Film Review: The Loneliest Planet

An impressive third feature by 'Day Night Day Night' writer-director Julia Loktev, 'The Loneliest Planet' is a nuanced story about a couple's wilderness hiking trip through the Caucasus Mountains.

Julia Loktev’s third film, The Loneliest Planet, is about a couple, Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal), whose passion is traveling to places virtually untouched by tourism. This time, it is the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia. They hire Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), a local guide, for their long hiking trip through the treeless expanse, formerly part of the Soviet Union. For those of us who travel this way, Loktev’s film, based on a short story by Tom Bissell, is at first striking for its authenticity.

The movie captures the nuances of a traveler’s reliance on a wilderness guide, especially when there is no shared language, and faultlessly depicts the experience of couples in this situation. There is the uncomfortable triangle the three of you form, fraught with all sorts of tension, not the least of which may be sexual. The nearness of nature and therefore of chaos, as well as the prospect of injury and death that these adventures portend, are all there in Loktev’s striking images, and in her abrupt cuts to picture and music.

The Russian-born director filmed in Georgia, a country she had visited a few years previously, and where she met her amateur actor, Gujabidze—a geologist and well-known mountain climber. It was a difficult shoot, and an ambitious project for a young director. In contrast, Loktev’s debut feature, Moment of Impact, a documentary about her family, and her second, Day Night Day Night, a narrative film about a female suicide bomber, were shot in the familiar environs of New York, her adopted city.

Those less familiar with the situations encountered by Loktev’s protagonists in The Loneliest Planet—a play on words that refers to the popular travel guidebook series—will note its accomplished simplicity, a rare quality in the early work of any director. The script is spare, and except for one dramatic incident, much of what happens in the film cannot be described in narrative terms. It is about the interior journeys of Nica and Alex, people who prefer life lived in the moment.

The Loneliest Planet opens with a nude scene, although it’s hardly provocative. Nica is wet, and waiting for the warm water Alex will deliver to complete her shower. He is apologizing for the delay. Loktev deftly establishes their youthful physical strength, and their active sex life, although it is hard to escape the feeling that this couple have little to talk about. On the hike with Dato, there are no sustained conversations and no thoughtful reflections on the landscape—only Nica’s request that Alex continue correcting her conjugation of Spanish verbs. Dato expresses more concern for Nica than Alex does when they traverse difficult terrain. While the film at first seems to be shot from the couple’s point of view, it is Nica’s movie. After the dramatic incident which, if described here, would be a spoiler, Nica becomes the emotional focal point of The Loneliest Planet because one man nearly kills her and the other hopes to exploit that situation.

Loktev does not ignore the complexity of men, and in fact raises the question of what constitutes masculinity. Here women will understand her best, as Alex and Dato represent the polar opposites heterosexual women often feel they must choose between. Each offers some measure of safety but also of entrapment. Alex is the urbane one with whom a woman can expect personal freedom, yet little machismo outside of the bedroom. His masculinity makes him rather self-centered, and unaware of a woman’s vulnerability. Dato, on the other hand, is instinctual and bestial, yet he is also chivalrous. He offers absolute security and loyalty, and an acute awareness of the sort of victimization women may suffer in the absence of male protection. These choices are illustrated in sharp relief for Nica only after the incident, when she is suddenly alert to the physical and psychological threats she faces.

Nica is “the loneliest planet.” Her vulnerability is first evinced by the beacon of her bright red hair, and then by her naiveté at the start of the film—she thinks that her invincibility is the equal of the men around her. Reeling from the incident, Nica falls victim to two more assaults, both sexual. If all the real intimacy in The Loneliest Planet exists between Nica and Dato, it is because the setting for Nica’s individuation is Dato’s home ground of perilous rivers and abrupt, indifferent mountains.

Like Robert Bresson, whose influence is obvious in both of her narrative films, Loktev explores the savagery of a world in which our psychological or spiritual needs are continually undermined by physical reality. Redemption is impossible, as Loktev’s long shot at the end of The Loneliest Planet suggests. Confronted by a world blind to her predicament, self-awareness is all Nica can hope for.