Imagine you go to the pictures, the room goes dark, and the film begins. The music is quiet, the mood is sentimental, the colours are blurred and gloomy, the dialogue, short and alluring – would you like to watch this movie?
At first blush, the choice to depict loneliness in films might seem questionable: loneliness is, after all, an unpleasant feeling, and can be incredibly dull on screen. Despite its apparent boring dangers, loneliness is a persisting theme in the world cinema that can be arguably noticed, in different degrees, in almost every film ever made. Take Soul (2020), the Disney philosophical animation about the meaning of life and identity, which touches upon the subject of loneliness related to the impossibility to adapt to the social order and to the disappointments of a cruel reality. Or Farewell Amor (2020), drawing upon the experiences of three Angolan immigrants in the United States, where cultural clashes and familial miscommunication and emotional insecurity are a breeding ground for loneliness.
Solitude has strong influences in cinema and has proven, perhaps surprisingly, to be very well-received by audiences. This emotion isn’t particularly flaunted in the social arena – quite the contrary. However, it has proven very successful at attracting views in movie theatres. So, what it is about loneliness that makes it so magnetic in an artistic context?
Whether it is the overwhelming feeling of melancholy or the poeticism of isolation that sparks your interest, the rich symbolism and omnipresence of loneliness makes it a very tempting subject of artistic interest. The sympathy for the loner sociopath in The Joker (2019), the seductive feeling of connecting to another outsider portrayed in Lost in Translation (2003), or the compassion one may feel towards of those misunderstood in films such as Loving Vincent (2017), Good Will Hunting (1997) and The Theory of Everything (2014) show a high degree of openness and positive reactions to the topic on the part of the spectators.
My point is: loneliness is universal. How many of you have experienced periods of extreme loneliness during university? Most likely, all of you. I can reasonably assume that many of you haven’t told anyone about it. Where there is emotional demand, there is artistic supply: when emotional suppression or sensibility is sensed, artistic exploration follows. Due to its complex combination of senses and closeness to reality, movies have forceful emotion-stirring potential and intrusive powers that can penetrate through the human psychology. The fragility of past or present emotional wounds paves the way for cinematic “exploitation” so that films can reach the subconscious.
Most people tend to be more tolerant to those who appear to be lonely in a poetic sense, and they deeply enjoy knowing their stories. My interpretation is that sensing loneliness in other people without actually getting involved makes us, in the most selfish way, feel better about ourselves. A film about solitude will create a false sense of closure, a medium of connection and understanding which will lead the spectator to feeling seen and comforted. At the same time, the audience will make quick comparisons between one’s reality and the life of the loner, which will produce satisfaction in various forms, through the experience of pity, relief, or others as such. Either way, repressed or undesired feelings are a breeding ground for human fascination.
This might be the reason why Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) is considered by many a cinematic masterpiece. Detaching itself completely from the typical story about New York City, it provides a very personal glimpse into Travis Bickle’s twisted psychology and invites us to sympathize with a killer. His intrinsic drama, portrayed in a strikingly intimate, sombre yet elegant way, connects to the viewer on the deepest level. The effects of Scorsese’s film are equally triggering and charming, since the audience is likely to find some of their most repressed thoughts and impulses materialized through Travis’ monologue and actions, whilst also being compelled to keep a safe distance and feel sorry for him. The result is something contradictory: despite the tragedy of the taxi driver and his resemblance to the spectator, the audience feels enlightened, satisfied and at peace with oneself after leaving the film theatre.
The observations above give us reasons to think that the bitter sensations produced by loneliness become a source of pleasure, when they are artificially perceived and last for a limited amount of time. We are fascinated by the tragic characters in literature or cinema, yet are also afraid to approach the miserable who live among us. The possibility of getting entangled in their narrative is undesirable and there is a fear that the solitude and sorrow of others could perhaps pass on to us.
Cinema is a safe space to explore and feel these emotions freely – a taste of the forbidden fruit without having to bear its consequences. For this reason, feelings such as sadness, loneliness, weakness, and shame take considerable compositional space in artistic productions.
Featured Image: Ahmad Odeh via Unsplash.