Urban isolation is a unique and curious phenomenon that is specifically attributed to the dizzying changes brought on by modernity. After living through an extensive quarantine period during the pandemic, most people living in cities will be familiar with the crippling alienation of urban isolation and the impact it has on the human psyche.
Despite being crammed into tiny apartments in huge residential complexes, we are left with the overwhelming feeling that we are fundamentally isolated from our neighbours. Fragmented by thin walls and thinner phone screens, we have locked ourselves within the constructs of modern society without realising that it is relegating us to our own private microcosms.
More than any other form of art, cinema has been able to capture the profound philosophical vacuum created by urban isolation. The cinematic medium is perfect for chronicling the extent of our loneliness, painting dynamic images of the new human condition. Solitude has always been a subject for great art and that’s doubly true for films about isolation.
In this edition of our weekly spotlight on world cinema, we take a look at some definitive films through the years that tackle the concept of urban isolation and how that very concept has changed over time.
10 essential films about urban isolation:
The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut – 1959)
Starring a very young and especially adorable Jean-Pierre Léaud, The 400 Blows is a French New Wave classic. One of the greatest coming-of-age films ever made, Truffaut’s magnum opus tells the story of a young boy growing up in a troubled household in Paris.
Now recognised as one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time by fans and critics alike, The 400 Blows won the coveted award for Best Direction at Cannes. The film beautifully shows what it feels like to be young, lonely, misunderstood and completely lost in one of the great cities of the world.
The Fire Within (Louis Malle – 1963)
Based on the novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, The Fire Within is one of the most criminally neglected masterpieces of the ’60s because it was overshadowed by the more restless and anarchic works from the New Wave. Thankfully, it is being rediscovered by fans of Louis Malle as well as French cinema due to the impact of Malle.
It revolves around the depressing life of a recovering alcoholic who desperately searches for the meaning of life. Before killing himself, he decides to give life one last chance but ends up even more alienated after visiting his bourgeois friends in Paris.
The Man Who Sleeps (Bernard Queysanne – 1974)
One of the greatest cinematic treatments of loneliness ever conducted, The Man Who Sleeps is the manifestation of the literary sensibilities of Georges Perec. It is a beautiful, incisive and haunting incursion into the tragic reality of social malaise in the youth.
As is evident from the title, The Man Who Sleeps chooses a young intellectual as its subject who does nothing but follow the same, sad routine every single day without a break. Caged within the confines of the cityscape, he walks in a daze while navigating the labyrinths of life but he committed philosophical suicide a long time ago.
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese – 1976)
Martin Scorsese’s 1976 gem needs no introduction since it is instantly recognised by almost everyone as one of the crowning jewels of the New Hollywood era. It’s not just a neo-noir experiment but a frighteningly relevant investigation of existential angst and masculinity.
Starring Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle – a lonely cabbie who glides along the filthy streets of New York, Taxi Driver is the film that immediately pops up in everyone’s mind when isolation and cinema are mentioned in the same sentence. As Travis himself puts it: “There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott – 1982)
Another neo-noir masterpiece from the sci-fi genre, Ridley Scott‘s interpretations of Philip K. Dick’s seminal novel has already gone down in history as one of the best film adaptations of all time. Blade Runner’s mesmerising rendition of overpopulation and urban isolation is almost unparalleled.
Although most of the narrative is concerned with larger questions about post-humanism and the ethical frameworks of artificial intelligence, Blade Runner’s subtext is underlined by a constant feeling of all-encompassing loneliness and psychological destabilisation.
Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders – 1987)
Wings of Desire is an exceptionally beautiful allegorical tale about two angels who try to understand the human condition by studying the lives of the lonely residents of Berlin. It approaches the idea of alienation from multiple directions, exploring what it means to be isolated from one’s own self, from God and from each other.
“The idea strictly came from wandering around Berlin and feeling inspired to make a film that would tell the story of a city that had seen hell,” Wenders elaborated. “And that was now a very unique place on Earth, an island city divided by a wall. A film that would show as many aspects of this city as possible, and that would also go diagonally through its history.”
Vive L’Amour (Tsai Ming-liang – 1994)
A brilliant work from the Taiwanese New Wave by one of the movement’s greatest pioneers, Tsai Ming-liang’s 1994 gem is the perfect cinematic translation of urban isolation. It tells the story of three people who unknowingly live together in an empty apartment in Taipei.
The winner of the prestigious Golden Lion at Venice, Vive L’Amour is a slow descent into the fundamental characteristics of human loneliness and sexuality. Tsai Ming-liang contextualises all of this within the limits of the cityscape and supports it with insightful sociopolitical commentary.
Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai – 1994)
The most memorable film to come out of the New Wave in Hong Kong, Chungking Express is a delightfully entertaining film about four lonely people who try their best to find love but end up separated by unimaginable distances.
“Nowadays people are more likely to talk to themselves than to others,” Wong Kar-wai once explained when talking about the origins of the central idea of Chungking Express. That is the exact sentiment that is echoed within the narrative, mirroring the schizophrenia induced by modernity.
Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman – 2008)
Charlie Kaufman’s masterful 2008 film is truly one of the finest cinematic works made in the 21st century. Starring the great Philip Seymour Hoffman as a self-important theatre director who gets lost within his own creations, Synecdoche, New York’s fierce originality is a force to be reckoned with.
Kaufman insists that it is almost inevitable to fall prey to solipsism when trying to survive in a completely new world with more challenging ordeals. His examination of isolation is more penetrating than any on this list as Kaufman insists that modernity isn’t responsible for our isolation, it is actually a symptom of the disintegrating collective consciousness.
Her (Spike Jonze – 2013)
A sci-fi film that stands out among its contemporaries in the last decade, Spike Jonze‘s 2013 gem is perhaps the only entry on this list that is relevant to the incredibly pernicious internet culture of today. Structured as a love story, Her follows Joaquin Phoenix as he conveniently falls in love with an AI software.
It is a powerful evaluation of the future of interpersonal relationships and the advancement of technology. Her imagines a world where human beings have retreated so far down the rabbit hole of technological devices that the only logical conclusion is falling in love with lines of code.