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Julia Loktev’s “The Loneliest Planet” feels like a rebuke to all the love stories that have come before it, the ones where passion ultimately gives way to problems that then can be overcome when true romance conquers all. For Nica (Hani Furstenberg), the copper-haired adventuress at the center of the journey through the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, the red flag that goes up happens in an instant and it’s well after she’s made her intentions known about Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal), who she casually introduces to strangers as her fiancé-to-be.
In the film’s first half, Nica smiles as she takes pictures of him charming children by walking on his hands and holds him tightly on the dance floor of a cantina dive as they make their way to the hills for an epic hike. Once there, they are joined by a dogged (and politically incorrect) guide named Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), who takes them through the the mildly intimidating landscape involving stalagmites and streams that can only be crossed by tightrope, all the while entertaining them with rope tricks and casual chitchat. Nica and Alex are content to make their own fun, Nica playfully conjugating verbs to get her Spanish boyfriend’s approval by day and the two turning the necessity of shining a flashlight on one another while they relieve themselves in the dark of night into amusement. If this sounds tedious, it very well could be if you don’t fall under Loktev’s spell, conjured in large part by handheld camerawork and passing glances between the two lovers.
However, for those who get lost in the trek, which covers as much emotional terrain as it does physical, it’s truly alarming when Nica and Alex, seemingly having figured out all of each other’s quirks and pleasure points, are subject to a confrontation that Loktev presents to the audience as being as foreign to us as it is to them. Without subtitles to explain the exchange and largely uncommented upon after, likely as much out of shock as embarrassment, the scene in which Nica sees a weakness in Alex that she’s never seen before makes the rest of their tour of the mountains truly rocky and the future far more uncertain.
That Loktev is able to convey the fallout from this scene with the same simplicity as the madly romantic section of the film is the true achievement of “The Loneliest Planet.” As the two lovers begin to drift further apart trudging through the mud out of obligation to the expedition they’ve paid good money for, the distance between them doesn’t only exist in their paces away from each other, but also in cinematographer Inti Briones’ lens as the camera moves back and forth to depict Nica’s newfound doubts and Alex’s helplessness to disprove them. Interruptions of long-distance shots scored to a dissonant soundtrack shift from the awe of the verdant, magisterial land they’ve crossed into fear of the unknown wilderness they’ve yet to explore.
Although the film goes perhaps a little too far in developing an additional complication for the couple to overcome as it nears its end, “The Loneliest Planet” largely succeeds, benefitting greatly from a fearless performance from Furstenberg, unexpected jolts of humor along the way and Loktev’s keen ability to capture the overwhelming power of nature, whether geological or human.
"The Loneliest Planet" does not yet have U.S. distribution. It plays once more at the New York Film Festival on October 4th at Walter Reade Theater.