There’s a lot going on in The Loneliest Planet that goes unstated. Long stretches are spent with small talk, chit chat, the intimate nonsense shared between a couple very much in love. For a while these scenes seem to linger a bit too long. They meander in a way that’s a little too close to the inconsequential moments of real life, but it’s always interesting to watching since Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg are both such good actors. They bring a weight of history to their characters Alex and Nica — in-jokes, shared stories, private games to pass time.
But there’s a turning point in The Loneliest Planet that casts all the earlier interactions in a different light. Anything that seemed like dillying and dallying before this moment now serves as a counterpoint to the way the couple acts afterwards. Every quietly observed minute matters now, and so does every silence or sentence stopped short. It’s that weird way that some movies can lure you in through the lull, and then suddenly find a mysterious significance in a lack of communication.
The Loneliest Planet
Director: Julia Loktev
Release Date: October 26th, 2012 (New York and Los Angeles)
The Loneliest Planet was shot in the wilderness of Georgia (the country that borders Russia, Turkey, and Armenia, not the state in the south). Alex and Nica are getting married in a few months and have decided to backpack through the Caucasas. They’re seasoned travelers who are used to eating street food and crashing wherever they can find a room. They get by on a few phrases in a country’s native tongue, and they’ve been all over the world already, so Georgia shouldn’t be a problem. They hire a local guide named Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) to take them through the wild. The film is mostly centered on these three and their hike.
The old cliche is that the landscape is a kind of character, but in The Loneliest Planet it’s more like a form of punctuation. There’s a music to it, and a rhythm, and a lushness. It’s just as vivid as Furstenberg’s shock of over-red hair. The wilderness dwarfs the characters, it isolates them, it adds to the mood of a scene. Little flops and squishes as the characters walk down the muddy bank of a river work like a kind of inarticulate inner monologue about regret and uncertainty. Crunches and shifts in the ground have the same sort of effect. I actually found the sounds of the wild and the exchanges between the characters more effective than the bits of music that appear in the film. The score is meant to be meditative, maybe tranquil, but it usually struck me as unnecessary and clipped.
Dato, the guide, is a loner used to mountains. He has a whole set of routines to keep tourists entertained, including the requisite bad jokes poorly told. At one point in the film he says that life makes more sense when you’re just out in the mountains, though I’m not sure if he was being ironic. By this point of the film, things between and Alex and Nica have become unbearably complicated, and he’s noticed. Gujabidze is a real-life climber who’s ascended Everest twice, so his hike through the Caucasas seems like a stroll since it’s not difficult terrain.
The big moment in The Loneliest Planet, the one the movie is built around, is all about a revealing action. It’s an unexpected moment of truth that leaves Alex and Nica shellshocked. Think of it as a kind of bomb going off in their relationship. It’s the sort of explosion that would leave a massive crater in the landscape. Bernal’s fallout from the event is guilt-ridden and full of self-accusation. He hates himself but might also be looking for a reason not to hate himself. The couple’s unable to talk about it, which may be the biggest source of tension — both realize something grave has happened, but it’s too uncomfortable to talk about it. It’s like a mute, drawn-out wince. They could do inside jokes and word games, but suddenly there is a total disconnect. This sudden thing might ruin them, or at least leave a mark on the rest of their relationship (if their relationship will survive the rest of the trip).
Though Bernal is the film’s biggest name, The Loneliest Planet really belongs to Furstenberg. She controls so much of the film’s mood and the film’s tone, and her appearance commands the screen. I don’t know if it’s the hair or her presence — or if her hair, like the landscape, is just punctuation to her presence — but she’s so striking to observe, especially during the second half of the film. She conveys so much doubt through silence and little facial expressions. When she’s unable to emote on her own (which is rare), writer/director Julia Loktev does some aesthetic underlining. There’s one point where, after long stretches of conflicted looks, Furstenberg just zones out in front of a fire. She’s quiet and blank but her mind’s still working. Behind her, a tableau plays out like thought balloons in cartoons and comics — it’s what I thought she was thinking about for the last couple minutes.
Without giving too much of the pivotal moment or its fallout away, a lot of it has to do with gender roles, and mostly masculinity. What’s fascinating is that it’s explored by a woman writer/director through Furstenberg’s Nica rather than through Bernal and Gujabidze. There’s an ambiguity to what the film has to say about the nature of masculinity, just as much as there’s an ambiguity to what the film says implicitly about femininity. This ambiguity carries on through an unresolved ending. The penultimate shot of the film seems to highlight the confusion and frustration of human interaction, and how relationships — whether between lovers or strangers — are a kind of dizzying, sickening bullshit.
The trailer for The Loneliest Planet makes the film seem like something more active and more conventionally tense than it actually is. The trailer looks taut when the film is loose (to a fault at times). I saw The Loneliest Planet described somewhere as a thriller, which is odd, unless you consider Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker or Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit a thriller. (And if you do, that’s very bizarre.) Everything is internal and complicated in The Loneliest Planet, so if it’s a thriller, maybe it’s an existential art house thriller rather than a psychological one.
Going back to the key moment as a sort of bomb, the film is like a building implosion in slow motion, though I’m not sure that we’re left with rubble and ruin by the end of the film. This might have to do with how you read a little moment in the final shot. In the same way that all the quotidian-couple-in-love stuff in the first half of the film affects the relationship-in-peril stuff in the second half of the film, the little gestures made in the second half of the film lead to a little moment at the end. Given what happens in the lead up, it was hard for me to miss it. I’m not sure if Loktev intended this, but somehow, even if it was a token gesture, a small moment had dwarfed that landscape — the ambiguity of human relationships is more vast than the world itself.