In 2012, I wrote an extended program note for the Melbourne International Film Festival, an almost-review of The Loneliest Planet, which is getting a limited release in Australian cinemas this Thursday March 21. Originally published on the MIFF website, you can also read it here:
In writer-director Julia Loktev’s second feature, pseudo-psychological drama and travelogue The Loneliest Planet, the audience is taken to Georgia, as we tag along with backpackers Alex (Gael García Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg). We follow them literally via the camera lens, framing the back of Nica’s head – her bright red hair billowing in the wind while on her way to the mountains – and moving alongside Alex as he walks across a mountainous divide. This tight camerawork builds a spatial, almost tangible, closeness with the characters in lieu of any emotional intimacy; the dialogue is minimalist, and there is no elucidation on their lives. Loktev’s script introduces us to the couple only as travellers, and as a result it is her directorial persona that comes through strongest.
A few scenes of sexual intimacy, scattered through the opening segment of the film, are cold, distancing, and almost feel intrusive. Following one such scene, the camera cuts to a nightclub, one of those amateur community hall-type spaces, where Alex and Nica dance to discordant Eastern European techno music and where, once again, the camera doesn’t quite seem welcome. It is when they reach the mountain range through which they will trek that The Loneliest Planet finally settles into itself. The hand-held camerawork, which holds the spectator close to the characters, is contrasted quite stunningly with long takes dwarfing them against the landscape. With their local guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) leading them across his country, its beauty is austere, pared back, but the natural idyll still permeates the scenery in its vastness. “Does not a mountain unintentionally evoke in us a sense of wonder?” wrote John Cage. A rhetorical question, and the answer is yes. Occasionally, the camera will frame the characters in a way that induces vertigo, and the sound of its waters are at first gentle, then become severely threatening; humanity versus the earth, perhaps. Inevitably, the splendour of peregrination across this isolated terra incognita becomes sinister, and in this vein, with little known about the characters, the film challenges the spectator to engage with it.
Loktev’s emotional distance was far more suited to the narrative of her debut featureDay Night Day Night (2006), which follows a young woman’s final days as she prepares to become a suicide bomber in New York’s Times Square. The earlier film imbued with psychological astuteness in spite of a similarity in stylistic restraint, and while this sophomore work does not achieve the same it is worth viewing for what it reveals about the filmmaker and her directorial tendencies. Alex and Nica, while slightly dislocated from the Georgian locals by language, are lively and carefree in their travels, willing to learn and partake in all facets of culture, and this contributes to the film’s richness.
When their intrepid enthusiasm is displaced by the incident that looms over the plot, there is a stark change in the characters’ demeanours, as well as in the mood, and soundscape of the film. The close, inquisitive camera becomes infected with a claustrophobic intensity, and where the travellers’ footsteps were once fearless and full of enthusiasm, they become heavy, bogged down, their sound flat and morose rather than echoing freely. These smaller details make The Loneliest Planetsomething to watch, and Loktev someone to look out for in the future.