10 great films about recluses

From Repulsion to Grizzly Man: 10 films about shunning society for a life lived alone.

2 March 2023

By Georgina Guthrie

Electric Malady (2022)

From the broody loners of gothic literature to the rugged pioneers of survivalist documentaries, recluses have long been a source of fascination for artists and audiences alike. We’ve all heaved a sigh of relief after escaping tedious company, but to leave society forever? Humans are fundamentally pack animals, so when one separates from the herd and wanders off, we can’t help but plumb the depths of their psyche for answers. 

Defining a recluse isn’t as straightforward as it seems. It’s a person who lives a solitary existence, of course, but there also needs to be an element of self-determination, otherwise any old prisoner will do. Dae-su Oh in Oldboy (2004)? Prisoner. Carol in Repulsion (1965)? Recluse. The incarcerated children in Dogtooth (2009)? Prisoners. Miss Havisham of Great Expectations? Recluse. You get the idea. Prisoners and recluses have very different motivations and mindsets; conflating the two would be a mistake. 

Marie Lidén’s new documentary Electric Malady is about William, a man who believes modern life – and specifically, electricity – is making him ill, and his only option for survival is to live in a log cabin deep in the Swedish woods. Whether or not William’s electrosensitivity is real or psychosomatic (something Lindén tactfully explores in the documentary), his pain is real. It’s a key theme among the films on this list, many of which feature recluses whose impetus is a push from society, rather than a pull towards solitude.

Repulsion (1965) 

Director: Roman Polanski

Repulsion (1965)

Fresh off the back of filming The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Catherine Deneuve stepped into her role as Carol, a doe-eyed young blonde woman who experiences increasingly terrifying hallucinations when she’s left alone in the apartment she shares with her sister. The shadowy crevices of the human mind provide the nightmare fuel here; her visions of a male intruder remain ambiguous. Could it be the father figure in a family photograph? Or perhaps it’s her sister’s boyfriend, whose clothes Carol greedily inhales then drops, retching. 

A soundtrack of small, repetitive sounds – dripping taps, ticking clocks, buzzing flies – magnify Carol’s inertia as she barricades herself in. There’s a seductive sensuality to her isolation, and when walls become malleable and soft shadows close in, it’s all too easy to see the appeal of that syrupy stillness.

Simon of the Desert (1965)

Director: Luis Buñuel

Simon of the Desert (1965)

Luis Buñuel apparently wanted Simon of the Desert – his surrealist, 45-minute take on the story of a 5th-century ascetic who lived on a pillar for 39 years – to be feature length. Sadly, budget and production issues put a premature end to the project. Yet the result is a short, wickedly funny satire with more moral fat to chew over than most biblical epics combined.

Silvia Pinal, the brightest star from Mexico’s cinematic golden age, plays a pouting Satan while Claudio Brook appears as the eponymous saint who’s tempted by the devil. After spending six years, six days and six weeks atop the pillar, monks gift the wannabe recluse a new, taller platform, from where he continues his life of prayer… or tries to. Despite renouncing the world, the world tests his holy patience: interruptions come in the form of goat herds, possessed monks, and Satan dressed as a schoolgirl. Further highlights include a man nonplussed by the miraculous reappearance of his formerly severed hands, and the coquettish Pinal in drag as Jesus manhandling a lamb. 

The Man Who Sleeps (1974)

Director: Bernard Queysanne

The Man Who Sleeps (1974)

Based on Georges Perec’s 1967 novel A Man Asleep, Bernard Queysanne’s drama centres on a student (referred to as ‘you’) who quits lessons, cuts off his friends and renounces society. With nods to Sartre and Dostoevsky (Nausea and Crime and Punishment especially), the protagonist’s solipsistic withdrawal from the world is part political, part existential despair; a sad act of rebellion in which actions are reduced to a binary of ‘doing’ and ‘not doing’. A cheap print of René Magritte’s Not to Be Reproduced tacked to his bedroom wall offers a sly nod to our protagonist’s unoriginal variety of angst – and his internal thoughts, narrated in the form of an unwritten diary (voiced by Ludmila Mikaël in the French version, Shelley Duvall in the English) soon turn scornful: “You are an idler, a sleepwalker, a mollusc.” Claustrophobia tightens its grip.

