Reviewed as part of Keyframe’s coverage of the 49th New York Film Festival
If The Loneliest Planet were a film about romance, I could only call it a failure: what could a work so cripplingly affecting in its portrait of a break-up tell us about the pain of love that we haven’t already learned on our own? Happily, then, it’s not a film about romance, though its integration of a romantic catastrophe into its other concerns is deeply moving. Nor is it a slice of cheap, shallow feminist critique, which bafflingly seems to have become the go-to reading for those willing to engage it beyond its obvious formal force (one assumes this is because its director, Julia Loktev, is a woman, and any film by a woman in which a man is allowed to make terrible mistakes must be the result of a juvenile feminism). No, what The Loneliest Planet is, first and foremost, is the sharpest account of what it means to be an educated, disillusioned young American made thus far in the 21st century.
I realize that it may seem disingenuous to call this a film about the state of being an American when it’s set in Georgia (the country, not the state), and directed by a Russian émigré with a Mexican actor and an American actress whose entire career thus far has been in Israel in the starring roles, but each of these facts speak directly to its power as such. The couple, Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) are the ideal of American young adulthood today: financially secure and professionally unburdened, they roam the world conjugating verbs (in the past tense, tellingly) and escaping all of the failings that are surely wrecking the lives of their friends back home.
This desire to escape via an immersion in the cultures of others that is at once total (not so much as a friend or family member is ever even mentioned, let alone contacted) and solipsistic (the two have no interest in connecting in any meaningful way with the residents of the places they visited; much of the film’s first half hour is dedicated to their private reveries throughout small towns and the Georgian countryside). Each attempt by an outsider to connect, generally in the form of sexual advances at Nica, is the equivalent of an act of war. The shattering moment of rational cowardice that marks the beginning of their relationship’s end comes precisely because of Alex’s inability to communicate adequately with an individual outside the scope of his experience.
Following the event, Nica waits for several seconds to squeeze out a request to practice her verbs with Alex. The effect resonates for several reasons: 1) Loktev’s full understanding of cinema’s capacity for repetition; 2) Loktev’s perspicacity as her own editor, shown here in the Straubian rigor with which she cuts her lengthy shots; and 3) the difficulty of closing the space between the two, enacted by Nica’s slightly accelerated gait, an act of great sacrifice and love, that Loktev maintains through the use of a precisely calibrated medium-long shot (it’s not hard to imagine many other directors chopping such a scene into a succession of close-ups for an easily won emotional impact). As in her debut Day Night, Day Night Loktev charts these inner and outer tremors through an attention to the arrangement of bodies in space and time.
The rhythmic movement between medium-long, close-up and extreme long shots (the latter used as visual caesura to structure the film) eventually disintegrates into an extended, nearly reel-length conversation lit only by a dim fire between Nica and Dato, the duo’s gruff guide, in which he opens his heart before making a bid to bed her, one that she tentatively accepts before rushing back to her sleeping fiancée. Nica attempts reconciliation by initiating sex, a desperate move to close the space between them by the most intimate means available, and one that’s finally thwarted from within: she rushes just as quickly back out of the tent to puke up the bad wine she guzzled with Dato. And thus, the breakdown of the pair’s love is as complete as that of their illusion of freedom, the self-delusion of the American youth that their curiosity and privilege might overcome everything. The film ends on a blank image full of meaning: as the three disassemble their tents and prepare to move on, one might imagine Alex asking an old question: “Qu’est ce que c’est ‘dégueulasse’?”
Phil Coldiron is a writer living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Slant, The House Next Door, and LA Weekly, and he attempts to be as concise as possible on Twitter.