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The Loneliest Planet

Posted by martinteller on March 19, 2014

[Note: the nature of this film makes it difficult to discuss without being a little bit spoiler-ish, but I will endeavor to be as vague as possible.]

Adapted by Julia Loktev from a story by Mikhail Lermontov.  Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) are a young couple, roughly 30, engaged to be wed.  They are enjoying a visit to Georgia — the country, not the state — and decide to hike through the Caucasus mountains.  They hire a guide named Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), a man who speaks only a little broken English.  In the middle of their journey, Something Happens which will color the rest of their trip and possibly the rest of their relationship.

Like many examples of slow cinema, this could be classified as a “Nothing Happens” movie.  The pivotal scene lasts a couple of minutes.  The pivotal moment of the pivotal scene lasts about two seconds.  If you look away, you will wonder why things have changed.  It is never discussed by the characters.  Heaven help the poor soul who saw this in the theater and decided to take a bathroom break at this time.  The moment itself is almost nothing.  No gets killed, no one gets hurt, no one blurts out a dark secret.  The Nothing that happens around the Something that happens may seen inconsequential, especially to one is who is accustomed to a more straightforward story.  They are snippets of scenes, they provide no narrative propulsion.  They don’t even provide much exposition.  We know almost nothing about Alex and Nica… where they’re from (Nica speaks with a vaguely American accent and Alex teaches her a little Spanish while they hike), how they met, how long they’ve been together, why they decided to come here, what they do for money.

But these Nothing scenes tell us what we need to know about the relationship.  At first, they are casual, close, playful.  They dance, they joke, they cuddle, they get involved in an impromptu game of volleyball with anonymous opponents on the other side of a wall.  They are in the “honeymoon phase”.  They’re enthusiastic and curious, they have a spring in their step.  But then this pivotal moment comes, and someone acts on a pure instinct.  They don’t talk about it.  If they do, it happens off-camera.  It’s perhaps a situation where there’s nothing to say.

My girlfriend and I have on a few occasions discussed the importance of feeling “safe” in a relationship.  Safe physically, safe emotionally, safe financially.  You want to know that the other person has got your back.  Sometimes something calls that safety into question.  And sometimes you can talk through it and slowly, tentatively reach a position of trust again.  I don’t know what would happen to that trust if we experienced what Alex and Nica did.  It says an awful lot about them (one of them in particular) and it may well be that can’t be talked through.  It would certainly require a frigid period, as seen here.  The tone shifts noticeably between the two halves of the film.  Little is said verbally but the expressions, demeanor, and relative positions of the characters say plenty.  All this Nothing that happens… it’s the real meat of the film.

The three principals are all quite good.  They suit their characters very well.  Bernal’s childlike nature suggests that he is not quite the man (and oh yes, the complexity of modern gender issues comes into play here) he thinks he is.  Furstenberg is open in a way that exposes her vulnerability — emphasized in the opening shot, to the point of being too on-the-nose — and yet she weathers the growing rift between them with more grace and strength (and here we have some compelling insight into relationship power dynamics).  Gujabidze practically steals the show as the guide with a ribald sense of humor and his own demons to struggle with.

The film is also quite beautiful, with lovely photography by Inti Briones (who also did the stunning cinematography on Raoul Ruiz’s Nucingen House).  The framing is often essential to the meaning, and Briones knows where to put the camera to get the message across.  Although Furstenberg is too talented to have been cast merely for her looks, her striking red hair must have been a factor, complementing the lush green mountainsides so gorgeously.  Also interesting music by Richard Skelton, all the more interesting for the editing which usually cuts the score off abruptly.

One could debate that some scenes are “unnecessary” or that the movie could be easily done as a 30-minute short.  I disagree.  There may be moments that I find superfluous on first glance, but I cannot say how well the film would function without them.  For most of it, I was very intrigued by the abstraction of the interpersonal drama, and feel that the film is a compelling look at a particular cycle of a relationship.  One cannot say what will happen to Alex and Nica, but it’s interesting to ponder, and compare it to one’s own trials and mistakes in life.  Rating: Very Good (83)

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