The title of Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet refers to the rocky, grassy, depopulated expanse of the Caucasus Mountains traversed by a young, Western couple and their Eastern (Georgian) guide. But it also refers to the emptiness of a world in which a woman must wend her way alone accompanied only by men on whom she’s forced to rely for both emotional nourishment and survival. A feminist dry heave of disgust, Loktev’s relationship drama skillfully parallels outer and inner landscapes as it traces its couple-in-turmoil against an alternatively foreboding and picturesque landscape, but it’s somewhat less satisfying in addressing the fallout of the central crisis or in suggesting much beyond some rather obvious conclusions about male aggression.
The Loneliest Planet is one of those films that feels perpetually as if it’s building up to some dreadful act of violence. As Alex (Gael García Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) make their way to the former Soviet bloc, Loktev crams the frame with hordes of faces and the soundtrack with stray bits of unsubtitled Russian that neither we (unless, of course, we speak the language) nor the characters understand. The alienation derived from linguistic difference is compounded by the increasing instance of vaguely sinister events: some potentially dangerous-looking men join the couple dancing at a local bar; Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), their guide for the mountain journey which fills the bulk of the film’s running time, begins peppering them with stories about painful acts of castration.
But as the threesome wend their way across the deserted countryside, the playful antics that define couplehood also come to the fore. Nica practices conjugating verbs in Spanish, Alex’s native language; the two stand on their heads or roll down a hill together. With deft formal precision, Loktev captures the trio’s voyage either in reverse tracking shots, pulling backward to follow the characters’ progress, or in slightly off-kilter three shots which position the trio in an endless array of triangular compositions. (There are also a few extreme long shots in which the characters are dwarfed by the landscape.)
Something bad indeed does happen—or nearly happen—to our couple around the film’s midpoint, the result of a spontaneous act of cowardice on Alex’s part. The subsequent stress in the pair’s relationship, the focus of the film’s second half, can be gauged in both the director’s choice of framing and in the characters’ changed behavior. Loktev continues to employ the same camera techniques that she used in the first act, but the altered placement of the characters is telling. All the spatial relations are shifted to emphasize the increasing physical distance between Alex and Nica and, on occasion, the drawing together of Nica and Dato. Similarly, the couple makes tentative stabs at repeating the easy camaraderie of the film’s first half, but it comes with extreme difficulty, when at all.
Some of these sequences are remarkably subtle, as when Nica opens her mouth and gives out the slightest hint of an audible utterance before silencing herself. Still, much of the film’s final act is given to alienated walking, which too often plays as an abstract study of triangular arrangements in which non-speaking figures move across a barren terrain. When the walking finally ends, an unexpected reveal of Dato’s backstory causes us to see this, until now, utterly foreign individual in new, more sympathetic terms, but from here Loktev’s film devolves into something like a crudely imagined feminist critique, which seems to argue that male behavior is inherently aggressive, and that, when faced with its excesses, one can do little else but vomit. Fair enough, as far as it goes, especially as the picture is complicated somewhat by Nica’s conflicted attitudes toward both of the film’s men, but it still makes for a clumsily tendentious conclusion to an otherwise compelling and often wonderfully subtle piece of work.