Title: THE LONELIEST PLANET
Director: Julia Loktev
Screenwriter: Julia Loktev, from Tom Bissell’s short story “Expensive Trips Nowhere” from the collection God Lives in St. Petersburg.
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Hani Furstenberg, Bidzina Gujabidze
Screened at: Broadway, NYC, 10/11/12
Opens: October 26, 2012
When you ask people who have come home from vacation, “How was your trip?” what do you expect them to say? After all, they’ve spent money, they’ve spent time, they’ve chosen a destination, and most of all they want to make you jealous. Did you ever hear a traveler say, “What a waste of money!” Of course not. This would make them seem like dorks. Yet vacations are not always the utopias that tourists make them out to be. When couples go away, they’re together day and night, they don’t usually wander off singly to separate destinations. This puts a lot of pressure on them, so much so that you may not be surprised at how many relationships actually go south after a trip north.
In Russian-born director Julia Loktev’s drama, “The Loneliest Planet,” an engaged couple have put enormous pressure on themselves. They don’t have a suite of rooms in a hotel to pursue separate activities. They don’t have friends around them to take the heat off. They’re backpackers traveling in a remote area of Georgia (that’s the former Soviet “republic,” not the American South), and they’re just the two of them except for a local guide with a limited fluency in English. Anything untoward happens, they’re kaput.
What’s really involving is that a coup de théâtre takes place about two-thirds into the movie that could tear their lovey-dovey relationship apart. This sudden turn of events involves literally 1.5 seconds. In just that time—blink and you’ll miss it—something sudden happens, perhaps instinctively, that could send their fantastic relationship to the cellar, and heaven help any critic or moviegoer who tells you what that is before you see the movie. By not knowing, you will be on edge waiting for the event, guessing what it might be. That’s to the good.
Looking at the whole picture, “The Loneliest Planet” is a step in a similar direction by the director, whose “Day Night Day Night” finds a nineteen-year-old female would-be suicide bomber standing on the corner of Manhattan’s 8th Avenue and 42nd street with a bomb in her backpack. When she pushes the button and the bomb fizzles, she is left with nothing. Her identity cards have been destroyed, her handlers have cut off contact with her. In much the same way, Alex (Gael García Bernal) and his thirty-year-old fiancé Nica (Hani Furstenberg) may have lost their most important attachment when this sudden event takes place. They may be left with nothing out in the glorious mountains of Georgia’s Khevi region, continuing to hike with their guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze, who is an actual guide, having climbed Mount Everest twice).
Well then, why is this film not worthy of a highly positive review? After all the filming by Chilean cinematographer Inti Briones is stunning, particularly since he and his Red camera and a small crew must hike up the mountains with the threesome, wait for just the right early-morning light lest everyone become blinded by the sun. The problem is that this film is not for the casual moviegoer, who might equate the tempo with watching paint dry—the criticism often leveled at the works of French director Erich Rohmer. The actors are fine: García Bernal takes a more passive role leaving Ms. Furstenberg to do most of the talking with the guide, but dialogue is minimalist. The Georgian language is totally without translation, so we in the audience have no idea what is going on especially when the trio meet a small group of other mountain climbers. Why is the young man in this other group talking so excitedly, pointing to the romantic couple a few feet away? Is he accusing them of being an enemy? And what’s with the game that Alex plays with Nica, quizzing her on the conjugation of Spanish verbs, and what’s with the silly song that Nica and Dato are singing?
All this minimalism is designed to make the picture seem “arty,” which of course it is. If you are the patient moviegoer, one willing to seek out original fare (though this film reminds me of Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry, “about two guys who take off in the desert without water), give it a try. If you exclusively like the fast-talking wit and Tarantino-like violence of “Seven Psychopaths,” you might want to save your dough and put it toward a vacation in a five-star hotel in Paris, leaving the rugged countryside of a strange culture to paid actors.
Unrated. 113 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – C
Acting – B
Technical – A-
Overall – B