Two people sitting next to each other in the theatre can see it as two very different movies. I’ve heard some people say that the central turning point in the film is something no couple can ever recover from, and I’ve heard other people say, “What’s the big deal?” So maybe this says as much about the viewer as about the film. It can certainly make for awkward date conversation! Obviously there is a lot of grey area in-between, and I’m interested in this murky space in-between.
Red hair. Wind. A rough road. Early in The Loneliest Planet, the camera frames the back of Nica’s (Hani Furstenberg) head: she’s riding in a truck on the way out to a hiking expedition, an adventure in Eastern Georgia’s mountains she means to share with her fiancé Alex (Gael García Bernal). You don’t know precisely where they’re headed, and neither do they. You know they’re in love and adorably sensuous, you know they don’t speak the local language. And you know that her hair is very red.
And so: The Loneliest Planet goes on to explore the gap between what you can and can’t know. In large part, this gap is embodied by Alex and Nica, who have expectations born of privilege and education, if not precisely experience, even as they also have ambitions and guesses, born of fictions they’ve come to believe. They don their backpacks and walk after with their guide, Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), who entertains them for a time with fragments of information about the rocks and the waters before them, his broken English comprehensible but also a reminder of the couple’s limited comprehension, their need to trust and also the work of trusting, the basis of trust not knowing.
For a day, they walk over dry ground and rocky paths. Dato tells stories about sheep, he has them taste grasses, so they might share in the landscape, consume it literally, if briefly. As they walk, the camera cuts back occasionally to shots so long they’re breathtaking, tiny figures barely visible against grassy cliffs, the takes lengthy too, so you might feel the time passing. When they rest at night, the campfire light flickering over their faces, they share words: Alex and Nica learn to say “son of a bitch” in Georgian, together, they sing and laugh. They don’t think again about the near accident Nica’s had during their hike, when her foot slipped off a limb serving as a bridge over a rushing river; at the time, she laughs, insists, “I’m okay.” Here and at night, the trio is positioned so she’s between the men, they look at her, anticipating, guessing, entertaining. She’s at ease, still “okay.” That night, Nica recites for Alex from Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time,
Suddenly a sharp turn in the road, a huge chasm opens up on our right, and quite close to us we see the ice-covered peak of Mt. Kazbek with its glaciers sparkling white in the sun. It is cheek by jowl with us, placid and tall, mute. A mysterious feeling courses through us. The cliff stands there as if conjured up by the other cliffs. We feel as though a being from another world is looking at us.
It’s a long passage, spoken in the not absolutely dark tent, where space is at once unclear and utterly cut off. As you wait for the chasm to open up, you might ponder the rhythms and the allusiveness of the language. “The cliff stands there as if conjured by other cliffs,” much as individuals conjure one another, look for support and likeness, fall into trust. The image of the cliff lingers, on screen and in your mind, as the three travelers walk along water, cross streams, or sit during the dark night by campfires, the landscape is at once stark and gorgeous, seductive and troubling. As Alex and Nica lie in their tent, at times the screen turns black, though you might hear breathing or—like an interruption, or a transition from one shared moment to another—the zipper, up or down, opening into more blackness or containing them within their own.
The evening gives way to daylight, and a series of upsets, each one testing the trust among the trio in different ways. They encounter men with guns (men whom Alex and Nica can’t understand, and whose discussion Dato doesn’t translate), they face fear and their own startled silence, their inability to make sense of chaos. At this point The Loneliest Planet turns into another sort of movie. They’re halfway to their destination, and so Nica makes the choice to walk forward rather than turn back. The men follow.
And when Nica slips again, this time tumbling into a rush of icy water, she’s afraid. Scooped up by Dato, carried by Alex, she’s horrified, sobbing and wet and shivering. When Alex tries to calm her, she’s inconsolable: he approaches, steps back, shakes his head: he can’t know what to do. The scene is precisely opposite of the very first scene in The Loneliest Planet, where Nica appears bouncing in and out of frame, naked and wet and shivering. Here the camera cuts to Alex, coming to her with hot water in a pitcher, dousing her and so warming her, their night in a room without running water an adventure, rough for a moment, but also fleeting.
Nica’s second dousing is brief too, but now it’s part of a sequence, not a moment but a step in time. It changes Alex and Nica’s trajectory, or maybe more precisely, it reflects the change they’re already feeling. She stands and shakes with cold, and then the scene cuts: she shakes stil, now wrapped in a shiny silver camper’s blanket, smoke rising from fires rising, the men readying their tents, in their underwear while their clothes dry, vulnerable and each alone even as they all appear in the same frame.
As in Julia Loktev’s previous film, the brilliant Day Night Day Night, each subjective experience is evoked, not in conversation but in mobile, detailed compostions. That back of Nica’s head at the start might seem opaque—as does But as the story producing the image emerges slowly and incompletely, you see how responses make sense and don’t, both their responses and yours. For as much as the movie is about the breakdown of trust between Alex and Nica, and the emotional wrench provided by Dato, it is more subtly and infinitely more complexly about how you are reading that breakdown.
The changing dimensions of their relationship are rendered in tracking shots, similar but not quite the same. The figures are transformed into elements in the frame, walking alone or split into two and one, so that someone is always alone, the distance between them stretching into the back of the frame, set into receding planes. They talk occasionally. When at last they stop again, Dato, a war veteran, tells a story about losing his wife, a story about desperation and drinking and regret, a story about how he’s been transformed by wartime violence and fear, how his silence has shaped him and broken his family. Even as his story earns Nica’s sympathy, they’re not sharing a moment so much as finding their differences. You can imagine, briefly, these have to do with gender, but then you see something else, in these faces in the dark, barely lit by the campfire. As this scene rhymes with the first one, by another campfire, it exposes the costs of fear, the effects of losing trust, the possibilities of the conjured cliffs.