At the New Zealand International Film Festival, traversing the emotional terrain of human relationships.
Making full use of its stunning setting in the Georgian region of the Caucasus mountain range, Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet is a spartan tale of the complexities of relational connection. The director makes the choice—wisely I think—not to rely solely on narrative action and dialogue to push forward her thematic intentions. Instead, she continually manipulates the emotional dynamics between a trio of travellers—consisting of engaged backpacking couple Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael García Bernal), and their Georgian trek guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze)—highlighting at each turn the relative closeness and distance that exists in some form between each. The seemingly endless remote wilderness—harsh and unyielding in all its breathtaking splendour—serves to underscore the thematic ideas around the difficulty of achieving and maintaining a depth and breadth of intimacy. That, and riffing on the ‘Lonely Planet’ travel guides in the film’s title, of course.
Based on the short story Expensive Trips Nowhere from Michigan writer/journalist Tom Bissell’s 2005 anthology God Lives in St. Petersburg: and Other Stories, Loktev’s adaptation differs in terms of the protagonists’ pre-marital status and the less defined relational trajectory of the couple across the story. The motif of the privileged Western traveller exists in the very situation of the story without Loktev ever addressing it directly. Indeed, some pains are taken to illustrate how frugally Nica and Alex are approaching their trip, but interactions with Dato expose the relative inequalities of situation.
Bernal and Furstenberg have really good onscreen chemistry, bringing an easy though slightly charged togetherness, which plays nicely into the latter half of the film and the tonal shifts that occur. It is significant that the first 20 minutes or so are devoted to establishing this chemistry and the couple’s mode of relating along their travels. Gujabidze as the slightly grizzled former soldier turned mountain man puts the couple nicely off kilter with his (obviously ‘foreign’) manner of gruff, bemused humour and see-sawing between seemingly cold detachment and surprising openness. Another device the film employs to put the viewer off kilter is the distinct lack of subtitles. We are forced to encounter the situations with as much understanding as if we were travellers along for the journey ourselves. I do wonder what difference there’d be watching The Loneliest Planet as a Georgian speaker, native or otherwise.
Loktev’s cinematographer for this project (her sophomore narrative feature) is Chilean Inti Briones, who shot Cristian Jimenez’s Bonsái (also programemd at NZIFF 2012) as well as being a (more recent) collaborator with the late Raúl Ruiz, notably having lensed his final completed work, La noche de enfrente (Night Across the Street). His camera seems as attuned to seeking out ephemeral detail as coffee table grandeur. And so together Loktev and Briones have captured the key relational story arc in fleeting imagery—sidelong glances, the dismissive shrug of a shoulder, a hovering hand, a barely perceptible tightening around the eyes—and spaced these out across the interminable scale of the metamorphic natural backdrop. Grassed hills, become mountains, become river valleys, become mysterious rock formations, become grass covered hills once again.
Structurally the film plays out in a kind of compression-expansion pattern much like the bodily movement of a worm. Short periods of (relatively) interaction and dialogue heavy narrative are followed by lengthy stretched out periods of walking covered by many long takes of super-wide vista shots. In this way the film mirrors the nature of the hike the characters are engaged in; hours of determined trekking with minimal dialogue followed by breaks in both forward momentum and silence. After each piece of action the viewer is left plenty of temporal and physical space to observe and consider. What we observe is very much an investigation of relationship: intimacy, love, communication, forgiveness, self-awareness, and independence. All these are put under a visual microscope. Loktev also goes a little way into exploring gender stereotyping and expectations, although this seems less of a specific focus perhaps being more like a filter through which we see the film.
Those entering The Loneliest Planet expecting a Motorcycle Diaries-paced outing with Gael, in a nominally different setting, may well find themselves disappointed (as many in my screening did judging by a number of walkouts and the conversation to be heard both after and during the film). However, those with bent towards the more reflective, rhythmic cinema will be in for a cinematic treat. I for one look forward to seeing further work from this Russian-American filmmaker.