Though it takes place in the wilderness, Julia Loktev’s loud, gorgeous The Loneliest Planet is less a film about survival than the fear of fear itself, guiding its characters through moments of sheer intensity that, once surpassed, are curiously ignored. The tourist couple at the center of the film, led by a native guide on a trek through the Georgian countryside, is defined by their offbeat, near-cloying complacency: very much in love, they’ve clearly done trips like this before. The guide himself remains uncannily in the background, smoking in silence, occasionally addressing them in broken English to tell trifling anecdotes. Throughout the movie, almost entirely shot in long, fluid Steadicam movements, Loktev arranges her characters in space as if three points in a triangle, never separated so much as briefly untethered from this dynamic. But even when a moment of severe confrontation arrives, it’s an act of suspension as transient as the rest of the film: after the shock, it’s hard to know what, if anything, has changed between them.
One can define human nature as that from which we choose to remain forever at a remove, creating a cycle of habit formed on what are ultimately tenuous beliefs. It’s a cynical philosophy, but one that American filmmakers have become increasingly obsessed with. If Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master explored this theme through the sway of rhetoric and maximalist gesture, Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet conveys this through minimal character interaction and suspense, infusing each scene with an accumulation of foreboding detail that makes us question what we know about these people, replacing catharsis with random bursts of caustic energy. Remarkable for its aesthetic alone, Loktev presents a sumptuous landscape fraught with tension through a disarmingly loud sound mix and tight, layered compositions, an uncanny effect that constantly insists that true displacement is just around the corner.
In her stunning fiction debut, Day Night Day Night, she gave us few details about her protagonist — an American girl who prepares to undergo a suicide bomb mission in Times Square — letting the majority of the film play on her deeply expressive face, the camera a force of temporal and spatial aggression that threatened her unfailing composure. Perhaps we know a bit more about Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael García Bernal), but the fact of their impending marriage speaks less than their convivial spirit. What’s their secret? In one of the film’s many isolated, oddly gripping moments, a quietly discerning Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) rolls off a list of countries to Nica, to which she mostly replies “yes,” sometimes “no.” The privilege of international travel may or may not result in greater independence, a question that the film’s post-traumatic second half artfully refuses to answer. Critics have attacked the film for being both feminist and anti-feminist, which speaks to the range of complex feeling Loktev reflects off characters that largely resist a background narrative.
Though technically impeccable, the film wouldn’t be as powerful without the dedicated chemistry of Bernal and Furstenberg, forced to maintain brilliant smiles and hobbling bewilderment in equal measure of duration. A road movie of sorts, The Loneliest Planet has no clear destination, and yet the environment constantly appears at odds with the collective conviction of its subjects. In a visual motif, Loktev cuts to fixed extreme long shots of the characters walking through gorgeous vistas, accompanied by a drone of strings, then abruptly cuts out of them again. It suggests both a vicious cycle and its construct: a distanced reverie that breaks, only to reinforce itself.
By aurally and spatially nagging at her characters’ self-regard, Julia Loktev’s new film proves her to be one of the most patient and incisive filmmakers working today. Blissfully abstract, it leaves our morals both shaken and stirred.