Active Ingredients: Location photography; Acting
Side Effects: Thin material; Uninteresting drama
Visually, there’s a lot to like about Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet. Craggy mountains protrude out of vast green fields in Georgia’s Caucasus mountains and Loktev’s cinematography beautifully captures the varied Eastern European terrain. It’s a stark landscape, not exactly postcard perfect, but its blemishes and unevenness only make it more compelling. The surprisingly mobile camera climbs and tracks its way across the terrain, capturing its textures and rhythms. Loktev hopes to find in this landscape an echo of the strained relationship of her characters, and it’s here that the film ultimately fails.
Two intrepid travelers, engaged to be married, trek across the countryside with a guide. These aren’t fair-weather European backpackers, but people who can sleep anywhere and eagerly eat up the miles they leave behind them. Loktev introduces us to these characters in small, intimate details. They laugh over inside jokes, play footsie, help each other bathe and seem like two young people very much in love. About halfway through the film, one of them makes a split-second move, just a small instinctive gesture, that upends everything. Like the mountainside, their relationship takes a sudden dip and things don’t seem so beautiful anymore.
Loktev is clearly interested in charting this emotional terrain of the characters against the backdrop of their journey. It’s an easy metaphor to draw, but there’s not nearly as much power and raw fascination within these characters as there is in the mountains. The leads are played well by Hani Furstenberg and especially Gael García Bernal, but the subtle ups and downs Loktev hopes to convey are not convincing enough to carry the weight of the entire film. I respect Loktev’s approach to use dialogue minimally and tell her story in tentative glances, but the fallout from “the incident” plays out obviously and doesn’t reach to the core of these lovers. Ultimately, it says just as little as would dialogue. Their mountain guide has a few nice scenes that make the second half of The Loneliest Planet more compelling, but it’s not enough to save this slow film from trying the audience’s patience.