Every so often there comes a movie that conveys a great deal through the subtlest of actions, the tiniest gestures, the most innocuous bits of dialogue. Then again there are those movies that try to do this, but end up conveying little or nothing—they aim for understated profundity, but end up being about very little at all. The Loneliest Planet is a film that aims to fall into the first category, but ends up in the second.
Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg play a couple of tourists vacationing in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Don’t think that the setting matters, though. It doesn’t—it could be Yemen, or Uganda, or Antarctica, or for that matter Wyoming. Any place will do, as long as it is beautiful in an offhand way and sparsely populated, with a few available natives to be convincingly menacing to a couple of callow Americans.
The couple embarks on a cross country hike in the company of a local guide. They giggle and flirt and exchange glances, do headstands and roll down hills and generally play around. This takes the better part of an hour. All along, they pay little apparent attention to the scenery around them, which makes it seem sort of shallow to mention that that scenery—what one can see of it—is stunning.
There are, however, a few opportunities to view Furstenberg’s naked body, including an inexplicable first scene. Bernal remains modestly covered throughout, even during a sex scene, go figure. Perhaps this is done deliberately, in order to subtly suggest the vulnerability of a red-haired white woman out in the big bad world. Then again, maybe that’s giving the filmmaker way too much credit.
To say that the movie drags is an understatement. That first hour feels considerably longer. When nothing much happens, the viewer is left to either a. seek significance in even the most insignificant of moments, or b. stare into space after a while. Or, possibly, c. both, which is what happened to me.
Then, abruptly, something does happen—something potentially violent, and quite revealing about one of the characters. This incident has a profound impact on the couple, and is presumably meant to impact the audience as well—except that, because these characters are such ciphers, as unknown to us as a couple of strangers passing in the street, that this great revelation has little impact at all.
While giving information about characters is a tricky business, and many poor movies are filled with clumsy exposition, it’s nonetheless a necessary task. Context is hugely important; it’s how we understand people, both in the movies and real life. The Loneliest Planet eschews such traditional storytelling, with the result that the audience is apt to shrug rather than engage.
Perhaps it’s no surprise. Given the lack of context in regards to the setting, it makes a weird kind of sense that the characters are so rootless and unknown as well. However, this doesn’t make these deficiencies in the screenplay any more palatable. The setting is just some foreign place, vaguely threatening as are most foreign places depicted in American movies; the characters are just a couple of bodies that fill some space on the screen.
Minimalism seems to be the watchword here. There’s little dialogue for long stretches, which is especially noticeable in the early stages of the film, when a viewer might reasonably expect some information about these characters. Little-to-none is forthcoming. The viewer is expected to infer a great deal, but alas, there’s not a great deal there onscreen to work with. Given the structure of the film, which taxes the viewer’s patience for long stretches only to introduce a moment of presumed importance, this is particularly frustrating.
In any case, a viewer who has invested the time up until that point may be curious enough to wonder whether the pivotal incident will leave any lasting impression on the couple, and if so, whether that impression is effectively rendered. Not wishing to spoil anything here, I’ll just say: your mileage may vary.
The cinematography and soundtrack are both great. Georgia looks like a fine place to go take a hike, depite being filled with all those scary foreigners. The performances are good as well, as far as they go, which isn’t very far. Bernal and Furstenberg are quite convincing as a couple of well-meaning but not terribly interesting young adults out exploring the world. When I lived in Morocco and Pakistan for 13 years, I knew plenty of them. Hell, I was one of them. But that just makes it all the more frustrating that these two characters seem to act as stand-ins for a type rather than as individuals in their own right. The best performance of the film is probably from Bidzina Gujabidze, who plays the grizzled and gruff Dato, the couple’s guide.
Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes documentary, as well as photos taken by Gujabidze, who works as a guide in real life. Both are diverting enough, but unlikely to rouse enthusiasm for a film which does so little to earn it. It might make you want to go hiking in Georgia, though, if the story hasn’t scared you off.
The Loneliest Planet is a film that aims at profundity but winds up being remarkably shallow. Somehow it has managed to collect accolades from numerous sources. Don’t believe them.