Is it a bad idea to test your love? It could be argued that a life spent together is one long test, and obviously arranged tests like hiring someone to try and seduce your partner is a recipe for disaster, but what about the unplanned tests? The kind that just happen unexpectedly. The kind that make you rethink the entirety of your relationship. The kind that threaten love’s very survival.
Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) are a few months away from their wedding date and many miles away from home. Hiking through Eastern Europe’s Caucasus region the couple stop to spend time in small villages and interact with locals over food, dance and the occasional game of catch. Their adventure takes them in to hills and mountains where they spend several days and nights hiking and camping while accompanied by a guide named Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze). The trio eventually cross paths with three men, one of whom is armed, and their interaction escalates into an incident that passes quickly but with a lasting and devastating effect.
The incident in question won’t be revealed here except to say that it’s near genius in its simple detail and complex fallout. It’s believable, thought provoking and an entry point for some fascinating commentary and discussion… all of which gets sidestepped by writer/director Julia Loktev in favor of a dedication to meandering minimalism. Instead of allowing the incident to become a focal point for story it simply gets added to a grocery list of late in the film reasons why Alex and Nica are a couple in distress. And grocery lists, even well-acted ones with beautiful cinematography, do not make interesting films.
To be clear, minimalism is not the problem here. Films can affect that style and still succeed in being both well made and engaging, but the stretches of silence and repeated wide shots need good characters and writing to add emotional heft to the visuals. Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff bears many similarities to this film in structure and style, but it still manages to engage and fascinate with a well-earned sense of growing unease and expectation. Loktev’s film by comparison creates an expectation only because we have to (and want to) believe her movie is going somewhere worthwhile.
The incident touched on above appears at first to be the catalyst viewers were hoping for especially as it arrives at the film’s midpoint after fifty minutes of near montage-level interaction and playfulness between the couple themselves and the strangers they meet. Scenes of tender intimacy are mixed with ones of haggling and competitive handstands, and while Bernal and Furstenberg create a couple believably in love and comfortable with each other there’s little else to gather from these moments.
The film’s second half deals with the growing distance between the two as the ramifications of the incident reverberate outwards. Having witnessed what happened viewers’ heads are bound to be filled with imagined “what if?” scenarios applied to their own relationships, but while the debates and discussions it warrants swirl in their heads it’s essentially forgotten onscreen. It hangs there, of course, but it simply gets added to minor themes of male aggression and women in peril. Tinges of feminism alight upon the proceedings, but they exist in contrast to a film that itself sexualizes and objectifies women by singling Nica out with scenes of full frontal nudity and urination.
The film does manage to impress with its visuals that turn the stark, grey Caucasus mountains into beautiful, grey paintings, and all three actors deliver performances as compelling as the story will allow. Gujabidze makes his acting debut here, and while the dialogue is sparse he manages to find a character amidst the stones and pre-marital spat brewing around him.
The Loneliest Planet is a journey of empty promise and lowered expectations as it exists strictly to observe without comment. That’s not to say that observational films don’t have a place, but the best ones still have something to say. There’s very little said here, both onscreen and off unfortunately.
The Upside: Strong acting from all three leads; striking cinematography; interesting “what if?” that encourages debate and discussion
The Downside: Interesting conflict is neglected in favor of ineffective drama and exaggerated feminist slant; narrative minimalism at its near worst
On the Side: Julia Loktev’s first real job in the industry was as a field producer for HBO’s “Taxicab Professionals”
The Loneliest Planet is currently in limited theatrical release