When all is said and done, the quarantine movie might be Hollywood’s briefest genre. It was born only out of circumstance. When the world went into lockdown last spring and Hollywood effectively paused all productions, several film-makers discovered they didn’t have an off switch, so they conjured up projects that could be filmed during lockdown, each with a limited crew, small cast, and single location. These films, including Malcolm & Marie, Locked Down, Together and Language Lessons, will forever be considered not as individual works but as a collective. That is, if they are considered at all. Even though not all of these films are explicitly about Covid-19, it’s impossible to think of them outside of the context in which they were made. When this pandemic is over for good, it’s quite possible that no one will ever want to be reminded of it.
Another reason the genre might be forgotten is because these films offer too narrow a window into the pandemic experience. The protagonists of these films all have one thing in common: they’re rich. Very rich. They may not all claim to be, and they may not be as rich as the film-makers who created them, but they all fall very clearly into the global 1%. You can tell by their homes, which are either lavish Los Angeles mansions or spacious London flats. To be fair, it’s easy to understand the practical concerns underlying these choices: if you’re going to shoot an entire film in one residence, it’s helpful to have lots of natural light and plenty of room to stage the drama in ways that are visually compelling.
But fairly or not, these films represent Hollywood’s artistic response to the global pandemic, and what it reflects is a creative class with a blind spot for its own economic privilege and a profound misunderstanding of the lives of their audience. It’s pretty clear that the writers and directors of Malcolm & Marie, Locked Down and Together looked around at their lives during the pandemic and decided that marital squabbling was the most dramatic thing that could happen. Their protagonists spend almost all their lives in lockdown storming around their houses and spitting overwritten insults in the direction of their once-loving partners. It seems that the pandemic made these writers hold tighter to themselves, narrow their empathy and indulge in their worst creative instincts. It made their worlds smaller and their art mostly less effective.
And while marital distress is not the sole domain of the wealthy, these films fail to acknowledge so many of the practical issues that the majority of the global population has experienced. First of all, almost none of these characters have children. Only the couple portrayed by James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan in Togetherness have a son, but he exists as such an abstract character – mainly to explain why these two people who despise each other so much have stayed together – that the film would have been better off leaving him out. There’s almost no discussion of his social needs, his education or his emotional experience, which makes the lead characters seem like even bigger monsters than they would otherwise. It’s also willfully obtuse. For parents, lockdown has almost entirely been about how to keep their children happy and healthy.
Similarly, the attempt to depict economic anxiety is laughably off-base. Early on in Locked Down, Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tells his half-brother over Zoom that he has been furloughed. “Now there is literally zero purpose to my life,” he laments, but he isn’t the slightest bit concerned about his basic needs being met, probably because his partner (played by Anne Hathaway) is a CEO of a global corporation. She is contemplating quitting her job because she has to do business with dictators who abuse human rights. Not exactly a relatable problem. The couple in Togetherness also claim to have issues with their jobs – she works for a non-profit, he has some sort of consulting business – but a government Covid grant tides them over for the duration, and they are never at risk of losing their home.
Language Lessons, to its great credit, has enough self-awareness to address the crystal elephant in the room. It’s about the burgeoning friendship between Adam, a wealthy Los Angeleno who has just lost his husband to a car accident, and Cariño (Natalie Morales, who also directed), Adam’s virtual Spanish teacher. Told entirely through Zoom screens, the film doesn’t shy away from the economic inequities in their relationship. Natalie notes that Adam is rich during their very first session, which he takes part in while jumping back and forth between his Olympic-sized pool and jacuzzi. Later on, when Adam senses Natalie is in trouble, he tries to use his money to help her, and she bristles at the suggestion, even directly calling him out as a “white savior”, the term used to describe films in which wealthy white characters help oppressed people of color.
It’s a more empathetic effort than the other films of the quarantine genre, but it’s still far from a realistic look into the lives of working people during Covid. Where is the film about undocumented immigrants in overcrowded housing? Where is the film about the elderly in nursing homes, where Covid has done the most damage? Or about frontline workers who have been forced to continue to put themselves into dangerous situations, while screenwriters and CEOs have been able to work from home? With the era of quarantine art hopefully nearing its end, the output of Hollywood’s best and brightest reveals a massive hole where their empathy is supposed to be.