The Loneliest Planet returns to Chicago
Hani Furstenberg and Gael García Bernal in The Loneliest Planet
My favorite movie of last year is returning to Chicago. Facets has booked Julia Loktev's haunting relationship drama The Loneliest Planet for a weeklong encore run. Yes, the film is available on several streaming platforms, including Netflix. But this is the type of picture—visually stunning, with lots of immaculate compositions and spectacular rural scenery—that plays best on the big screen.
Like The Color Wheel or The Cabin in the Woods, two similarly spoilable recent movies, The Loneliest Planet presents a unique challenge to those looking to write about it. Most reviews of the film, including my own five-star assessment, tiptoed very carefully around a crucial…incident that occurs sometime around the midpoint. It's impossible to convey the full scope of Loktev's ambitions without spilling the beans about this particular plot point. If you haven't seen the movie, stop reading now and get thee to Facets. Spoilers are imminent.
At heart, Planet is a tale of inconvenient discoveries—little revelations that contradict its characters' preconceived values and notions of self. Based on a story by Tom Bidell called "Expensive Trips Nowhere," the film follows Alex (Gael García Bernal) and Nica (expressive newcomer Hani Furstenberg), young lovers touring the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia. We don't learn many details about their lives; Loktev, operating in the lean mode of great short fiction, withholds everything from their jobs to their nationalities to the length of time they've been together. It's only in the penultimate sequence, long after the trip has gone south, that the film reveals the two are engaged to be married.
The nature of Alex and Nica's relationship, on the other hand, is almost immediately elucidated. On first viewing, the early scenes struck me as blissfully aimless, as though we were just tagging along on a euphoric frolic through the great unknown. In truth, while The Loneliest Planet has a lovely ramshackle quality to it, many of its seemingly incident-free moments are load-bearing from a dramatic standpoint.
In his dismissive two-star review, which manages to both spoil and miss the significance of the film's big incident, Roger Ebert describes an early scene at a tavern: "A bearded local guy looms over Nica and asks her to dance, and the other bearded local guys study Alex to see how he feels about this. Alex smiles like a good sport, although that isn't how he's feeling at the moment." Ebert's speculative reading ignores the important dynamic between the two central characters. This moment, among others, establishes Alex as a man comfortable enough not to be threatened by Nica dancing with a stranger. His lack of swinging-dick masculinity is part of what makes him appealing to her. It will take something much bigger than a little innocuous flirting to shake the foundation of their relationship.
That something arrives, unannounced, about midway through the film. While on one of their long hikes, Alex, Nica and their guide Dato (real-life mountaineer Bidzina Gujabidze, whose ruggedness makes him a foil to our male hero) are approached by a group of men with guns. After a moment of untranslated dialogue, one of the armed strangers aims his weapon at the couple. Alex, in a knee-jerk failure of nerve, pulls Nica in front of him. He quickly corrects the action—I described the instinctual gesture as the film's "pivotal nanosecond" in my year-in-review capsule—but the damage is done. The men soon wander off as though nothing has happened, leaving our protagonists to weather the aftermath of this traumatic, revealing occurrence.
The Loneliest Planet thus becomes a movie at least partially about the dangers of globetrotting obliviousness. (After this close call, the landscape itself seems to become less inviting and more hostile, as though Alex and Nica are finally grasping just how far from the safety of civilization they really are.) More profoundly, though, Loktev is exploring the way gender roles imprint themselves on younger generations, worming their way deeply into the subconscious of those who think themselves above such outdated modes of thinking. An unspoken contract has been violated; formerly an attractive quality, Alex's lack of man's-man bluster now seems like a liability. The remainder of The Loneliest Planet plays out as a series of prickly negotiations, with once-neutral activities—crossing a stream, conjugating verbs—taking on new psychological subtext. Repeat viewings only compound the film's meanings.