How much can a film be defined by a single moment? How much information can a film withhold so that the audience must fill in the gaps? How much can the relationships between characters be reduced to small details while still maintaining coherence? These are some of the questions raised by writer/director Julia Loktev in her second narrative feature film The Loneliest Planet. Shot on the startling Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, the film portrays a journey taken by Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg). The audience is given very little information about the pair other than that they are engaged, clearly in love and seem to be seasoned travellers who enjoy exploring other cultures and environments without touristic comforts. Leading the couple through the vast and beautiful wilderness is local guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) a man we know even less about until close to the end of the film. Relying on assumptions and prejudices brought into the film by the audience as much as anything shown on screen, The Loneliest Planet is something of a distant cousin to Roman Polanski’s 1962 drama Knife in the Water, where a relationship is threatened and the presence of a mysterious other man is used to unsettle.
From the beginning The Loneliest Planet introduces the levels of ambiguity that will define the film. The sound of a woman breathing heavily while some kind of wooden furniture rhythmically clatters suggests sexual or possibly violent activity. It turns out to be neither, and the film is full of similar red herrings. The lack of incident, but the attention paid to small details and actions suggests that something is always about to happen. The result is compelling, unnerving and sometimes confronting as it becomes clear that a lot of the anxiety from watching the film is the audience’s own doing. Loktev knows that a narrative about a likeable couple travelling in a remote part of Eastern Europe is going to evoke a collective awareness of horror film conventions and possibly also cultural prejudices. The constant concern for Nica’s wellbeing, small acts of insensitivity such as Alex and Nica being flippant about a rock Dato hands them, the awkward language and cultural barriers between the characters, and the constant visual reminders of how small and isolated they are on the landscape, create a growing unease that Loktev prods and pokes at.
The long shots of the three characters on the landscape become a reoccurring image throughout the film, acting as both chapter marks and visual representations of how the three characters relate to each other. The distance between the characters physically represents their emotional distance, and throughout the film Loktev includes similar long takes where the framing and placement of the characters in triangular shapes is highly suggestive. The long shots are initially also used to convey the beauty of the environment that these characters pass through, while in the second half of the film after the pivotal moment, these shots instead take on a melancholic sense of loneliness, vulnerability and remoteness.
The pivotal scene comes almost exactly halfway into the film’s running time and the pace and length of the film ensures the audience feels the passing of time before and after that point. The most important part of the moment only occurs in seconds, with the continuation of the moment only taking a few minutes at the most. And yet it defines everything that has occurred previously and everything that comes after. It’s a moment that captures an impulsive action that is immediately regretted, with the character in question then attempting to amend, knowing full well that the damage is done. It is perfectly timed, as without the lengthy context before it, the moment would not have the same power. Without the lengthy conclusion after it, its effect on the characters would not be able to fully resonate.
Relying predominantly on framing and acting rather than dialogue or action, Loktev represents an almost ideal relationship plummeting into crisis. If the first half of the film was primarily concerned with hinting at what could threaten the bond between Alex and Nica, the second half adopts a similarly minimal and ambiguous approach to explore how they respond to what has occurred. All the time Dato is with them, as mysterious and compelling as the dramatic scenery surrounding them. The careful and controlled drip-feed of minimal character and narrative detail will be alienating for some, but audiences used to actively engaging with cinema will find much to relish about The Loneliest Planet. It is an intensely beautiful film that almost does not need what little action and characterisation it has to remain so absorbing. Situated somewhere between the Slow Cinema movement and a psychological thriller – but not really much like either – The Loneliest Planet is an impressive film by a very confident and observant filmmaker.