In crisp black and white, we witness startling scenes of an eerily de-peopled Paris, dreamy surrealism – most ingeniously, floral wallpaper turned into eye floaters – and a scene that surely anticipates Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) as our alienated student sits alone in a cinema, staring glassy-eyed at the screen, à la Travis Bickle. 

Safe (1995) 

Director: Todd Haynes 

Safe (1995)

Todd Haynes deftly unpicks the isolating effects of middle-class suburban superficiality in Safe, his drama about Carol (Julianne Moore), a lonely woman plagued by a mysterious environmental illness. Flawlessly coiffed and with a voice as light as whipped cream, she’s every inch the perfect housewife – but her existence is an empty one, where new sofas and detox diets provide the primary opportunities for interaction. The polished sheen of America’s aspirational class depicted so beautifully in Haynes’ later Far from Heaven (2002) assumes a hostile edge here: sterile interiors and glacial silences filled with the ever-present buzz of electric lights feel dangerously brittle and a touch dystopian. Haynes reportedly took aesthetic inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the long shots of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964), as well as Chantal Akerman’s portrait of an isolated housewife in Jeanne Dielman. 

As Carol’s health deteriorates, she seeks refuge in a new-age healing community up in the mountains, before eventually retiring to a sealed pod in the grounds. Her isolation proves to be both answer and curse: as she retreats from society, she’s forced, finally, to look inwards. 

Alone in the Wilderness (2004)

Director: Dick Proenneke

Alone in the Wilderness (2004)

Few films about loners centre on entirely happy, well-adjusted subjects – so this documentary about self-educated naturalist Dick Proenneke is something of an outlier. He appears the picture of contentment; his impetus for seeking solitude nothing more than a love of nature and a brush with rheumatic fever. Thus, he set out for the Alaskan wilderness at the age of 51 to build a log cabin, where he lived alone for the next near-30 years. 

Going without human contact for months at a time, Proenneke spends his days fishing, growing vegetables and documenting the local wildlife on 8mm; the footage provides the film’s visual backdrop while his diary entries are read out by a narrator. He makes a delightful subject as he builds his rustic home: a kind of Bob Ross of the wilderness, cheerfully working away with diligence and resourcefulness. Captured in flickering analogue, the postcard-perfect images of the Alaskan mountains only add to the film’s soothing appeal. 

Grizzly Man (2005) 

Director: Werner Herzog 

Grizzly Man (2005)

Self-proclaimed ‘saviour of the bears’ Timothy Treadwell set off for Katmai National Park in Alaska in the autumn of 2003 on what would be his 13th and last trip: the American environmentalist and his girlfriend were mauled to death days before their flight home. 

Made up of interviews and Treadwell’s bizarre video diaries – largely a blend of misanthropic rants and grandiose monologues – Werner Herzog’s film builds a balanced portrait of a troubled man whose failure to fit in led him to seek refuge in the wilds, a place where he was free to project his fantasies of selfhood on to the mute bulk of bears and mountains. The German director’s bleak view of nature provides an intriguing counterpoint to Treadwell’s fervent idealism: “I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony but hostility, chaos and murder,” comes Herzog’s sombre voiceover, sandwiched between Timothy’s ecstatic cries about “Wendy’s poop” and his role as a “kind warrior”. The latter’s anthropomorphic view of bears would prove deadly, but his story is ultimately a universal one of the desire to find meaning and connection. 

