The World and Its Discontents
by Kristi Mitsuda
The Loneliest Planet
Dir. Julia Loktev, U.S., IFC Films
As in her stunning debut Day Night Day Night, Julia Loktev’s second fiction feature plays out largely over the course of 48 hours and locates layers of surprising suspense and profundity not so much via dramatic incidents—save for one momentous one—as a steady accrual of small details reflecting character and atmosphere. Also like the previous film, which positions the audience alongside a would-be terrorist, The Loneliest Planet is a project in empathy that keeps viewers on edge throughout, although the sense of foreboding this time is altogether more diffuse since the threat remains less defined. Freely and feelingly adapted by Loktev from Tom Bissell’s estimable short story “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” the film replaces Bissell’s already embittered, married trustfunders seeking exotic thrills with a pair of engaged sweethearts. Exposition is nearly nonexistent; no subtitles are provided for the non-English dialogue—putting us in the place of the protagonists, travelers of differing national origins in a foreign country—and we only learn the names of people and other particulars as the story moves along. The movie’s title cleverly riffs off the Lonely Planet guidebooks (that bible of most dedicated backpackers), indicating the nature of the pair while also conjuring an anxiety-inducing mental image that keeps us expectant: what does the loneliest planet look like?
Loktev starts to answer the question by first establishing in delightful detail the inside behavior of this central couple. Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) are abroad in Georgia, partaking in recognizable travel amusements—wandering neighborhoods, eating kebabs from street vendors, taking silly self-portraits—and luxuriating in their love, the playfulness of which is uniquely pronounced. Their euphoria is heightened by being in a new place together but seems at base to reside simply in the inexhaustible exhilaration they take in one another’s company. We find them hanging upside down from the rungs of abandoned tour buses like children, engaging in an impromptu game of back-and-forth after a ball comes bounding outside a walled backyard onto their walking path, trying to quietly make love on a creaky guesthouse bed. A listing of these scenarios might sound off-puttingly cloying, but the actors create a believable dynamic to describe a couple obliviously adorable in the way of people deeply in love. After these introductory scenes, the two set off for a multi-day trek in the mountains, and the cinematic description of their romance reaches its apotheosis: after running up a steep hill, Nica and Alex roll down together and come to rest nestled against one another, held tightly in the frame with sunlight streaming down on them; the moment is set up as an idyll to make more stark the darkness the following day holds.
Simple and sensory pleasures (scrambling up rocks, lying in meadows, exchanging language lessons) and pains (clearing bug-agitated eyes, waking up in the middle of the night to pee tent-side) of the extended hike form the content of this first day and night in nature. But a disquiet creeps in early on despite the narrative’s peaceful progression. Loktev sets us up for the rupture before Loneliest Planet reaches its pivotal juncture, with a low-level queasiness triggered early on by a destabilizing opening image and expanded upon by playing up the fear of the unknown inherent in travel. Guided by Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), the couple is otherwise alone in hallucinogenically green mountains. The director builds tension through abrupt cuts which deny us a sense of closure within scenes, most notably as the characters move through the terrain in long shot, at times so extreme you have to squint to see the human figures; the cuts always happen just as they’re about to reach the edge of the frame, accompanying strings on the soundtrack stopping sharply in unison. Other microscopic moments also portend something possibly sinister to come, such as when Dato shushes his clients, makes them pause in the brush while listening for what he doesn’t reveal, or when he demonstrates rope tricks and binds Nica’s hands together, leading to a nervous moment as he brandishes a knife to release her. Taken together with the title, we can’t help but speculate as to how and when the other shoe will drop. Will the pair be separated from another? Will Dato do something to harm them? Or abandon them in the mountains?
But Loktev has something more in mind; it isn’t a physical distance or matter the couple will need to overcome, but an emotional one. An encounter with another group on the second day throws into question the romantic cliché that when someone loves you, he should be willing to die for you without a second thought. Alex’s automatic self-preservational response at the unexpected moment is one of basic instinct but understandably leads to Nica feeling unprotected and alone in the world. Loktev’s choreography of the characters from this point conveys the profound sense of disorientation and isolation that accompanies recognition of a seemingly invincible relationship’s fragility. She captures Nica and then Alex in separate medium close-ups as they walk on in silence through the wilderness, their footing unsure; rarely have they been visually severed from one another. Next making their way across some muddy flats, the trio is shot walking with the sun in the corner of the frame, and the lensing of the scene gives the impression that the planet they’re walking on now is a different one indeed. The magic goes out of everything and makes the giddiness of prior times together feel foreign; when Dato suggests that they’ve reached a good photo spot, neither Alex nor Nica moves to take a picture.
We watch the two—now strangers to each other, in a strange land—try to find their way back to one another. But just when the first signs of absolving affection return, a tiny slip in attention on Alex’s part refreshes Nica’s fear and resentment, the trauma of earlier in the day compounded. That night sees her getting drunk with Dato after Alex sullenly turns in early, and nearly exploring another avenue of betrayal (though even in this sequence, Loktev skirts clichés and colors the dark night with a mournfulness heartbreaking in its acknowledgement of human frailty). How does one return from this planet? Loktev suggests a possible opening. An exquisite final stretch shows the alienated couple from bird’s-eye view taking down their tent together the next morning, presumably suffering from emotional hangovers (and, in Nica’s case, a physical one as well) from the previous day’s events. But the ritualized movements of required coordination—the pulling up of the stakes, removal of tent poles, folding of the outer shell—bring them organically closer. On the loneliest planet, sometimes a relationship’s healing after what feels like a world-ending fight doesn’t come by way of dramatic resolutions—angry arguments or makeup sex—but through recourse to shared routines that connect back to the internal rhythms of the relationship, wordlessly beginning to revive its wonder.