesson: You might have more in common with your neighbours than you realise – find out if they have any Tsai Ming-Liang DVDs.