Cinema has always been a medium for capturing times of global crises or disasters. With a keen cinematic eye and the power of editing, a director can envision what the end of our world would look like on a massive scale. It’s what attracts viewers to these types of movies. That, and an attraction for end-of-world scenarios. But, if the last two years have taught anything, it is that the real world experience world crises very differently from these types of films. It has to be said that a pandemic is obviously a different scenario than a worldwide natural disaster or a meteor crash. Still, the anxiety during the first part of the outbreak was more of a reflection of intimate movies, those that told stories of genuine human connection during apocalyptic scenarios.
These types of movies, which mostly take place in apartments, speak to the collection of feelings that a large part of the world population felt during a significant part of the last couple of years. The selection chosen for this article are The Hole (1998), 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011), and Perfect Sense (2011). This selection is not meant to comprise a trio of cautionary tales or apocalyptic predictions, but rather a list of cinematic narratives that deal with the intimate turmoil caused by a once-in-a-lifetime event such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tsai Ming-Liang’s beautifully crafted film combines elements of science-fiction and musical to tell the story of existential dread and loneliness through the eyes of two neighbors. The action is placed in 1999, inside a Taipei apartment complex during a flu pandemic of mysterious origins.
When the film starts, the director chooses to show nothing, as the sound of TV news announces that by the next year, the quarantined city will run out of water. This immediately places the viewer with the two protagonists, in their decrepit intimate spaces. His (Lee Kang-sheng) apartment is above hers (Kuei-Mei Yang), and the action starts when a plumber creates a hole in the floor of the man’s living room without fixing it. The narrative is beautifully split between two spaces: the abandoned building in which the two live their depressing lives and a fantasy space in which they perform short musicals to the music of Grace Chang. These inserts not only speak to the power of music during times of unrest, but they also offer a glimpse of hope in the form of colorful costumes.
Moreover, these scenes act as the subconscious impulses of the protagonists, who are bored, tired, and deprived of human contact. As she first glances through the hole, a dream-like scene starts, which has her singing and teasing the viewer. However, the director follows it with an image of him, being drunk in the elevator, reminding viewers that fantasy is not enough to cope with disaster.
Their interaction in real life is very brief, reduced to just glances. They look at each other through the hole (which she doesn’t appreciate), and their eyes briefly meet while doing chores outside their apartments. However, in the fantasy space, their relationship develops, teasing one another through colorful musical performances. In an article about the film and COVID-19, critic Sean Burns talks about the need for an imagined safe space: “It’s a sensation that might feel familiar to a lot of people after these past six months when you’ve been cooped up in the same place for so long that even your wildest dreams now take place inside your tiny apartment” (Burns, 2020). To contrast the vibrant musical scenes, the director also introduces timid gestures such as when both of them eat noodles by the hole. While Burns describes the movies as being about “the cold comforts of routine” (Burns, 2020), it could be argued that this scene is about how sharing your routine can bring joy in times of turmoil.
At the end of the film, the man lifts his fever-struck neighbor through the hole, after which they are seen dancing. Their awkward, endearing dance reminds viewers of all the things individuals took for granted before the pandemic and represents a bittersweet but fitting ending for one of the most humane disaster movies ever made.
4:44 Last Day on Earth
As the title of Abel Ferrara’s film implies, the action takes place on the last day of the Earth. Because of a weakened ozone layer, specialists and scientists have all agreed that at 4:44 AM, cosmic radiation is set to destroy all life on the planet. The film focuses on the couple of Cisco (Willem Dafoe) and Skye (Shanyn Leigh) as they deal with their anxieties during the last hours of their lives.
Using news clips, internet videos, and filmed sermons, the director crafts a fairly remote image of the apocalypse. The couple experiences the crisis as many experienced the 2020 lockdown: through screens. In his review, critic A.O. Scott likens the film to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, as it “offers an intimately scaled view of the destruction of the world, with an emphasis on how it all feels to a Bohemian couple living on Mr. Ferrara’s beloved Lower East Side of Manhattan” (Scott, 2012). However, as things start to unravel outside of their apartment, their dread increases, finding solace in their connection. Unlike in the first film, this couple is already formed and it fights to keep its bond. They make love and enjoy each other’s company, but they also miss the possibility of enjoying other activities and meeting new people. She seems less affected by the inevitable end and finds comfort in her painting and the routine of changing her clothes. While more concerned with the impending doom, he also plays along with the routine game, shaving his beard for her.
