The Loneliest Planet is a movie that could have been made by Kelly Reichardt, if she decided to make Meek’s Cutoff in the mountains or by Nuri Bilge Ceylan if he were more interested in relationships and interaction than by introspection. It’s a slow-burner with hardly any dialogue and even less actually happening. Only one important event occurs during the film’s two hour runtime and maybe half a dozen small things of note take place. Instead, there are long takes in which behavior and proximity give insight into a relationship, one in which a couple must examine how much trust they have in one another and themselves, and probably question whether or not they should get married at all.
Hani Furstenberg and Gael Garcia Bernal play Nica and Alex, an engaged couple on a trip through the Caucasus Mountains with the help of Dato (first-timer Bidzina Gujabidze), a local guide. The three are united and separated by language, a recurring motif throughout the film. The three communicate in English, but Alex has a strong accent and Dato is far from proficient in it. At the same time, Alex is teaching Nica to speak Spanish, and a couple times throughout the film he gives her a verb to conjugate, and Dato’s Georgian plays a crucial role in the film. For the most part, however, the trio communicates through body-language, and Julia Loktev returns several times to a tracking shot that shows all three members walking, with the distances between them telling us more about allegiances and feelings than any dialogue does.
Unfortunately, Loktev does not sufficiently convince us of the love between Nica and Alex, so what would be described a falling out between the two if there were bigger differences between the first half of the film and the second is more studious than affecting. That does not work entirely against the film; both Bernal and Furstenberg are good enough actors for us to perceive a difference, and Loktev smartly changes the direction of movement, as we begin to see the characters moving mostly from right to left, suggesting a regression in the couple’s relationship and understanding of one another. Likewise, the major incident and some small happenings afterward—a rock getting stuck in Nica’s boot and then a potential injury to Alex—slyly play with gender roles, but primarily addresses the trust and reliance between the couple. All of a sudden, Alex and Nica are forced to play the role that they thought they inhabited all along, but we can see the tension build through the strains on their faces and the matter-of-fact inflection in their rare exchanges.
Still, the lack of a more convincing first act also makes the emotional effect harder to perceive. Alex and Rica, at least, could talk to each other far more than they actually do, so their romance is never as perceptible and strong as it should be. On one hand, this makes the trust dynamic far more subtle and compelling, but it also forces the audience to reach for what they think should be happening with the characters or on screen instead of what actually is happening. The aggressive minimalism sometimes works better in theory than in practice. The cinematography suffers from the same problem, displays the naturalistic beauty of the mountains, but not as strongly as it should. A film with such scarce dialogue and plot relies very heavily on the power of images, but these images are rarely as powerful as they need to be. Cinematographically, The Loneliest Planet feels like a wasted opportunity, one that could affirm the power of Loktev’s story but, despite valiant efforts, never quite reaches the heights that it aims for, and so it falls into a cycle of impressive but ultimately empty and repetitive shots. As the film goes on, the landscape grows repetitive, and the recurring ultra-wide shots of the miniscule figures marching across the mountain along the screen’s horizontal axis fail to gain any additional significance with each view.
Wholly, that’s how much of The Loneliest Planet feels; good, but not quite as good as it should be, marred by repetition. As such, the film actually slows down in the second half, when it should most be demanding our attention. All of a sudden, though, a tedious camp scene at the end turns into the most unique and revealing scene in the entire film. It makes the wait worth it, but it also makes one wonder if just a couple more moments like it could have helped us to learn much more about the couple than we can learn simply by their proximity to one another.
There are an infinite number of things to admire about The Loneliest Planet, as the idea of invoking repetition and displaying a cyclical nature of relationship has rarely been so closely adhered to, but those same things that make the film so admirable make it hard to love. Like The Master, but with more control,it presents itself as a rich study, but a demanding one whose lack of catharsis makes it easy to dismiss. Still, it’s a tough film to shake, and even now, I can’t help but wonder whether I’m missing something.