Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, which I had the great good fortune to see back in April at the Boston Independent Film Festival, is finally arriving in theaters this Friday, so I thought I would take the opportunity to write about it at greater length than I was originally able to do. A visually stunning account of an engaged couple (Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) backpacking through the Caucasus Mountains with a Georgian guide (Bidzina Gujabidze), the film was by far the most accomplished of the ten or so features that I saw at the festival. It begins as a leisurely paced, somewhat unassuming travelogue and ends up as a quietly shattering relationship drama in which Bernal and Furstenberg’s knowledge of themselves and each another is suddenly and unexpected thrown into question. Without spoiling the deceptively spare plot, I’ll say that it turns on a single instant, the after-effects of which ripple out tremulously for the remainder of the film.
Loktev (her previous film Day Night Day Night is unseen by me) displays a remarkably sure directorial hand in The Loneliest Planet, which is constructed out of huge, swath-like shots that seem to mirror the vastness of the film’s setting. During a Q&A following the festival screening, the film’s editor Michael Taylor observed that there are only about one hundred shots in the 115-minute film. I wasn’t timing them, but some seemed well over five minutes long, and one shot late in the film, as Gujabidze and Fursternberg chat and drink around a campfire, seemed closer to ten (the film also has a tendency to go five minutes at a stretch with no dialogue, an effect which serves to heighten the emotional intensity of its devastating second half). Out of these astonishing, almost Tarkovskian long takes Loktev builds a film that’s intimately attuned to the subtle colors and shadings of its characters’ relationships with one another, even as those characters appear dwarfed by the pitiless grandeur of their surroundings.
The power of The Loneliest Planet seems to grow out of this contrast between the grandness of its settings and the intimacy with which it approaches its characters. We’re not used to seeing epic travel films that are so attentive to the details of the travelers’ emotional lives; usually, the scenery ends up stealing the show. But Loktev, who seems to be using this film to investigate the very nature of travel (the film’s title seems to have been inspired by the wildly popular “Lonely Planet” series of travel guides), suggests that traveling serves to heighten and catalyze our tensions and uncertainties—and our loneliness—rather than allowing us to escape from them. In this sense, every travel film in which exotic surroundings succeed in distracting its characters (and us) from their inner lives is a lie. In Loktev’s vision of the world, to travel is never to leave one’s life behind, but rather to re-encounter it under what looks like a different sky.
[Disclaimer: portions of this review have appeared in an earlier post.]