10 great films about loneliness

From The Apartment to Chungking Express, we look at 10 classic films tackling the theme of loneliness.

9 February 2017

By David Morrison

Taxi Driver (1976)

Loneliness may seem an unusual topic for film: it doesn’t sound very dramatic or, for that matter, enticing. Yet it’s a fundamental part of being human, one tied up with our desire for love, companionship or simply understanding. A universal theme, loneliness is crucial to the feeling of numerous films, from existentialist arthouse cinema (Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni et al) to more commercially minded romances or comedies (think Sleepless in Seattle).

It takes in psychotic loners, elderly widowers, confused teenagers and everyone else besides. As David Lean, discussing Summer Madness (1955), said: “I think loneliness is in all of us; it is a more common emotion than love, but we speak less about it. We are ashamed of it. We think perhaps that it shows a deficiency in ourselves.”

Perhaps surprisingly, filmmakers often use similar strategies to portray the emotion: people eating or drinking alone, isolating framing devices (characters gazing out of windows is a recurring motif), use of a diminishing long shot and empty spaces, and a dragging out of narrative time.

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) uses a number of these methods. In a film driven by loneliness, Travis’s (Robert De Niro) separation from society, his inability to make connections, is highlighted via composition – one of the film’s best known shots sees Travis slowly removed from the frame altogether, as the camera tracks right and away to stare down an empty, stark hallway. Scorsese commented of the shot: “I like it because I sensed that it added to the whole loneliness of the thing.”

With that in mind, here are 10 other great films that understand the lure of loneliness.

Late Spring (1949)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Late Spring (1949)

Yasujiro Ozu’s understated filmmaking style, with its lingering on spaces, ‘pillow-shots’ and quiet observation of everyday scenarios, seems well suited for the conveyance of poignant, nuanced emotion. His best films are poetic meditations on familial relations, the generation gap and life’s various disappointments. Late Spring focuses on 27-year-old Noriko (Setsuko Hara), who lives with her father Shukichi (Chishu Ryu). She is content, but Shukichi feels that his daughter should marry so as not to be alone later in life.

The father’s actions bring a profound feeling of loneliness and sadness to the film as the pair are forced to contemplate their respective lives apart. Tiny moments – the camera remaining on an empty hallway, Noriko’s respectful bowed head hiding yet also conveying her true feelings on her wedding day, the penultimate image of Shukichi peeling an apple while sitting on a now absent Noriko’s bentwood chair – all add up to one of the most moving and evocative films about emotional loss.

Summer Madness (1955)

Director: David Lean

Summertime (1955)

Is there anywhere in the world more likely to highlight loneliness than the romantic city of Venice? As middle-aged American tourist Jane Hudson (Katharine Hepburn) soon discovers, the city’s romance can quickly turn oppressive. Jane, who has never experienced romantic love, is a spare wheel among a city of courting couples. Director David Lean, in his self-professed favourite of his films, highlights others’ joy – recurring shots of lovers walking arm in arm, the sound of laughter ringing in the air – while Hepburn’s heartbreaking performance, full of a defensive pride that seems always to teeter on the verge of tears, makes for a heartrending portrayal.

When Jane meets Italian antiques dealer Renato De Rossi (Rossano Brazzi) in a brief encounter, however, hope springs eternal, and the colours of the city, so vividly captured by Jack Hildyard’s photography, come alive – there are literal fireworks. But can such affairs last or will Jane find it’s better to accept reality than cling to unsustainable desires?

The Apartment (1960)

Director: Billy Wilder

The Apartment (1960)

Billy Wilder’s multi-Oscar winning comedy is part satire on corporate America, part cynical romance in which the romantic heroine is the suicidal mistress of a sleazy boss – in fact, it’s surprising the film was so well received. But as Mark Cousins points out, the key to The Apartment is loneliness, specifically that of ‘Bud’ Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a decent guy corrupted by the system.

To climb the corporate ladder, Baxter (Lemmon) lends his apartment for extramarital affairs but is forever left out in the cold (in one scene he waits alone, freezing, in a shot reminiscent of the Edward Hopper etching Night in the Park). And when he does return home it’s to a TV dinner for one. Yet The Apartment is a film that uses loneliness to be about the necessity of love, and when Baxter falls for Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) that’s the message that finally wins through. There’s always hope in that “wonderful thing – dinner for two”.

Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

A classic of the New German Cinema, Fear Eats the Soul is one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s more accessible works. There’s a tenderness here that partly stems from its cinematic predecessor, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), which Fassbinder re-works as a story of interracial romance in 1970s Germany. Lonely middle-aged widow Emmi (Brigitte Mira) meets outsider Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a younger Moroccan ‘Gastarbeiter’, and they quickly find solace in each other’s company. But society turns against them, revealing the intolerance and racism just below the surface.

Fassbinder is a master at formally presenting his characters’ isolation in a film that encompasses both heartbreaking melodrama and detached intellectual critique. Ali and Emmi are restricted in the frame, coolly observed through doorways or diminished by emptiness, as when they sit in a park amid a sea of unoccupied yellow chairs. Still searingly relevant, Fear Eats the Soul clinically exposes the socially driven reasons for loneliness while remaining a tangibly emotional experience.

The Green Ray (1986)

Director: Eric Rohmer

The Green Ray (1986)

The fifth in Eric Rohmer’s ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ series, The Green Ray focuses on a young Parisian, Delphine (Marie Rivière), as she recovers from a breakup and decides how to spend her summer holidays. She visits friends, travels alone to resorts, yet wherever she goes others enjoy the intimacy of groups while Delphine struggles to join in the fun. As with Jane in Summer Madness, Delphine is defensive and angry at the compromises needed to engage in the game of girl meets boy.

