The Loneliest Planet

Year: 2011
Production Co: Flying Moon Filmproduction
Director: Julia Loktev
Writer: Tom Bissell/Mikhail Lermontov/Julia Loktev
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Hani Furstenberg

The trailer for this movie had me intrigued enough to put it on my list. It looked like a travelogue about charismatic young hipsters, but what was the terrible secret that would transpire to put their relationship to the test or make them fight for their survival?

If only the movie had the same proportion of action/intrigue to picturesque set-up. It's extremely high quality and has beautiful cinematography, a confident sense of its own sense of pace and a very distinctive sense of the time and location. But amidst all that, there are exactly two – count 'em – dramatic incidents.

Nica (Hani Furstenburg) and Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) are roughing it as they backpack Eastern Europe. For the longest time we see snippets of life on the road and on the cheap. In fact, the movie itself opens with a very confronting image – Nica standing completely stark naked, shivering and freezing while Alex rustles up hot water in their apparently less than luxuriously-appointed accommodations.

We also see them chatting amiably with a local family they've apparently been staying with (friendly despite the language barrier), bartering with a villager to be their guide, and setting off.

They're crossing the windswept, grassy and occasionally forested mountains of Georgia (the former Soviet enclave, not the US state), a place that has its own rough-hewn charm and a lack of creature comforts, hiking across beautiful and forlorn landscapes, stopping to camp, wriggling out of tents in the freezing dead of night to relieve themselves, Alex teaching his fiance Spanish, and both of them tentatively bonding with their unnamed guide.

It goes on like that. And on. And on, and on, and on. What felt like an hour in, I was still waiting for something to happen. It finally does when they come across a gang of hunters the guide apparently knows, the former Soviet version of rednecks. They take some sort of instant dislike to Alex and Nica, and before Alex knows it he has a rifle pointed at this face.

It's a bit like Force Majeure, where the husband turning tail away from the avalanche and leaving his family changes the entire dynamic in his relationship. Alex's terror-stricken instinct is to grab Nica and pull her in front of him, gradually getting hold of himself and edging around her to take her place at the nozzle of the rifle.

The guide apparently talks the rednecks down and they leave, but Nica and Alex's relationship is changed from then on. The film goes on much as it did before with the hiking, provisioning and camping, only now Alex and Nica barely speak. You presume he's mortified and ashamed about the way he behaved in the face of danger and she's disgusted at him, but there's not enough spoken interaction to reveal even that much.

And it goes on like that. And on. And on, and on, and on. Finally, one night at camp, Nica and the guide are drunkenly singing together and Alex, in what seems like a fit of jealousy, goes to bed. The second thing happens (or rather, doesn't), the night goes on, they're packing the tents the next morning and the movie ends.

So by the time the credits rolls after almost two hours there's been about three minutes of tense drama, everything else just scruffy tourists walking through fields. You think you can see what writer/director Julia Loktev was trying to do and she's certainly a good filmmaker, but she went way too far with it, another one of those directors more in love with beautiful images than stories.

The whole thing seems to be broken into chapters, each one marked by an extreme long shot of the trio walking across another landscape that takes the amount of time they take to walk across the frame. Have fast forward ready.

The title might or might not be a pun about the famous travel book brand, but that seems too self-consciously commercial for a movie this avant garde to resort to. It's also one of those films, like the sublime Samsara or the later works of Terrence Malick, where the dialogue is so sparse (and doesn't directly convey what's going on), it's almost useless.

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