Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet follows a young couple trekking across Caucasus Mountains, sampling local food, poking around abandoned buses making love in grimy hotels. They hire a guide and set out on a multi-day hike through gorgeous countryside. Interspersed with scenes of playful candor between Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) are wide-angle shots of the couple and the guide making their way through a dwarfing landscape. And so we have the “lonely planet” as existential metaphor and hap-tip to the eponymous travel guide, and both meanings of the title end up informing an aspect of the film’s thematic concern. There is a tension in the film between the tourist and the pilgrim, between the person who travels to consume the exotic, and the person for whom the otherness of the exotic locale leaves an indelible mark on the soul.
Loktev’s film starts out slowly, deliberately so. Shot in a candid, handheld manner, we simply watch as these two lovers set out on the journey. And while there is a slight sense of tension in the air – we never know whether or not to trust their guide, or fear their surroundings – there also really doesn’t seem to be anything of consequence. This is Loktev’s method, immersing us a familiar sense of travel, while distancing the enough to recognize the arbitrariness of it. Nica and Alex roll around in grass, cross streams on wobbly bridges and fill their canteens from mountain springs. All the while there guide cracks awkward jokes or listens to the still air.
Then there is a sudden twist that sets The Loneliest Planet in motion. It is hardly a moment, followed by an even lesser moment, that nonetheless drives an unexpected rift between the traveling couple. Without giving away this surprise, which is one of the film’s only really moments of action, it only needs to be said that The Loneliest Planet becomes a rumination on love and instinct, on depth of character and how our amorous appetites can be challenged by the simple conformation with something profound.
There is finesse to Loktev’s light touch, and the film is so subtle and quiet you respect the understated craft in it. Credit must also go to Garcia Bernal and Furstenberg, whose natural candor and palpable sensuality support Loktev’s minimalism, while keeping us engaged with romantic banter that feels close. Another thread that holds this delicate movie together is its portrayal of sexuality, both intimate and incessant. And yet Loktev underplays her hand a little. We spend too long wandering aimlessly before we are drawn in by what the filmmaker is really up to. That dampens the film’s overall effect, and leaves the lingering feeling that what we have is a 40 minute short film drawn-out to feature form.