Amongst White Clouds (2005) 

Director: Edward A. Burger 

Amongst White Clouds (2005)

The Zhongnan mountains have played home to Daoist hermits for over 2,000 years, and Buddhist monks since the first millennium AD – the latter forming the subject of Edward A. Burger’s low-fi travelogue documentary. 

Himself a student of one of the teachers, Burger takes a commendable hands-off approach to narration, instead allowing these reclusive figures to share their stories, which range from lighthearted anecdotes about eating weeds, and roofs blowing off huts, to wisdom about suffering and enlightenment. This leaves audiences free to interpret the hermit’s teachings without an interlocutor’s interpretation – though it being but a glimpse into something far bigger, a lack of context leaves most tidbits feeling somewhat gnomic. Nevertheless, Burger’s film offers a peacefully bucolic slice of life as a religious recluse. For these monks (and a nun), the ascetic lifestyle is framed as an essential part of spiritual enlightenment; as one says, “if you see through this world and let go of it, this is wisdom. If you see through it but don’t let go, this is just talking ‘zen’.”

Two Years at Sea (2011) 

Director: Ben Rivers

Two Years at Sea (2011)

Shot in black and white 16mm on an old wind-up Bolex camera, every scene in Two Years at Sea shimmers with mysterious luminosity. There’s no narrative, no character development, nothing is explained and nothing much happens, save playful yet undramatic moments of surrealism: our protagonist’s caravan levitates while he’s taking a nap inside it. Besides this, the static camera shows Jake (played by Jake Williams – is this fiction or documentary? Another of the film’s mysteries) reading, making coffee, tidying up, taking a shower. At other times, it rests on the detritus in and around his cluttered home, which he’s filled to the rafters with logs, books, jars, old furniture, scraps of paper, farm machinery and other sundry junk. 

The film’s extraordinary final scene shows Jake, lit by flickering firelight, slowly fading into darkness. We may be watching a recluse, but as we gaze uninterrupted at the worn lines and shadows on his face, the effect on the viewer is one of intimate, almost primal human connection. 

Peter and the Farm (2016)

Director: Tony Stone

Peter and the Farm (2016)

Peter Dunning was part of the wave of Americans in the 1960s who turned their back on the corporate world and went to live off the land. He initially appears a rugged gent in rude health, but as the cameras roll we learn he’s a self-destructive alcoholic who’s burned bridges with friends and family and now lives alone on his decaying farm. He’s critical and cantankerous, changeable and egotistical, yet creative, hardworking and endearingly naive. In one heartbreaking scene, Peter, clutching a rack of smoked ribs, spots the cameras with dismay: “you were just coming for a visit, I thought”, he says, mistaking the transactional filmmaker-subject relationship for something more.

Equal parts idealistic and stubborn, he curses the very thing he spent decades nurturing: a hard-won prize he no longer wants but that is so deeply entwined with his very being that losing it would be like lopping off (another) limb. His story of Sisyphean torment is an uncomfortable reminder of how swiftly our paradise can turn into a trap of our own making – all it takes is unyielding devotion to a flawed ideology. 

Saint Maud (2019) 

Director: Rose Glass

Saint Maud (2019)

Speaking of flawed ideologies… Rose Glass’s impressively accomplished debut about a traumatised healthcare worker turned Catholic martyr could be a companion piece to Taxi Driver; nods to the latter include neon-drenched streets, closeups of fizzing effervescents and a desperately lonely protagonist with a violent streak. Maud, however, predominantly directs her violence inwards, notably in a wince-inducing scene involving a spugna – and where Bickle reaches out for friendship, Maud shuns it, save one disastrous night out at a pub that ends in a spectacular bout of projectile vomiting under the traffic-light-glow of a firework display. It’s an ugly act of defiance against God rather than a real attempt to connect. 

While its exploration of mental illness runs skin deep, Saint Maud offers an insightful glimpse into the mindset of a zealot, and a deviously unsettling portrait of a tormented recluse who’s utterly beyond reach. 

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