Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Loneliest Planet: A Division Larger Than Mountains

The Loneliest Planet
Directed by: Julia Loktev
Written By: Julia Loktev, from a short story by Tom Bissell
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Hani Furstenberg, and Bidzina Gujabidze
Director of Photography: Intr Briones, Editor: Michael Taylor, Production Designer: Rabiah Troncelliti

         The moment that changes everything for the two characters in The Loneliest Planet is so brief that you better make sure you keep your eyes on the screen and better not sneeze. I almost missed it writing something in my notes. It would be easy to subscribe this film as one of those subtle works that requires copious amounts of attention for a relatively satisfactory payoff.  However, the challenge is more than fulfilling, and the payoff quite devastating. Julia Loktev’s second narrative film is a unique examination of communication between couples and the boundaries that can hold us back.

            Shot in the gorgeous landscapes of the Georgian mountains, 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 GarcĂ­a Bernal, to bring in the hot water so she can finish her shower. The two are backpacking in the area, strangers in a strange land. In early scenes, we see them interact with local culture through gestures and movements. These two are experienced in the world, 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, a tale as old as time. 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, it certainly seems to be the case. Loktev gives us plenty of scenery to adore with our eyes, and a few funny and lively conversations, but what exactly is guiding this narrative isn’t exactly clear, as Loktev plays it close to the chest

       But then, it happens. A moment that changes everything between Nica and Alex. They never mention it for the rest of the film, but it hangs over the film in every moment. 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.  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 conversations that seemed so mundane and casual return with striking importance.

            The Loneliest Planet 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 foreign language game. 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, Loktev creates something 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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