Title: The Loneliest Planet
Director: Julia Loktev
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Hani Furstenberg, Bidzina Gujabidze
On one of the deeper album cuts from their 2004 release “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” U2’s Bono sang, on “A Man and a Woman,” of the “mysterious distance” between the sexes, and how one can often find themselves — for better and worse — lost in that chasm of the ineffable and perhaps unknowable. A cinematic travelogue and unusual three-hander about a pair of young, engaged lovers who undertake a guided backpack tour through the Caucasus Mountains in formerly Soviet Georgia, the artfully restrained “The Loneliest Planet” provides a hazy yet engaging expedition through that gap.
The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 AFI Film Festival, writer-director Julia Loktev’s “The Loneliest Planet” centers on lovebirds Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg). Prior to their wedding, the pair set off on an arduous trip through both verdant fields and choking mountain passes. There isn’t a whole lot revealed through dialogue — the film is largely about the juxtaposition of human form, as dwarfed by natural splendor — but they pass the time and weather with handstand competitions and some amusing campfire English lessons (“I take my bitch to the beach,” and “I take a shit on the sheet”) for their enigmatic native guide (Bidzina Gujabidze). This idyllic intimacy is shattered, however, when a terrifying moment, and more specifically Alex’s split-second reaction to it, drives a rift between the young couple, perhaps exposing faultlines that were always there.
Working from a short story by Tom Bissell, Loktev and cinematographer Inti Briones craft a gorgeous work that takes considerable advantage of its location shooting. Nature is indeed the film’s fourth character, and in many ways its most important one. Still, the beguiling performances are what gives “The Loneliest Planet” its woozy hold. Furstenberg recalls Juliette Binoche by way of Jessica Chastain (with maybe a pinch of Franka Potente), and she and Bernal have an easy, unforced chemistry with one another. To say that Loktev prefers understatement is itself a huge understatement, but the naturalistic demeanors of her performers pull in viewers more receptive to the notion of cinematic tone pieces, and yield rich results.
There’s a hint of Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” here, with the movie’s wide shots and lulling rhythms. And yet “The Loneliest Planet” comes across as ambiguous without being phony or overly coy. It could do with a haircut, but in its refusal to say much directly, or put a bow on its conflict(s), Loktev and her film invite viewers to ponder what they know about their lovers and loved ones and what if anything those gaps in their knowledge necessarily mean about character and compatibility.
Written by: Brent Simon