Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Loneliest Planet

This is really a one-idea movie, but it’s a very good idea (taken from a short story by Tom Bissell). Nica and Alex are young travelers in Georgia, engaged to be married, who depart on a trek with mountain guide Dato. And then Something Happens. To explain the Something would be to spoil the impact of the film, but one of its major problems is that to create that impact, for the first half of the film virtually nothing happens at all. The second problem is that virtually nothing happens afterwards either.

We’re subjected to seemingly random snippets of traveler footage, the pair fooling around with kids or climbing across mountain pastures. They seem charming enough, and there’s some pretty outdoors photography, but by the time we get a close up of the two playing cutesy footsy, patience has worn extremely thin. We learn next to nothing about them, beyond their engagement, and what little dialogue there is is simply random filler. They may as well be Young Man and Young Woman, but director Julia Loktev relies on the fact that they are handsome, smiling Gael García Bernal and flame-haired, gap-toothed Hani Furstenberg to retain audience interest.

Slipped into this nothingness, the Event that takes place, involuntary, and over in a moment, is genuinely shocking, and the following scene of the trio walking in separate silence through a forest leaves us ample space to ponder what we’ve seen. But of course it’s a forest – previously they’ve been in open grassland but now they’re hemmed in; and when reconciliation takes place, it must be beneath a torrential downpour. Not that anyone is going to talk about it, and to start off with we can empathise with the characters’ tongue-tied horror, even if they are no more than male and female ciphers (it’s anyone’s guess what Dato thinks about, a two-dimensional Other whose moment in the spotlight comes too late and shows how wasted his part is).

Left with all this space to ponder, however, the audience cannot help but consider that an involuntary, immediately rectified action might be apologized for or forgiven, between two people in love. They’re not even kids – it’s a surprise to learn that she is 30, and he is presumably of similar age. This comes, finally, in a long campfire scene at the film’s end which shows that given the opportunity for more than baleful looks, Furstenberg and Bidzina Gujabidze (as Dato; a first-time actor but renowned mountaineer) are quite capable of getting their teeth into some more nuanced acting. Likewise the camera here gets to exercise a bit more imagination than the standard landscape shots or Dardennes following, tracing a neat side-to-side motion that unobtrusively conjures ambivalence. The Event that closes this scene is also fairly ghastly, but half-expected and without ramification, an unacknowledged revenge; the next morning as the trio slowly pack their tents in long shot, we have no way of guessing the future of this couple, knowing so little of who they are – never once do they have an actual conversation with one another – but nor, by this time, do we care. The yearning for impact is exemplified by the pointless, opening full-frontal scene; the film reveals itself to be, appropriately, as full of potential implication but ultimately as meaningless as its title, and pretty infuriating.

d/sc Julia Loktev p Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Helge Albers, Marie Therese Guirgis ph Inti Briones ed Michael taylor, Julia Loktev pd Rabia Troncelliti m Richard Skelton cast Gael García Bernal, Hani Furstenberg, Bidzina Gujabidze
(2011, USA/Germ, 113m)


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