The Loneliest Planet requires patience and trust. The opening scenes unfold without much incident, and it’s difficult to make out the dialogue. All the characters speak multiple languages, yet there are no subtitles. But once the happy couple and their guide begin their journey through the mountains, writer/director Julia Loktev establishes a confident rhythm. She develops her character through action and inaction, and since none of the dialogue directly serves the plot, it is impossible to guess what happens next. Against a stunning backdrop, Loktev preserves uncertainty so the drama unfolds with quiet clarity.
Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael García Bernal) are traveling abroad together. They’re in love – their sex is spontaneous and passionate – and they’re friendly with the locals. After a short visit to a small town, they go on a multi-day hike with Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) as their guide. Dato’s English is not good, so Nica and Alex slowly learn how to converse with him. They find inventive ways to communicate, and their initial reticence gives way to comfortable friendship. While they’re resting at a creek, the group meets some strangers, who do something terrible to Nica and Alex. They all survive, except the bond between them is shaken. It is unclear whether they can restore what they had.
Loktev confidently strips away any traditional sense of character or plot. When the characters do speak, it is never about what they are thinking. The use language as a way to pass the time; in a funny scene, Nica chips away at Dato’s thick accent by having him repeat, “I’m taking my bitch to the beach.” So without any expository language, Loktev finds other ways for her characters to grow. There is drama in who is leading the group, and by what distance. The body language between Nica and Alex is subtle, demanding careful attention. Depending on the situation, their bodies can coil or relax. Even the way Alex holds Nica’s backpack is important. Through what essentially amounts to “non-acting,” Furstenberg and Bernal have honest chemistry. Their performances won’t earn them award nominations, but the relationship between Nica and Alex is more plausible than most movie romances.
There is little music in The Loneliest Planet. Loktev turns her to attention to natural sounds, whether it’s a bubbling river or the buzz from an insect. The only time there is a music is during wide shots, ones that capture the beauty of the mountainside. The three travelers walk from one side of the frame to the other, and the shots have little purpose at first. Only later do I realize they’re meant to serve as episodic breaks. The wide shots tell us something, however infinitesimal, is different about the group’s dynamic. The camera lingers, giving us time to reflect on what has happened. This style is maddening at first, but once the wide shots reflect the tension, they’re rewarding. Careful framing and direction teaches the audience how they should watch the film.
Another surprising thing about The Loneliest Planet is how the normal details are ancillary. We do not learn what country they are in until the final twenty minutes. Without the IMDb page, I wouldn’t be able to tell you any of the character names. These choices are right for the material; a throwaway line establishing a location would take away from the patient realism. Loktev’s approach is never more necessary than the scene where strangers violate the couple. It’s a terrifying sequence, one that ends unpredictably and without any heroics. Neither the couple nor Dato ever talk about what happened because they don’t need to. Absent any joy, their eyes say enough.
More than any other type of travel, a hike is a relationship endurance test. Away from distractions or civilization, there is no buffer, and you must rely on more than your feet. If a relationship has any problems, a hike will certainly exacerbate them. They can deepen friendships, and even have the power to ruin a marriage. The Loneliest Planet internalizes the inward trials that accompany a long journey by foot, and treat it with the sensitivity it requires. Cloud Atlas, which opened last week, has dozens of characters that span multiple centuries, and the filmmakers’ ambition exceeds its grasp. Loktev achieves the exact opposite: she delves deep into the lives of three imperfect people, and finds depth through observant specificity.