A quick re-post of this review, which ran in conjunction with the 2011 New York Film Festival. The Lonliest Planet opens in theaters and VOD this week.
The relationship of the individual to the physical world is one of the (my?) great modern dilemmas; how we move in the world, how we find solitude and contemplative space in the age of the internet, how we find the room to unpack what is inside of us– these are questions that plague me on a regular basis. Part of it is clearly my character, but I’ve never been able to clear the decks and find a comfortable balance between my deepest inner desire (the ability to find quiet and just think and be, as obnoxiously self-serving as that sounds) and the pleasure of social stimuli (which, family and friends aside, finds me tracking the ideas, opinions, activities and lives of hundreds of people using social media). If anything, cinema has become my compromise, a form that allows me both a sense of social and critical engagement while also allowing me the chance to retreat within myself and explore my feelings through the dramatic power of movies.
I find the dissonance between my “real” and my “cinematic” selves to be deeply troubling, if only because in my own imagination, the person I think I am and want to be, is more likely the person sitting in a dark room, staring at a screen, mind racing and heart pounding, than it is the man who is working through his days in the service of his tangible loves and obligations. I have not wholly retreated into a fantasy world, and I take great pleasure in so much of my life, but if I am true to myself, my deep affinity for movies is tethered to the fact that they offer me the space to be who I want to be with myself, they allow my mind the space to move between thoughts and feelings, responses and desires and they never ask me what I am thinking or feeling; engaging with movies allows me to just be. That said, maybe I am not who I think I am.
Julia Loktev’s brilliant The Lonliest Planet focuses on the act of walking, of setting out and moving, to create a transformative space. That the film does so while creating a deeply cinematic experience for the viewer only doubles its power for me.
The Lonliest Planet begins with a rhythmic sound– resembling old, battered bed springs under the stress of violent coitus– against a black screen before revealing the naked torso of Nica (Hani Furstenberg), freezing and soapy, standing erect in a rustic shower, awaiting a rinse which soon arrives at the hands of her fiancée, Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal). A general sense of disorientation continues as we slowly learn that Nica and Alex are traveling together, walking from place to place, before landing a guide named Dato (Bidzina Gudjabidze) to escort them through the Caucasus mountains of Georgia. But as the group walks further and further from Dato’s village, Loktev cultivates a sense of dread and vulnerability before a terrifying moment brings about an unexpected reaction from Nica and Alex, transforming not only their relationship but the viewer’s position in relation to the film itself.
The Lonliest Planet
Loktev is a filmmaker of great gifts, using the frame to establish the dynamics of emotion and power (in the interpersonal sense) with an elegant sense of geometry; during their long, often silent hike, the characters are presented in varying degrees of focus, close-up and bokeh, pulling the viewer toward one character and away from another, giving one primacy on the screen while another defers, always against the staggeringly beautiful backdrop of the grass-covered mountains and valleys. Nature serves neither to humble nor augment the emotional give and take of the film, but rather to establish a figurative grid through which the characters walk. It is through the act of walking through space, together and alone, that the drama of the film plays itself out, every gesture and expression the natural result of a quiet, introspective journey that gets fleshed out once the movement stops and the characters set up camp for the night.
In one of my favorite shots in the film, Nica is wrapped in a foil blanket and warming herself next to the campfire. Just behind her, Dato’s pup tent echoes the triangular shape of her seated body, while further back, a remorseful Alex offers another geometric rhyme, smaller, less meaningful, but still present. I was reminded (coincidentally?) of Cézanne’s painting Bathers at Rest, where the angular positions and shapes of the bodies and the features of the landscape become rhymes, full of weight, depth and light. So too with The Lonliest Planet , which uses composition in the service of relationships and unspoken emotions. Loktev’s film is thrilling because of the way she portrays introspection, but also how the faces, bodies and gestures of her characters convey so much more than words ever could. I found the film to be one of the most compelling movies I’ve seen in a long time; a rigorously constructed story of the way love can accidentally fall apart before reassembling itself in a new, diminished way, told without a single false note being struck and with a thrilling simplicity, utilizing the cinema in the service of the sublime.