The Loneliest Planet: Film Review

A patience-testing, character-based three hander of pre-marital strife amid spectacular Caucasian wilderness.

Gael Garcia Bernal and Nani Furstenberg star as adventurers in the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia in Russian-born, Colorado-raised writer/director Julia Loktev's analysis of a relationship imperilled by communication breakdowns.

LOCARNO — A very old story is updated to the trans-globalized 21st century in The Loneliest Planet, the slow-burning, distinctive second feature from Russian-born, Colorado-raised writer/director Julia Loktev following 2006's well-received Day Night Day Night. Widely regarded as one of the more notable films in a generally underwhelming Locarno competition, the Caucasus-set three-hander, while quite demanding festival fare, has some limited commercial prospects thanks to the presence of Mexico's international art-house heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal in one of the small handful of speaking parts. Not that there's very much dialogue in this steadily taxing analysis of a relationship imperilled by communication breakdowns.

Loosely inspired by Ernest Hemingway's 1936 short story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, itself inspired by an actual incident in pre-World War 2 Africa, and filmed with Gregory Peck in 1947, Tim Bissell's tale  Expensive Trips Nowhere forms the basis of Loktev's script (with some crucial alterations.) Each of these narratives involves a couple from North America venturing into an impoverished but scenic corner of the globe, where they hire a local to act as their guide. The male half of the couple reveals his essential cowardice in a crisis situation, after which his lover ends up in the guide's arms.

Here we follow the presumably Mexican Alex (Garcia Bernal) and flame-haired Nica (Israel-based American Hani Furstenberg) on a trip around the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia a few months before their impending wedding. Their gruffly friendly guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) navigates the trio around some varied, extremely beautiful terrain, vast expanses almost devoid of animals or people, with occasional decayed evidence of Soviet-era architectural horrors.

There are various minor culture clashes along the way, but the trip is largely an enjoyable one until a chance encounter with a trio of peasants, one of them casually carrying an automatic weapon across his shoulders. The consequences of this event, which comes just before half-way through the running time, reverberate through all that follows: largely wordless sequences in which Alex very slowly tries to win his way back into the shell-shocked Nica's affections. Loktev and her co-editor Michael build this second half around a series of awkward silences, interrupted at regular intervals by Richard Skelton's surging orchestral score.

But The Loneliest Planet — its title an ironic reference to the Lonely Planet travel-guides so beloved by the type of “adventurous” backpackers which Alex and Nica represent — has one near fatal structural flaw. The pivotal scene involving Alex, Nica and the automatic weapon is much too clumsily handled given its importance in terms of how the story and characterizations are to develop.

In Bissell's story (where both main characters are American), the Alex equivalent gently pushes Nica into the line of fire. Here it's a quick, instinctive movement, which he near instantly rectifies, placing his own forehead in front of the gun. The scene looks over-rehearsed and unconvincing. Other aspects of the scene are also naggingly unsatisfactory, such as the (unsubtitled) dialogue, evidently a discussion of Nica, which precedes the gunplay.

This misfire sequence casts a shadow of implausibility over all that follows. Thus Nica's extended silent treatment of her guilt-consumed fiancé feels more like a scriptwriting contrivance than an organic development of what we've seen up to that point.

But there's no mistaking the skill with which sometime video-artist Loktev and her cinematographer Inti Briones (also one of two camera-operators) combine the couple's quiet movement towards reconciliation — Dato's presence providing a wild-card element — with their arduous physical trek through Georgia's wild landscapes.

Though flawed, The Loneliest Planet is confidently handled and commendably audacious in its deployment of repetition and duration though these techniques are used to such an extent that many viewers may regard the near two-hour picture as another sort of “expensive trip nowhere.”

If nothing else, it does represent a startling change of mood and pace after the frenetically teeming city locations of the claustrophobically suspenseful terrorist character-study Day Night Day Night. Overall The Loneliest Planet isn't any more satisfying than its wildly different predecessor but does confirm that the 42-year-old Loktev, while still some way from the finished article, remains a filmmaker to watch.   

Venue: Locarno Film Festival
Production companies: Flying Moon, Parts and Labor, Wild Invention
Cast: Hani Furstenburg, Gael Garcia Bernal, Bidzina Gujabidze
Director/screenwriter: Julia Loktev
Based on a short story by: Tim Bissell
Producers: Helge Albers, Marie-Therese Guirgis, Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy
Executive producers: Dallas Brennan, Shelby Alan Brown, Rabinder Sira, Chris Gilligan, Hunter Gray, Gregory P Shockro
Director of photography: Inti Briones
Production designer: Rabiah Troncelliti
Costume designer: Rabiah Troncelliti
Music: Richard Skelton
Editors: Julia Loktev, Michael Taylor
Sales: The Match Factory, Cologne
No rating, 113 minutes