Thursday, September 29, 2011

New York Film Festival: Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet

The Loneliest Planet
A Film By Julia Loktev
United States and Germany

            The moment that changes everything for the two characters in The Loneliest Planet is so brief that you need to make sure you are keeping your eyes on the screen. I almost missed it writing something in my notes. A lot of people could easily subscribe this film as one of those subtle works that requires copious amounts of attention for a sly and only relatively satisfactory payoff.  However, Julia Loktev’s second narrative film is a unique look at communication that does require more thinking than the average film, but the reward after considering the film’s actions only deepens with time.

            Shot in the gorgeous landscapes of the Georgian mountains, Ms. Loktev never sets up exactly what type of story we will be watching. We begin by seeing the young Nica (Hani Furstenberg) jumping nude up and down on a wooden plank that crashes against our eardrums. Is she captive? No, she’s just waiting for her boyfriend Alex, played by Gael García Bernal, to bring in the hot water so she can finish her shower. The two are on a backpacking adventure across Georgia. In early scenes, we see them interact with local culture through gestures and movements. These two are experienced in the world, we can tell, not just tourists trying to go the insider route.

            One might expect, especially with shots that mimic the epic opening of Werner Herzog’s Agguire: The Wrath of God,  that The Loneliest Plant may be a commentary on over-ambitious travelers who are way over their head in a culture they simply cannot understand. And for a while, as we see our couple and their guide Dato (a fantastic Bidzina Gujabidze, a real tour guide from Georgia) traversing the landscape with only nature standing in our way, you might be right. Ms. Loktev gives us plenty of scenery to adore with our eyes, and a few funny and lively conversations, but not much in terms of subtext, as it first appears.

            But then, it happens. A moment that changes everything between Nica and Alex, of which they then never speak to each other in the film about. Did we see what happened? From this point on, The Loneliest Planet takes off as a story about communication between two who love each other but can’t find a way to communicate. The majestic plains that seemed so open suddenly become claustrophobic. Dato goes from a casual guide to a frustrating observer.  Ms. Loktev isn’t changing her filmmaking techniques at all, balancing between intense handheld close-ups with majestic wide shots, but in doing so it is the point.

            The Loneliest Planet thus focuses on small gestures that people do to rebuild communication. A hand reaching for a shoulder. A moment of breath as if to speak. A dried apricot. It’s a story that in many ways is universal between couples, but using this specific relationship in such a unique environment, Ms. Loktev creates something that feels vividly personal. The reward by the end seems quite paltry in what we may hope for, but The Loneliest Planet wants us to think about how ourselves instead, and our own reactions to situations that can cause riffs. This is the type of film you walk out of that seems so small and simple, and yet in infects your brain with ideas about how we interact with others in situations we cannot stand. These characters may be crossing mountains, but the largest spaces seem to be between themselves.

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