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"The Loneliest Planet" Is A Cerebral Slow-Burner

Aaron Schrank |
October 30, 2012 | 11:07 a.m. PDT


The two stars of "The Loneliest Planet" (Facebook)
The two stars of "The Loneliest Planet" (Facebook)
The first few seconds of “The Loneliest Planet,” (in select theaters now) bring viewers into a startlingly intimate moment without any context. And that’s more or less where they’ll remain for the rest of the film. The willowy, soap-covered body of Nica (Hani Furstenberg) appears on screen, jumping up and down on the floorboards of a dimly lit room and grunting as if in pain. Alex—played by Mexican art-house favorite Gael Garcia Bernal—enters the frame and douses her shivering body with pitchers of warm water in an improvised shower. “Sorry,” he coos repeatedly. Minimal dialogue reveals very little about the film’s protagonists in the subsequent two hours, but a series of contained snapshots gradually blooms into a gripping exploration of interpersonal relationships, for those patient enough to follow along.

Alex and Nica are a young, engaged American couple backpacking in Georgia (the country above Armenia, not the state above Florida). They’re steeped in the comfortable boredom of romance. In scenes that evoke the indie-twee tripe of “Garden State” or  “500 Days of Summer,” they dance together alongside strange men in a near-empty bar, quietly practice conjugation of past tense Spanish verbs and play an aggressive game of footsy—never uttering anything of substance. But the images are powerful, and their affection believable.

What little dialogue does exist is often muddled by cross-cultural misunderstandings, and it’s clear that Russian American director Julia Loktev is playing with the nuances and shortcomings of verbal communication. None of the Georgian spoken in the film is translated, leaving viewers just as puzzled as the on-screen pair. When they haggle with Georgian mountain guides in a crowded marketplace, conversation consists of enthusiastic slaps on the back and appeals of “My friend!” before they’ve hired Dato (real-life mountaineer Bidzina Gujabidze) to lead them on a hiking trip across the Caucasus Mountains.

The story moves as slowly as the steady plod of its characters across the vast Georgian landscape. Still, pressure and anticipation build, thanks in large part to the jarring shifts in photographic perspective by cinematographer Inti Briones. Many shots are intimate and voyeuristic, like a handheld close-up that settles on Nica’s fire-engine red curls blowing in the wind as their jeep bounces towards the hills. Others are stunning wide shots more common to nature documentaries or sci-fi sagas, where the hikers are just small specks along the terrain of lush green mountains and sandy riverbeds. Richard Skelton’s epic musical arrangements make these wide establishing shots feel even wider.

While there’s much to ponder, the “The Loneliest Planet” still lacks a narrative at nearly its halfway point. Loktev knows viewers expect something to happen in her film, and teases them with what it might be. Film convention tells them mountain guide Dato might have a trick up his sleeve. His nonsensical racist jokes and skills with a rope (at one point, he jokingly bounds Nica’s hands together) indicate he’s a bit off. And the laidback mountaineer occasionally switches into high alert, motioning for silence with a firm hand movement before signaling false alarm. Nica and Alex remain carefree. They hold headstand competitions, snap goofy photos and laugh uncertainly at Dato’s jokes.

"The Loneliest Planet" production still (Facebook)
"The Loneliest Planet" production still (Facebook)
Eventually, something does happen. A complicated incident that occurs in a few fleeting seconds interrupts the couple’s pre-marital ecstasy, reminding viewers how circumstances can change in an instant. Without revealing specifics, an impulse decision undermines the tender foundation of their relationship. It’s the film’s one real plot development—disturbing its steady rhythm and coloring all the events to follow.

The events to follow are much the same as those that preceded the incident: three people walking through the mountains in relative silence. But after the incident, they trek silently not because they’re content, but because their sweet-nothing-soaked communication can’t remedy the fallout. Nica walks angrily, speaking only to announce things like, “I have a rock in my boot.” Alex walks with shame—afraid he hasn’t been the man he is supposed to be.

If not engrossed early on, viewers might mistake this elusive film as dragging on without saying much of anything. But those who fine-tune their senses to its unconventional pace will be left appropriately stunned speechless. In both content and style, “The Loneliest Planet” makes a riveting argument that what’s said and heard is far outweighed by what’s done and seen. 

Find movie times for "The Loneliest Planet" here.

Reach Contributor Aaron Schrank here.



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