How well do you really know someone? And not just anyone, but someone very close (best friend, boyfriend/girlfriend, even husband/wife). Expanding on that notion even further – how well do we really know ourselves? What it boils down to is, when faced with a difficult situation, how someone reacts (or does not react) may completely change your perception about that person and ultimately your relationship with them. This thought-provoking theme lies at the heart of The Loneliest Planet, a new film playing a two-night limited engagement next week at New Orleans’ Chalmette Movies.
A young, carefree, giddily-in-love couple – Alex and Nica – are backpacking through Eastern Europe/Western Russia. In Georgia (the country, not the state), they hire a local guide to take them on a hike through the Caucasus Mountain valley. With picturesque long shots and lingering close-ups, we are led through the beautiful natural scenery with little dialogue and mostly inconsequential interaction.
We know very little about any of the three characters – not much back story is provided and we discover only minimal bits (mainly through subtle gestures and longing looks) as the movie progresses. Despite this we can glean a few solid facts and traits off each character, especially the two leads. Alex, played by international star Gael García Bernal, is a confident, tender, and charismatic man with a very worldly air about him. Nica (played by Hani Furstenberg) is sweet and caring, but perhaps not as independent or rugged as she thinks she is. Their guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) is perhaps the biggest mystery of all with his somber demeanor, awkward stories, and broken English. Through the long, arduous day and cold night, the three slowly grow more accustomed to one another. The couple and their guide open up and even bond over campfires and shared ponchos, but there is still an underlying wariness of each other and their daunting surroundings.
To be honest, not much happens on the first day of the two day trek – it is slow and a little tedious . . . you keep waiting for something to happen. Someone trips or slips on a loose rock, but quickly recovers . . . you still expect something to happen. They explore one particularly interesting place then another, but find nothing . . . you know something is going to happen. But instead, tension is continuously built in the small details – thunder rumbling in the distance, an unexplained mechanical grinding, eerie pauses and long silent stretches. Foreboding music punctuates random scenes and often abruptly halts seemingly mid-note . . . something has to happen, right?
Then, on the second day, something does happen, which leads to one thing, then another. It is not a huge twist (like I was very wrongly anticipating), rather a small misstep, an unfortunate gaffe, but the reverberations rattle throughout the small, intimate trio despite never being spoken of afterwards. All three characters change noticeably, especially our young couple, and their relationship is markedly shaken. Not only can you see the change - a distance grows between them, and though silent, their faces show a tremendous range of emotion and nuances (shocked, ashamed, embarrassed) - but you can also feel it. The film’s warmth evaporates, it loses its intimacy. They wander through an abandoned, crumbling cabin – room to room, not talking, not touching. How can these people be changed so dramatically by one simple event? Can things go back to the way they were? . . . Probably not. What is done is done.
As expected, the cinematography is picturesque, capturing the vastness and isolation of the mountain valley wonderfully. More often than probably necessary, the three hikers are captured from an extreme long shot – appearing merely as three tiny dots traipsing up the cliff side. There are long moments of lapsed dialogue where we just watch, as they hike up a steep incline or dismantle their tent. The performances are very subdued and there appears to have been quite a bit of improvisation and letting the scenes play out as they will, which probably helped to create the palpable intimacy and realism displayed on screen.
As stated before, there is certainly not much action or dialogue. Instead, the director (Russian-American Julia Loktev) focuses on emotion and the psyche of these once simple characters put in a complex situation. The Loneliest Planet is a film that forces you to observe, like a social science experiment, the way people interact with one another and how their actions play out through cause/effect. The very definition of a “minimalist film,” and almost frustratingly so, the films harkens back to Gus Van Sant's 2002 film Gerry with Matt Damon and Casey Affleck. Like that very decisive film, The Loneliest Planet is difficult to fully embrace, but is sure to provoke post-film debates about how well we know each other and ourselves.
In association with the New Orleans Film Society, The Loneliest Planet will screen for two-nights only at Chalmette Movies – Monday, JAN 28 and Tuesday, JAN 29 at 7:30 p.m. each night.
Tickets for this film are $8.50 general admission / $6.50 for NOFS members
So come out and support Chalmette Movies (8700 W. Judge Perez Dr.) by catching this new film, so that the theater can continue bringing interesting films like this to the New Orleans-area. Also, visit the theater’s website for more information, directions, showtimes, and ticket prices.
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