Ferrara’s film also introduces the element of technology as a source of relief. The protagonists Skype with relatives, watch online musicians and let a delivery boy video-call his parents overseas. A key scene is when Skye finds Cisco video-chatting with his ex-wife. At first, her jealous fit seems exaggerated, given that they have a few hours left to live. But, her reaction represents an attack against helplessness, fighting to keep the integrity of the relationship, regardless of the apocalyptic context. After the fight, Cisco visits some old friends. They have a brief chat about drugs and life in general, after which the protagonist decides to go back to the apartment. The next scene is important as it represents somewhat a response to her jealous reaction. After she finds him in the bathroom trying to get high on heroin, he finally decides not to do it, fighting against the pointlessness of the situation.
Ferrara’s film presents a bleak image of a world looking for a glimpse of hope on the brink of environmental annihilation. However, his end of the world is not meant to be a spectacle or a cautionary tale. Instead, his cinematic eye focuses on the effect of unstoppable Armageddon on the difficult relationship of the protagonists, who meet the end in each other’s arms.
While more plot-driven and somewhat more melodramatic than the first two movies, David Mackenzie’s film tells a similar story of love and intimate anxiety during a global disaster. The film is set during a mysterious pandemic that affects human sensory perceptions and focuses on Michael (Ewan McGregor), a chef, and Susan (Eva Green), an epidemiologist studying the virus.
What separates this film from the first two is the professional aspect which is explored through each of the character’s work. Her job is directly related to the pandemic and acts as a reminder of the hard work scientists and doctors have to endure during such events. His job is impacted by the symptoms of the virus. As people lose their sense of smell, taste, and hearing, his restaurant focuses exclusivity on the presentation and texture of the dishes. His response to the radical changes beautifully highlights humanity’s creativity in times of turmoil.
However, these sensory changes are first triggered by serious behavioral anomalies. Before people lose their smell, they remember some of the most sorrowful moments of their life. After a while, the loss of taste is triggered by an uncontrollable urge to eat and the loss of hearing is prompted by a sudden fit of rage. The film not only explores how people can take these senses for granted, but it also delves into the psychological connection they have with them. Moreover, the loss of each sense tells the story of Michael and Susan’s relationship, as each symptom affects and tests their love.
Mackenzie’s cinematic eye focuses on the two protagonists to convey the story of the pandemic. The viewer first explores their feelings and shared anxieties as they gradually lose their senses, only to be then presented with images of the world. As with Ferrara’s film, the global situation is mostly framed through a collage of bleak, but remote images, which leaves room for the intimate narrative to develop. As the story progresses, the film constantly returns to the theme of hope through adaptation. The world learns to live with the changes and, as with the other two films, a shared routine is essential in fighting the pandemic. In his review, Jeff Shannon comments on the radical sensory changes: “Life goes on, but mostly in hiding” (Shannon, 2012). However, I believe the narrative is purposefully limited to the two main characters in the end. Even as they lose their sight and the film fades to black, the narrator speaks fondly of the couple to convey a bittersweet message of hope.
These three films represent an unconventional way of apocalyptic movie-making. Rather than present a massive spectacle of destruction, they concentrate on real emotions and intimate relations that are more telling than any special-effects-laden blockbuster. Their resemblance to the COVID-19 pandemic comes from a place of cinematic search for genuine anxieties during times of turmoil, and they deserve more attention in today’s chaotic world.
Burns, S. (2020, September 11). Tsai Ming-Liang's 1998 Romance 'The Hole' Might Be The Best Film About Life Right Now. WBUR. https://www.wbur.org/news/2020/09/11/tsai-ming-liang-the-hole-review
Scott, A.O. (2012, March 22). The World Is Ending; Check Your To-Do List. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/23/movies/444-last-day-on-earth-with-willem-dafoe.html
Shannon, J. (2012, January 18). Stop making senses: An epidemic love story. Rogerebert.com. https://www.rogerebert.com/streaming/stop-making-senses-an-epidemic-love-story