If you find The Loneliest Planet as engaging as an audiobook of War and Peace read by Bernie Fraser, then I completely understand. If you thought Tabu was a slow-burn, then you haven’t seen The Loneliest Planet. I often refrain from saying that ‘nothing happens’ in certain films, because there is always ‘something’ going on in every movie, even if the plot is scant. I think there is a lot ‘going on’ underneath the surface of The Loneliest Planet, but very little resolves in the film’s plot. This is an acerbic, elusive film; a film that is as deliciously enigmatic as it is frequently impenetrable.
Playing on title of the renowned Lonely Planet series of travel guides, The Loneliest Planet is a bleak and oblique gaze into the pernicious vagaries of globe-trotting. Far from representing travel as a universal human ideal, The Loneliest Planet presents the institution of globe-trotting as an insidious force that can fracture relationships and corrupt your perception of ‘home’.
Alex and Nica, played with sublimely inert naturalism by Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg respectively, are a couple deeply in love and engaged to be married. They meander around small towns in Georgia (the country, not the home of R.E.M.) before hiking through the Caucasus Mountains. For their expedition, they hire a local tour guide named Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) to ease their travels through the hills.
About halfway through the film, something happens, and the remainder of the film hinges on this event. If I sound ambiguous here, it is because I am deliberately being vague about what happens. This event is not telegraphed as being pivotal. There is no swelling symphony when it happens, nor is there any dialogue that references this event subsequently. You might not even realise when it happens. However, to spoil this crucial moment would compromise the mysterious aura that the film painstakingly aims to create.
It is clear that this event changes the dynamic between Alex and Nica for the worse. After this momentary event, they struggle to rekindle their once blossoming love. Much like the film’s pivotal moment itself, the alterations in the couple’s relationship are subtle, and almost unnoticeable. This speaks to the film as a whole: if you are attentive and willing to accept the film’s inconspicuousness, then it will unravel itself as a highly nuanced study of the fragility of human relationships. If not, then The Loneliest Planet will seem dispassionate and stagnant.
It is a film that needs the audience to actively piece together its subtly explored ideas themselves; yet paradoxically, The Loneliest Planet is so bleak and unsentimental that many audience members will feel no emotional investment in the film, and thus feel no reason to engage with the characters. The characters themselves are not necessarily individuals before the film’s turning point; rather, they are one, singular entity that connotes the idea of loving, symbiotic relationships, where everything you do as a couple is in tandem. They are mutually sly, adventurous renegades.
However, after this aforementioned event (if you really want to know what it is, I’m sure you can find out on the film’s Wikipedia page), their paths begin to diverge. As their formerly extroverted selves grow in introverted nonchalance, their conversations become more terse, and they connect with their travel guide in their own unique ways. They experience trauma in individual ways as well, as they both try to answer the same questions that director and writer Julia Loktev is asking the audience. How much can you really trust the person you have devoted your life to? How well do you know what your spouse values? Could one split second decision change your entire relationship?
It is hard to talk about the film in such generalities, but to spoil what happens (if you agree that things do happen in the film) could potentially ruin the film. The film is based on a short story called Expensive Trips Nowhere – another thematically intriguing title – and perhaps the film would have been a tad sharper if it was twenty minutes shorter. Though I appreciated the film’s ostensible impenetrability, a shorter run time certainly wouldn’t prompt as many walkouts.
Cinematographer Inti Briones’ minimalistic lens captures the grandiose Georgian scenery in the most miniscule way. Instead of using moving Steadycam long-shots to evoke the picturesque landscape, the camera is fixated on static medium-shots and close-ups, making us long to see the beautiful environment in a way that is less claustrophobic and more like the images in a Lonely Planet guide. This is because we are witnessing the intimate story of intimately connected people, and the camera places us in their lives. Not only is the Earth merely a blue speck on the precipice of oblivion, but humans are inherently lonely when around people who we cannot completely relate to.
Hence, when Loktev and Briones do decide to shoot long-shots and long takes of the sprawling landscape, they accompany it with sudden, abrasive music – a noisy, dissonant drone of strings and percussion. Georgia is a country that has undergone invasions over thousands of years, from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Red Army. Despite its beauty, this is a sinister place. Sinister things can happen to unwelcome foreigners – even by accident or by chance. The film is concerned with examining the threats that travelling to remote places can pose, and the insidious implications of invading someone else’s homeland.
The Loneliest Planet is one of the most subtly haunting exemplars of contemporary cinema.