‘The Loneliest Planet’ explores tension through subtlety

Flying Moon Film Produktion /Courtesy

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Minimalism is the defining feature of director Julia Loktev’s third film, “The Loneliest Planet.” Dialogue is sparse at best, plot is almost nonexistent in terms of physical action and occurrences of musical soundtrack are few and far between, repeating the same arrangement of grating strings whenever it plays. Instead, it is the body language among the film’s small cast that carries the flow and emotional weight of the story.

Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal is widely known for his restrained yet powerful (and largely facially expressive) acting, seen in his previous films like “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “The Science of Sleep.” Nevertheless, his co-star, American-born Israeli actress Hani Furstenberg, steals the show in her first stateside release with a performance grounded in an urgent sense of realism. Accompanied by reluctant actor and real-life Georgian star-mountaineer Bidzina Gujabidze, this group embarks on a challenging and desolate cinematic journey manifested in the physical and emotional terrain of the film itself.

The story follows a newly engaged couple, Alex and Nica, who are traveling through the Georgian countryside. Very little is revealed about the two apart from their relationship status, although not much other info is needed. After hiring a local named Dato as a guide, the couple sets out for the backcountry. The first leg of the trip is uneventful, although it highlights the couple’s cute banter and awkward interactions with Dato. However, during the second day, the group encounters an unexpected conflict that results in a silent shattering of trust and warmth between Alex and Nica.

The remainder of the film is composed of clumsy faux pas, unreciprocated gestures and feeble attempts at reconciliation. Few words are exchanged, as is the case in the film’s first half. But Loktev has an incredibly keen vision for minute details in timing and choreography. In the first half, Alex and Nica are constantly sitting or walking next to each other, with Dato leading the way. However, following the falling-out, the physical distance between the two increases as Alex slowly falls behind the others. Initially, they crack cheesy jokes, practice conjugating Spanish verbs (from comer to coger) and nuzzle up against each other at every opportunity, but their interactions become far more limited and terse as their journey wears on.

All of this plays into the recurring theme of alienation in “The Loneliest Planet” (which is pretty plain from just the title of the movie). Alex and Nica nod, smile and giggle when the locals speak, unable to maintain the volley of a full conversation apart from “yes” and “thank you.” Dato’s jokes in broken English are lost on the couple, who force laughs before silence closes in again. While this silence is instrumental in expressing their isolation from their surroundings to the audience, it grows a bit tedious before long.

This sense of alienation soon wedges between Alex and Nica, as does the awkward silence. Even from the beginning, they aren’t completely culturally compatible ­— Alex is fluent in Spanish while Nica struggles to communicate in Alex’s native language. However, Alex’s failure during the confrontation drastically worsens this incompatibility.

From this point, the thinly spread dialogue is spread near extinction, and the audience is forced to watch very closely to pick up on the couple’s wordless exchanges. For those coming to see the art-house thriller advertised in the trailer, this may prove quite taxing.

Taken scene by scene, this film might come off as dull, empty or disjointed. However, when viewed as a whole, these scenes form a mosaic of tiny but poignant moments of affection and rejection, revealing the impact that miscommunications and instinctive responses can have on relationships.

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