5 Greatest single-location films

Davide Abbatescianni

Cinema gives directors the freedom to film countless real-life locations, yet many filmmakers choose to enter a “creative cage” and shoot their stories in one location only. Here are five of the finest examples 

 

Festen aka The Celebration

The first title of this list is Thomas Vinterberg's Festen (also known as The Celebration), winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival in 1998. This black dramedy, entirely set in a majestic family-run hotel and its surroundings, was the initiator of a new Danish film wave known as Dogme 95.

The movement's manifesto represented an attempt to create films focusing on the characters and their stories and to limit, as much as possible, the interference of too elaborate formal research. In other words—and maybe oversimplifying—it was a sort of low-budget philosophy, where the use of single, real-life locations was strongly encouraged.

And that's what you see in Festen; the hand-held camera is frenetic and follows a crazy family gathering organised by Helge (Henning Moritzen), the family's rich patriarch celebrating his 60th birthday, and the tense confrontations with his wife Else (Birthe Neumann), his sons (Ulrich Thomsen, Thomas Bo Larsen and Paprika Steen) and the rest of the family. Room by room and argument after argument, their conflicts escalate and uncover their darkest secrets.

Clerks

In 1993, a man wanted to make a film, sold his comic book collection, maxed out a bunch of credit cards and spent his savings set aside for university education. That guy was Kevin Smith and perhaps filming his debut feature in one location wasn't just a creative choice.

Entirely shot in black-and-white, Clerks is a grotesque comedy revolving around Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran), a 20-something boy who works as a retail clerk at Quick Stop Groceries in Leonardo, New Jersey, called into work on his day off to cover another employee's shift.

In his small convenience shop, Dante deals with a memorable gallery of quirky human beings and opens up surreal discussions about sex, films, relationships and other topics, all worth discovering! After US giant Miramax bought it, Clerks became a box office hit and, later, a cult film.

Raise the Red Lantern

Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern (1991) is set in 1920s Republic of China during the Warlord Era and was entirely shot in the Qiao Family Compound near the ancient city of Pingyao.

A fine example of 19th-century Northern Chinese architecture, the beautiful courtyard house hosted the misfortunes of Songlian (Gong Li), who became the third concubine of a nobleman, Master Chen (Ma Jingwu) and ended up being involved in a tragic struggle for her master's affection with Zhuoyan (Cao Cuifeng) and Meishan (He Caifei).

The film shows a different apartment for each wife, and each night a red lantern is raised outside the quarters of the woman who will be honoured by a visit from Master Chen. The compound is the perfect cheerless location for this touching, masterly crafted drama, which gained a nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 1992 Academy Awards.

Dogville

For the fourth film, we're back to Denmark with Lars von Trier (also among the founders of the aforementioned Dogme 95) and one of his most disturbing pieces, Dogville (2003). A star-studded ensemble including Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgård, Udo Kier, James Caan and Ben Gazzara moves in and around a real “non-place”.

Dogville is indeed an imaginary small village whose streets and buildings are limited by clearly labelled segments traced in white chalk. The convoluted, anguishing plot, told in nine chapters and narrated by John Hurt, gradually hooks the viewers in finding out the two faces of the town, initially presented as a pleasant, lovable community.

Rope

This list is rounded off by one of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpieces, Rope (1948). Here, the English master did not only limit himself by setting it all in one location (a New York apartment), but also by creating the illusion of shooting one 80-minute long take (actually composed of several unbroken shots lasting up to ten minutes).

The premise of this psychological thriller sees Philip (Farley Granger) and Brandon (John Dall) strangling their former Harvard classmate David (Dick Hogan) to death with a piece of rope and then hiding his corpse in a chest upon which they arrange a buffet dinner. The crime is committed as part of a sort of intellectual exercise, inadvertently inspired by the lectures of their college professor Rupert (James Stewart).

 

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