Review: The Loneliest Planet
The Loneliest Planet begins without any image, only the vaguely sexual acoustics of creaking floorboards and desperate human gasps. The abrasive sounds soon collide with the vision of a pale nude body, gender and age blurred by the velocity of its violent leaps in struggle against unknown elements. The jarring opening incisively evokes vulnerability—and soon intimacy, as another figure appears with a pitcher of warming water to make the world a little less cold and threatening. This prologue out of time and space underlines director Julia Loktev’s talent for illuminating the mysterious in the mundane, through formal choices simultaneously empathetic and alienating, while acting in counterpoint to the remainder of her film, in which small moments and unaccented gestures convey emotion against the alternately lush and hostile landscape of the Republic of Georgia.
Flame-headed Nica (Hani Furstenberg), the formerly shivering wisp, and her devoted fiancé Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) are footloose and financially free enough to drift through exotic locales (Alex’s vow to shave upon return is their sole reference to real-world obligations). They share an earnest and cheerful affection heightened by the thrill of adventure, and a codependence attendant upon wandering among strangers in a strange land. The title is an inspired play on the popular, albeit ominously named, Lonely Planet travel guides, how-to manuals for sanitized, preprogrammed foreign getaways. However obscure their destinations or heavy their backpacks, the couple can’t quite wipe the goofy American grins from their faces as they giggle at the dancing natives in the local beer hall. As they embark into untamed land with Dato (Georgia’s leading mountaineer Bidzina Gujabidze), a cryptic tour guide picked up on a street corner, Nica and Alex, so self-satisfied with their extreme anti-tourism, seem doomed to a violent fate of humility, shattered illusions, or worse.
Day Night Day Night, the director’s bracing fiction feature debut, followed an unnamed and ambiguously motivated young female suicide bomber across 48 hours of activity. Loktev’s application of unwavering structural discipline to almost sadistically abstracted suspense is given a more lucid psychology in the long takes of The Loneliest Planet but is no less harrowing. Every step along the streams, grassy slopes, and cliff sides of the treeless terrain seems rife with menace, but the lissome Nica casually sidesteps the men’s assistance and concern. When she is suddenly pigeonholed into the role of damsel in distress, only to find herself conspicuously without a protector, she is left existentially alone in her own private horror show, if still encumbered with two now equally unfamiliar men.
The shame and horror of the split-second display of instinctual cowardice that drastically shifts the film’s formal and emotional topography are unspeakable, for both the characters and their writer/director, who cryptically alludes to the moment in interviews as “the incident.” Reviewers of the film have elided elaboration as well. This is less an act of journalistic integrity than a validation of the film’s nonverbal resonance, as it enters a new metaphysical space in which relationships are renegotiated with hapless desperation and competing impulses, plagued by new language barriers far more insurmountable than the film’s unsubtitled foreign tongues.
Working with a flattening telephoto lens and within an unconventionally chosen, but appropriately constrictive, 1.66 aspect ratio, Loktev and Chilean cinematographer Inti Briones (a frequent Raúl Ruiz collaborator) corrupt any notion of the postcard-perfect travelogue. Yet a sharp, immersive tactility pervades the film, as the characters shift towards and away from each other with no overarching sense of narrative progression—the cinematic promise of eventual escape—conjuring Manny Farber’s description of the Straubs’ shallow-space filmmaking as “both a feeling of cement blocks and extraordinary poetry at the same time.”
As in Day Night Day Night, Loktev eliminates the third act of classical tragedy, dividing her narrative into two distinct before-and-after halves and abandoning her characters, and the audience, to the ramifications of unresolved disillusionment and paradise lost.