Minimalism diffuses potential power in psychological drama ‘Loneliest Planet’
Less-is-more seems to be the prevailing philosophy behind The Loneliest Planet. In this exercise in narrative and emotional minimalism, Russian-born American filmmaker Julia Loktev has the nerve to go slow, revealing her story in tiny gestures, instead of conventional action or pages of dialogue. Audacious in design and intent, the film starts out like an adventure about a young couple on a backpacking holiday across an exotic landscape (the vast and splendid Caucasus Mountains in Russian Georgia). But Loktev uses her enormous canvas to zero in on the psychology of inner space as the couple discovers worrying secrets in each other and themselves.
But as intriguing as it often is, there are also drawbacks to Loktev’s anti-narrative approach. She pretty much eschews dialogue, except for the most basic, inconsequential chat (there’s only one scene where a character actually reveals something about himself verbally), and dispenses with any kind of backstory that might inform us who these people are, where they’re from, or what they want. Loktev is trying to pare down extraneous stuff to focus on a singular brief, but oh-so-telling incident in the course of the story that ripples through the rest of the film.
As dramatic as that moment is, however (although underplayed in the extreme onscreen), it’s not really enough to sustain our interest in a nearly two-hour film. Yes, things change; the course of the trip and probably the couple’s future, along with their relationship to their guide, alter radically in just a few seconds. But it’s a story that could best be told in about 30 minutes. Stretching it out to feature length implies a degree of universality that the sketchiness of the characters and our surface involvement with them never warrants.
Not surprising, then, that Loktev’s film is adapted from the short story, “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” by American journalist and travel writer Tom Bissell. Porcelain redhead Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and her fiancé, Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) have arrived in a small Georgian village to hike up into the Caucasus. They speak English to each other, although Alex, a Spaniard, is teaching Nica to conjugate Spanish verbs. The film opens in an atmosphere of strangeness, with the couple careening about with a bunch of children in the house where they are staying, and an elderly Georgian woman speechifying at them at great length in a language neither of them (nor us) can understand.
Alienation continues in small dollops as they hire their Georgian mountain guide (Bidzina Gujabidze)—whose services prove to be a bit more pricey than Alex was led to expect. Still, they set off together, the larky young couple (engaged to be married in a few more months) an their stoic, dependable guide. Nica insists she’s strong, despite her delicate looks (we’ve seen her doing chin-ups in an abandoned bus), and the couple rises to every physical occasion on the hike up and up into the mountains. Right up to the moment when a brief, passing encounter with a trio of angry, armed men shifts the gears in Nica and Alex’s relationship forever.
This moment and its powerful repercussions are interesting in what they reveal about human nature. But then the movie continues on and on in a random matter, as if it, like the characters, is searching for a way out. By the time Loktev finally sees fit to stop (“conclude” is too strong a word), ending with a whimper, not a bang, the power of that moment has been diffused in minutiae.
On the other hand, the Caucasus Mountains look glorious. As captured by cinematographer Inti Briones, their green rolling hills fill the frame, blocking out the sky, and often dwarfing the puny humans glimpsed like ants crawling across their surfaces. Mountaineers will love the hiking footage, and scenes of, say, Alex and Nica drinking and dancing with the locals in a ramshackle bar on the eve of their trek will appeal to viewers bitten by the travel bug.
But two hours traipsing along in the wake of people who never even discuss with each other such a game-changing life incident leaves the impatient viewer feeling miles from nowhere.
THE LONELIEST PLANET
★★1/2 (out of four)
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With Gael Garcia Bernal, Hani Furstenberg, and Bidzina Gujabidze.
Written and directed by Julia Loktev. An IFC Films release. Not rated. 113 minutes.