Stranded, isolated, forever lusted-after; why do we have this desire to maroon ourselves? The luxury of being ‘islanded’ is also our greatest fear, and the contradiction of an island’s appeal often makes them the ultimate fantasy. What’s a beautiful thing without a deathly risk, tease every explorer and femme fatale, ever – who better to model ourselves on when we go on holiday? We are intrepidly curious, yet fabulously fragile creatures for which islands represent H.G. Wellsian blank canvases of opportunity.
Islands are not just blobs of sand with a swaying palm tree stuck on it. They’re places of revolution and dramatic change, their histories playing out as spectacularly as the divorced terrain on which they make love and fight. There’s often an infinite body of water that triggers the imagination’s what ifs. The physical disconnection from the foundations of your comparatively landlocked daily life and total feeling of abandonment.
Lots of fictional characters have been washed up on an island, playing on the natural human psyche’s association that to be alone equals bad. Enter drama. Whatever safety or comforts this person has left behind must’ve been really special! Or does the noisy silence just show up the cracks of their usual existence? Does this stretch of natural exotica, jutting up from the deep, represent surprising new desires and newfound traits?
As warmer months approach, abandon ship for a few hours and transport yourself into the stories of severed castaways seeking some sort of conclusion in a place that could inspire you beyond or forever chain you to your own shores. Here’s a curated selection of just some of the greatest explorations of islands on screen.
L’Avventura (1960) by Michelangelo Antonioni
The ultimate island fears addressed in the form of a soap operatic arthouse classic, where an unknown Monica Vitti was cast as the suspiciously cool best friend traumatised over her best friend’s sudden yachting disappearance. Everyone drifts in and out of caring and not seeming to, flitting between bored, vexed and melodramatically acting out spiritual meaning in their outer-Sicilian isolation. Common holiday behaviour when left with not much to do? Typically Antonionian is the windy, jagged, otherworldly landscape shot in black and white, and the beginning or extension of your infatuation with insanely gorgeous Mediterranean islands highly reachable by budget airlines.
More (1969) by Barbet Schroeder
The idea of confinement without the solitary lies in the tropes of love and romance: being alone with just one other (and occasionally one more. If threesomes are your thing, this film features one). This means the other person can only pay attention to you, and vice versa, and this can be hideous. Especially if you throw in a liberal 60s headiness that escalates into dependency upon someone you don’t even really love anyway. The characters (Mimsy Farmer and Klaus Grünberg) rely on one another’s drug-acquisition and sexual kinks as much as they do their backdrop, the remote white villa they find themselves living in after escaping the humdrum of city life one intense summer. Basking their bronzed bods constantly under the Ibizan sun and mulling over practically nothing as a often-diegetic original Pink Floyd score plays, Schroeder’s characters perfect the art of the act of meditation: active and present, yet thinking about nothing. It’s an intoxicating watch from the director famous for controversial and questionable exploitative work, sometimes weirdly acted, but the music and colours are so good.
Le Mépris (1963) by Jean Luc Godard
Every shot in this movie could be from an Instagram feed. Overflowing with lurid oceanscapes and iconic pouting European babes. But don’t be lured in by aesthetics alone; there’s plenty of substance to this classic, which translates as contempt. Vitti herself may have blown her audition by acting, hilariously, a little too disdainfully, so an overtly sexual and deeply theatrical Bardot was a nice antidote to a stream of too-cool stars of the time. Her overt and dollike sexuality fits perfectly within a convoluted, heart wrenchingly French plot that’s all glamour and betrayal, deliciously unfolding at the Adalberto Libera-designed Casa Malaparte house on Capri island. You will immediately want an Italian island villa, a white shag pile carpet and Bardot’s hair, headscarves and liquid eyeliner to match. Watch with the original soundtrack by George Delerue (not the offbeat newer jazz rescore).
Man of Aran (1934) by Robert J. Flaherty
Back when the moving picture was getting popular, it still took a unique kind of disposition to head out to the freezing and stormy Irish Sea’s three Aran Islands for almost two years: all in the name of documentary. This was a new kind of travel journalism, foreseeing locations that would one day actually be appealing to those other than trawler-men and whales. Flaherty wanted to record the unseen, expose the majesty of harsh conditions. After he made Nanook of the North about eskimo survival in the 1910s, he created yet another film that made people wide eyed and shivery. It mirrored until then only read-about of north and south pole island explorers, in contrast to more than the exotic tropical and desert writings of the likes of Flaubert, and in doing so birthed a real social awareness and curiously of how others hustle and thrive amongst elements in places of extreme isolation. The pace is thunderously dramatic, and hits home just what natural wonders islands are, even the cold and grey ones.
Respiro (2002) by Emanuele Crialese
A born and bred islander (Valeria Golino) is ostracised by fellow islanders. This could almost be the story of anyone who’s left behind their beautiful yet provincial small village, town or city, whether by choice or by force. Made in the 2000s but doubtlessly an homage to many of the sixties island trips, the eccentric humanist speaks up and is sent to a Milanese sanatorium. It’s a suffocating story of gaslighting. An expressive and dissatisfied woman silenced by an equally discontented community. But another islander – the fiery son she has raised – has a plan to shake up the locals. Her sanction turns out to be her release. The moral? Don’t stay on any island too long, no matter how beautiful. Also check out Crialese’s Terrafirma, preceding the hugely influential island immigration film Fire at Sea by Gianfranco Rosi.
The Blue Lagoon (1980) by Randal Kleiser
It’s strange how a film that you loved as a child can seem so fucked-up when you return to it as an adult. There are some creepy vibes here with the eternally creepy but mesmerizing Brooke Shields shipwrecked into a mystery tropical paradise (shot in Fiji) with only one other person, her brotherly best friend. Oh, and an irresponsible adult drunk who soon perishes, instigating a death-pact fail featuring some poisonous berries. Left to their own devices for perhaps the rest of their time on earth, it’s a story about primal development in isolation. It’s like Big Brother, when people start making out with the nearest and only available warm body in the vicinity. An age-old plot of confinement and quarantine, but it’s incredibly entertaining and has reached cult status. It definitely makes you think twice about who you’ll take on your next cruise or long haul flight over the Bermuda triangle.
Rams (2015) by Grimur Hakonarsson
Far-reaching Icelandic dramas are few and far between, despite the country’s magnificent terrain making it a widely popular filming location. This film wowed Cannes audiences and subsequently reached screens all over. Which is somewhat ironic as it features such neo-luddite subject matter: the story of two estranged brothers who must reunite to save their herd of livestock. In a world of artificial landmasses and untouched reserves making way for glossy five star resorts so everyone can get a slice of the island action, this film reminds us that no matter how advanced the technology or experience, the evolution of human drama on an island comes down to a respect for evolution and nature. You would survive if castaway, but some primal instinct might have to kick in. And the helping hand of whoever might be isolated alongside you.