Julia Loktev’s haunting Day Night Day Night (2006) established her reputation as a rigorously formal filmmaker in the tradition of Chantal Akerman. Her portrait of a young female suicide bomber (Luisa Williams) intent on detonating a bomb in crowded Midtown Manhattan is chilling in its exacting attention to detail. As the infamous O. J. Simpson white Bronco car chase proved, it doesn’t take much to keep viewers on the edges of their seats, as long as they expect there will be a payoff. Like Gus Van Sant in Elephant (2003), Loktev exploits this impulse to the maximum. Once the intentions of the nameless protagonist become apparent, we can only watch her actions with rapt attention. Loktev’s new film, The Loneliest Planet (2012) creates a similar sense of ominous suspense in telling the story of a young couple backpacking in the Caucasus Mountains of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
Day Night Day Night begins with a profile close-up of the protagonist on a bus, as she rationalizes her decision by detailing the various ways that people die. Like Béla Tarr or Van Sant, Loktev follows her main character from behind, so that when she turns and faces the camera, allowing us to see her intense features and piercing eyes, it comes as a shock. Our initial antipathy slowly shifts to sympathy once her vulnerability becomes evident as she’s ordered around by an anonymous male voice on the phone and then by masked men. Her high-pitched, girlish voice and overly polite compliance to their orders make her appear less like a religious martyr than a victim of mind control. This aspect is reinforced by Loktev’s palette of icy blues and greens, first in the bus station and later in a New Jersey motel room.
The bomb maker, using sign language, and his female assistant set the mechanism and place the heavy device in her backpack. Once she’s set loose in the colorful and carnival-like atmosphere of Times Square, the tension becomes palpable. When she eats two soft pretzels with mustard followed by a candy apple, her child-like innocence creates a striking contrast to the horrific deed she’s about to commit. Her efforts to find a working pay phone and the necessary coins ratchet up the tension. Her desperate phone call results in a surprising revelation. Her confusion, internal struggle, and suffering become manifest once the camera fixes on her blackened eyes and tearful face, recalling Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).
The Loneliest Planet shares a similar minimalist aesthetic to Loktev’s earlier film. It contains more narrative pleasure, even if the pace is as deliberate and slow as the typical art film. The title derives from the name of a popular travel guide (taken to an extreme). The story involves a young English-speaking couple who decide to backpack in the mountains. We know little about the two characters. Nica (Hani Furstenberg) appears to be American, while her handsome bearded lover, Alex (Gael García Bernal), is Latino. In a series of quick and abrupt cuts, Nica entertains children at a party by doing handstands and transforming a banana into a comedic prop, while Nica looks on approvingly. The language barrier asserts itself when an old lady tells a long story to them. It’s clear from Alex’s reactions of embarrassment that neither he nor Nica have a clue what she’s saying.
Loktev never translates Georgian into English subtitles, so the viewer is allowed to feel the confusion regarding both language and culture that is the heart of the experience of traveling to any foreign country. After some haggling over the price, Alex and Nica hire a guide named Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), as a drunk repeatedly interrupts the negotiation. The barrier of language and culture surfaces once again when Alex and Nica have drinks at a nightclub, and one of the local men creates an awkward situation by asking Nica to dance.
Most of The Loneliest Planet involves three characters and a landscape, as the young couple treks through the mountainous terrain, accompanied by Dato. Alex and Nica appear to be very much in love with each other. Although their physical expressions of intimacy and sexual passion suggest that they are in the early stages of love, we learn that they are engaged to be married in the fall. The fact that they are from different cultures – he’s teaching her Spanish – adds an additional layer of complexity to their relationship. Not knowing one’s bearings has a tendency to exacerbate tensions between couples. In this case, their guide functions a bit like a camera. Traveling with a third person makes the couple self-conscious and begins to affect their interactions.
Based on a short story by Tom Bissell, The Loneliest Planet contains very little plot or dialogue. The film is exemplary in its reliance on visual storytelling, which forces us to pay close attention to gestures, body movements, sounds, and images. It is also a study of proxemics – the positioning of human bodies in space. Since the characters rarely talk, we are forced to watch carefully for clues in how the three of them negotiate the vast expanse of space – the shifting distance and dynamic between the three of them as they traverse what amounts to a dangerous obstacle course. Nica’s bright red hair provides a visual accent to the predominantly green canvas of the natural landscape.
Navigating the landscape proves treacherous, despite the physical fitness of the couple. In one of the most exhilarating scenes in any film I’ve seen during the past year, we watch as Alex and Nica stand on their heads against the mountainous backdrop and verbally “count chimpanzees” (“twenty-one chimpanzees,” “twenty-two chimpanzees,” . . .) to mark time as they exercise. Tellingly, Alex wobbles several times, while Nica remains steady the whole time. Throughout the journey, Nica insists on her physical prowess and independence by refusing assistance from either Alex or Dato.
Being alone and isolated in the mountains with a stranger can induce paranoia. Dato exhibits an odd sense of humor. He tells Alex and Nica an elaborate off-color joke about castration that goes on interminably. He indicates he plans to buy a new car, but his comments have disturbing overtones. Nica and Alex start to react, but then choose to ignore the remarks. Dato also has them eat a plant that he then suggests might be poisonous. Is he joking? At one point the three of them listen intently to a sound in the distance that could be thunder. Dato stops unexpectedly at another point, as if danger is imminent. An unnerving incident involving three strangers does eventually occur, which serves to reveal character.
Alex’s instinctive reaction to this startling event profoundly alters his relationship with Nica, who becomes noticeably more aloof and solitary afterward. His behavior has crossed some invisible boundary that significantly alters the way she views him. From this point on, Alex and Nica grow more distant from each other, causing the dynamic between all three characters to shift as a result. With great subtlety and visual style, The Loneliest Planet manages to explore not only issues of gender roles, independence and dependence, nature and culture, but the strange and often fickle mysteries of the human heart.
Along with Ben Rivers’s Two Years at Sea, Julia Loktev’s The Lonelist Planet is one of the most visually stunning independent films of the past year. The film finally played at the UW Cinematheque last Friday in a gorgeous 35mm print. It has just been released on DVD.