Credit: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

“Objects are never lonely”: Male vs female loneliness in film

By Morgan Woodfall

In the realm of the silver screen, how we approach loneliness is filtered through our own lens of gender

In her essay Females, Andrea Long-Chu makes the bold claim that “everyone is a woman, and everyone hates it.” She doesn’t mean this literally (if that wasn’t clear), but just that maleness is necessarily something unobtainable. It doesn’t function unless it is an ideal that you can never truly embody. But in film, there are no real people with real bodies. In the domain of art and the ideal, there are only men, and they still hate it.

We can observe this at play in The Banshees of Inisherin. Kerry Cordon’s Siobhan is a lonely woman, certainly, but hers is not a condition of identity or of the mind. She has to get out of the place that’s making her lonely, and so she does. This is not to say that Banshees has bad gender politics, but that a fairly accurate representation of the way women and men might talk about their desires and beliefs in a patriarchal world must involve a split between a female ambition, and a male condition. The men in Banshees all want something unattainable, something interpersonal. Barry Keoghan’s Dominic wants an impossible love. Colin Farrell’s Padraic wants to save a dead friendship. These are not desires with material goals, but mental states that signify an intellectual commitment to being lonely. Loneliness, solipsism, the absolute male subject and ego, is founded on being unsolvable. Male loneliness is just what loneliness is, in a sense. 

It is the result of patriarchy dominating the phenomenological world; the subjective experience, the feeling of being lonely, is male loneliness. Female loneliness has a qualifier. It is to be a lonely object. Brokeback Mountain is a film about gay, lonely men who are lonely because they are gay. But only Heath Ledger’s Ennis, the top, the serious, stoic one, is meaningfully lonely. To put it in cliche he is the man of the relationship, and Jake Gyllenhall’s Jack is something less than a woman, propelled along in a straight relationship with appropriately confusing power dynamics. So Jack is killed—literally objectified, made not real—and Ennis becomes absolutely lonely, and yet nothing in this film is actually female loneliness—despite the fact that no main character is ever a conventional sort of man. The scene in Jack’s family home after he dies refutes that Ennis has any right to own Jack, only to view him. There is nothing like the loneliness of being property. There is only the loneliness of losing it, or becoming it.

Men in films who are lonely are allowed to keep being lonely because they do not owe anyone anything. A woman, eventually, is constructed as belonging to someone, and so loneliness simply won’t do. We know from linguistics that subjects and objects are not symmetrically related; objects are always being affected by something but subjects need only themselves. 

In Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, circumstance and high society conspire to bring two women together and then tear them apart. Noemie Merlent’s Marianne is the closest thing to a subject in the film, but she is a painter; more often than not, she has a subject. She is conjuring her phenomenology into the world and so negating its loneliness. You cannot make this film about men, and you cannot end it like Brokeback Mountain. In the end we watch her cry with the knowledge that Heloise, her lover, has become the ideal subject—forever signalling an impossible love in a painting, totally lonely and yet without any subjective truth. We zoom in and in on Marianne as the music objectifies her and yet compels her to feel deeply her new loneliness. Neither party has gotten to being intellectually lonely. It is only conditional, because it only could be.

What I actually mean is that loneliness is male in quite an essential way for the construction of the gender binary under patriarchy. If women were truthfully lonely they would cease to be recognisable (read: containable) women. Instead their loneliness is the thing that defines other things, like the fruitlessness of their marriage, or the horrors of a heteronormative society, or ironically the realities of patriarchy itself. I just mean that women are not essentially women, whatever that means. Gender doesn’t care. Gender cares only that you behave like an object, and objects are never lonely.

Paul Mescal’s Calum walks away from his daughter at the airport, and you think, “is he going to die? Is that what this film is?” It takes a daughter to give us the closest thing to a lonely male who is not subject, in Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun. Cinematic naivety, the limitation of one camera and one camerawoman, exclude us from everything that is making Calum deeply lonely, which we assume means in a conventional male sense. And yet he never really gets the denouement that would reify him as intellectually lonely. He leaves his daughter’s life. She never understands. He returns only in shattered dreams set to David Bowie’s voice tumbling through a wormhole. To me this is what a compellingly non-patriarchal male loneliness is; all the precluding usually reserved for female loneliness, channelled by love and by naivety into a great fissure in masculinity. Calum is most convincingly lonely because you don’t get the sense that he can live with it. He is not assumed to endure. 

Even if film can escape the great femaleness in our lives and make some of our ideals into believable subjects, that objectification bleeds in. Masculinity is probably in its most historically insecure state and yet the patriarchy trundles on unaffected. We can only hope that more films give us women who are able to endure true loneliness, and men who are not expected to.


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