In his book on the work of British painter Francis Bacon, published in 1969 and titled The Logic of Sensation, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze suggests several rudimentary “techniques of isolation” that may be employed in subtle combinations so as to isolate a given Figure within a frame. The same could also be said of literature – of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist theatre, of Franz Kafka’s dark existentialism and Luigi Pirandello’s ironic ambivalence – and thus, also of cinema. If we consider the disenchanted protagonistes of Michelangelo Antonioni, for example, we might conclude that their troubles are never particularly detailed, nor are they ever fully diagnosed, yet they successfully isolate these figures in a way few films have managed before or since. As Deleuze goes on to note, the most important thing is that these techniques “do not consign the Figure to immobility but, on the contrary, render sensible a kind of progression, an exploration of the Figure within the place, or upon itself.” Once effectively isolated, he continues, “the Figure becomes an Image, an Icon.”
Some years before the release of Deleuze’s book, in fact around the same time Antonioni’s L’Avventura first graced and was subsequently booed off the screens at Cannes, another French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote extensively on the topic of isolation in his Critique of Dialectical Reason. Here, he identifies isolation as but a direct product of the modern age – a negative “predicament”, or _"condition" _of modernity. Sartre goes on to use the example of a group of people waiting for a bus outside the church in the Place Saint-Germain. They are figures grouped together in one place and with the common goal of catching the bus, yet are from different backgrounds, are headed in different directions, and are thinking different thoughts. They are a “plurality of isolations”; they do not communicate with one another, are rarely aware of one another, and eventually board the bus individually. Yet, as Sarte finally observes, while this isolated behaviour is but a “social product of cities”, the figures are still open to connection, even if they turn their back on one another.
Isolation in film, then, can take many different forms, and is typically influenced not only by the history of the medium but also the state of society at a given time. There is the physical isolation of your Robinson Crusoes, who are sundered from the human race at large either by the hand of nature or of man, or in a self-imposed exile. There is the spiritual isolation of your Holden Caulfields, who exist as members of society but remain dissociated, divided, entirely disconnected from those at Sartre’s Parisian bus stop. This thread will hopefully exist as a developing ode to the solitary characters that populate the landscape of such contemporary filmmakers as Tsai Ming-liang, Béla Tarr, Theo Angelopolous, Sharunas Bartas and Lisandro Alonso, but I’d also like to explore further back in time; to look at isolation in the classic Hollywood era, as well look at specific topics such as post-War trauma and physical disability in film. I also hope for this to be a collective project, and would be grateful for any recommendations on the topic. Together, let us conquer solitude!