The Green Ray is best when it reaches the sea. Here, Delphine’s feelings of longing and waiting, her desperate need, fit with a long tradition – in painting and literature as much as in film – of characters gazing out, reflecting upon the ocean. She has a romantic ideal of someone emerging from the waves. In the end Rohmer provides us with a spectacular emotional payoff relating to the Jules Verne novel of the title – and Delphine’s waiting finally finds a reward.

Chungking Express (1994)

Director: Wong Kar Wai

Chungking Express (1994)

Demonstrating that a film about missed connections can also be a truly uplifting cinematic experience, Wong Kar Wai’s Hong Kong set Chungking Express manages to make loneliness and melancholy seem achingly romantic. Two essentially separate stories tell the tales of recently dumped Cop #223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and #633 (Tony Leung) and the women they fall in love with in their vulnerable, heartbroken states.

Inspired in part by French New Wave filmmaking, Chungking Express is inventive, exhilarating and at the same time contemplative and philosophical. Wong uses startling film techniques to comment on his characters’ isolation, most notably his use of ‘stretch-’ or ‘step-printing’, as when Leung and Faye Wong appear in slow motion while the crowd surges past them at speed. Life drags for the lonely and those in love. Everyday objects are invested with significance, aided by sorrowful voiceovers – tins of expired pineapple or even a tired dishcloth can evoke the sadness of the lovelorn. Nothing lasts forever: people “may like pineapple today and something else tomorrow”.

Uzak (2002)

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Uzak (2002)

Written, directed and exquisitely photographed by Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Uzak presents a slight, minimal narrative. Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir), a successful yet depressed and disillusioned Istanbul photographer, resentfully lends a room to his country cousin, Yusuf (Emin Toprak), while he searches for work as a sailor. In another film the odd couple pairing might struggle at first but eventually provide relief from isolation – not in Uzak; here their differing daily habits only irritate one another to wryly comic effect.

Uzak is a film of mundane activities: watching television, wandering wintry streets, smoking, looking out of windows. It’s also a film of gazes. Both Yusuf and Mahmut – in restrained, yet standout performances – stare out to sea or over pale, snowy landscapes, or they hide while watching women they cannot communicate with. Yet these minimal actions all add up to one of the most touching, beautifully crafted films of recent times – a masterpiece of melancholy. As Ceylan has said: “Nothing else seems to be worth making a film about.”

Tony Takitani (2002)

Director: Jun Ichikawa

Tony Takitani (2004)

If any film can truly lay claim to being ‘about’ loneliness, then Tony Takitani is undeniably it. Adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, Jun Ichikawa’s film follows the life of a young boy whose mother died in childbirth, who receives little paternal interest, is spurned at school and later has a brief taste of happiness only for his wife to die cruelly young – a vast room of her clothes becomes his only reminder.

With its muted colour scheme, bare long-shot static tableaus, unusually low placement of characters within the frame and lengthy scenes of solitary activity, Tony Takitani is an extreme exercise in rigidly controlled form to reflect a theme of “fatalistic loneliness”. Tony (Issei Ogata) wishes to avoid emotion, to banish painful memories by emptying out his life and his house, to be left alone with just an empty room for company. It is a film full of an absent presence, of shadows of now departed loved ones, and it impressively visualises a terrible emotional seclusion.

Lights in the Dusk (2006)

Director: Aki Kaurismäki

Lights in the Dusk (2006)

Aki Kaurismäki has a distinct filmic style: minimal dialogue, static compositions, stoic deadpan characters and a dark Finnish sense of humour. In the final instalment of his ‘Finland’ (or ‘loser’) trilogy, following Drifting Clouds (1996) and The Man without a Past (2002), Kaurismäki presents a story of a friendless security guard, Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), set up by a beautiful gang moll to take the wrap for a heist. Mostly laughed at, excluded or ignored by his colleagues, Koistinen is too used to humiliation and too fatalistic to offer much in the way of protest.

Cinematographer Timo Salminen’s rich images of Helsinki draw on Edward Hopper for inspiration, and, as with The Apartment, this influence compounds the lonesome mood. In one scene, Hopper’s Nighthawks is referenced via a startling shot in which a fast food van window evocatively frames the solitary Aila (Maria Heiskanen), a sympathetic woman who carries a torch for Koistinen. Further influences include Robert Bresson, whose touch is evident in the final encounter between the two, creating an unexpectedly powerful image of compassion.

Christine (2016)

Director: Antonio Campos

Christine (2016)

Christine Chubbuck was a Florida-based news journalist who shot and killed herself live on air in 1974. Her story has recently been the subject of two films – Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine and Antonio Campos’s more succinctly titled work. But it’s the latter that, rightly or wrongly, attempts to plausibly render Christine as a person.

Campos and writer Craig Shilowich suggest that loneliness and depression were central to Christine’s problems, while also recognising her frustration with the sexist workplace of the 1970s and the sensationalist nature of the media she worked in. Rebecca Hall excels at creating a woman who can be defensively prickly, driven and brusque, yet is also vulnerable, socially awkward and deeply sensitive. The discovery of an ovarian condition that may prevent Christine from conceiving, coupled with a crush on a colleague that erodes her already fragile self-esteem, tips loneliness into something more psychologically damaging. Whatever the ethics in assuming an individual’s motivations, Christine is a sympathetic portrait that recognises the power of loneliness to define people’s lives.

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