If nothing else, The Loneliest Planet, the second fiction film from Russian-American filmmaker Julia Loktev after her 2006 female-terrorist chronicle Day Night Day Night, is a terrific example of a minimalist style employed with near-maximum effectiveness. Here is a film that needs only offhand bits of dialogue, carefully worked-out mise-en-scène, precise editing, long takes, and strategically placed close-ups and camera pans to draw us effortlessly into the emotional dramas of its three main characters. Loktev further challenges us by basically throwing us into her scenario in media res and thus keying us from the start to pick up on details—visual, aural, or otherwise—to help us get our bearings. This is the kind of filmmaking that uses utmost economy of means to sharpen our senses and attune us more carefully to the people and the environments Loktev presents to us—an approach that dares to take an audience’s intelligence seriously, at least as far as an audience member’s ability to read images goes. Whether the destination is worth the sometimes elusive narrative journey is the real question. I suspect, in the case of The Loneliest Planet, the answer will depend entirely on what a viewer perceives that journey to be.
Not that Loktev’s approach is so abstract or opaque that one can’t pick up on specific character details or construct a larger picture based on visual evidence. We eventually learn that Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael García Bernal), an engaged couple, are vacationing in Georgia (the Caucasus region, not the American state). From all outward appearances, they appear to be a loving, harmonious couple when we make their acquaintance. Nica is first seen jumping up and down in the nude while Alex helps bathe her; their subsequent conversations further suggest a long-cultivated intimacy. Nica herself is an especially perky type, constantly willing to ingratiate herself with the locals (appropriately, she sports bright red hair, and in one shot, Loktev places her camera behind her head as if to allow us to luxuriate in the wildness of her red hair as it blows in the wind).
About 20 minutes into the film, Nica and Alex meet up with a Georgian guide named Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), and the rest of The Loneliest Planet takes place during their wanderings through the Caucasus Mountains, which eventually acquires a metaphoric dimension as a vast landscape of cultural and romantic/sexual power plays that becomes especially dramatic—within its own minimalistic terms, at least—midway through the film, when Alex makes a fateful snap decision in the heat of a particularly fraught moment that has palpably tense emotional ramifications throughout its second half.
Little of this is directly expressed through dialogue; in fact, for long stretches of the film, there are barely any lines of dialogue to be heard. The human drama, such as it is, is depicted almost entirely through facial expressions and telling physical gestures, carefully observed by Loktev with the aid of cinematographer Inti Briones. Meanwhile, the mountains themselves become a kind of fourth character, as the landscape at first seems almost paradisiacal before the drama of these solitary human figures delves into more troublesome territory, and the landscapes thus acquire a more menacing dimension. Periodically, Loktev throws in extreme wide shots of the mountains while the three characters trudge across the screen, mere specks being engulfed not only by the mountains’ imposingly craggy textures, but by strings (courtesy of Richard Skelton’s score) atmospherically droning away on the soundtrack during these shots; these shots almost feel like checkpoints for the character relationships as the film progresses (notice, for instance, how closely or not-so-closely the characters walk next to each other in the various contexts of those shots).
The Loneliest Planet plays like an idiosyncratic mix of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry—another minimalist film set in a distinctive environment that doubles as a psychological landscape—and Maren Ade’s Everyone Else, another drama that charts, through close observation of behavior, the dissolution and uneasy reconciliation of an initially happy couple (in a land foreign to them, no less). That is the best way I can think of to convey the experience of watching Loktev’s film, which manages to imbue a somewhat familiar scenario with often thrilling freshness thanks to the director’s distinctive personal style, one that is fully alive to the wonders of the natural world and of human beings at their most, well, human: adventurous, joyous, foolish, flawed. For a film that so successfully gives one the impression of seeing life play out in front of our eyes, perhaps it’s fitting that it concludes—or, more precisely, comes to a stop—on an open-ended note that suggests more a path toward a possible resolution (or maybe lack of it) rather than the genuine article.
The 49th New York Film festival runs from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.