Americans abroad, backpackers, based on a short story, Bidzina Gujabidze, Caucasus Mountains, cinema, dramas, Eastern Europe, film reviews, filmed in Republic of Georgia, films, Gael Garcia Bernal, Hani Furstenberg, Inti Briones, Julia Loktev, Movies, relationships on the rocks, Shalva Kirikashvili, The Loneliest Planet, writer-director
What do you call a film that features gorgeous cinematography, beautiful locations and almost no sense of dramatic tension, character development or desire to propel the narrative forward? While I would have accepted either “a travelogue” or “vacation footage shot on a RED camera” as correct answers, the one that I was actually going for was The Loneliest Planet (2011), writer-director Julia Loktev’s examination of a relationship pushed to the breaking point. Despite being a genuinely lovely film to look at, The Loneliest Planet ends up as the cinematic equivalent of a postcard: flat, one-dimensional and utterly static.
Engaged cutie-pies Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) are on a picturesque backpacking expedition through the gorgeous, green countryside of the Republic of Georgia and they couldn’t be happier. So in love with each other that they not only spend every waking minute together but also gleefully discuss each other’s bowel movements, this is the couple that every rom-com meet-cute in existence was founded on.
Trouble eventually (very, very eventually) shatters their happy existence, however, when the couple and their local guide, Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), run afoul of a few grumpy, armed locals. In one moment of complete, unblinking cowardice (think Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure (2014), for comparison), Alex destroys their complacent happiness and reorients the relationship along a much more antagonistic route. With the joy and innocence completely bled from their formerly care-free trip, will Alex and Nica be able to make things right between them or has their relationship been damaged beyond repair? Once you’ve seen your significant other in a new, unfavorable light, is it ever possible to go back to “the good old days”? Can innocence lost ever be regained?
First of all, let’s speak to the film’s obvious selling point: cinematographer Inti Briones shot some impossibly beautiful, genuinely stunning footage and it’s showcased here in all its glory. The vistas are sweeping and verdant, the numerous wide shots are suitably evocative and all of the locations, whether wide, open fields or ramshackle, abandoned buildings pop off the screen in bright, vibrant colors. This is a film that could function just as well with the sound turned off (perhaps better, in some cases), honest testament to the beauty of the imagery here. Despite whatever else I felt about the film, my admiration for the look and camera-work are truly heartfelt.
The downside, unfortunately, is that the excellent cinematography and beautiful locations do nothing to conceal the fact that The Loneliest Planet is dull, devoid of tension, lacks any kind of character development and runs on for at least 40 minutes too long. The film is obnoxiously repetitive, to the point of seeming almost parodic: the scene where Nica sings the odious “Don Gato” song goes on for so long and is so straight-faced that I half-expected Seth McFarlane to pop up at some point. Repetition to make a point is one thing: letting scenes drag on well after the point has been made is something else altogether.
In a nutshell, that might be The Loneliest Planet’s Achilles heel: almost every shot, scene and beat in the entire two-hour run-time is held for much longer than it needs to be. Not only does this inflate the film to an unnecessary degree (trim the shots and I’m willing to wager the film wraps-up around a much more manageable 90-100 minute time-frame) but it also robs the tension out of everything and grinds the film to a complete standstill even during those (brief) moments where it should be sprinting. Sure, there’s definitely an art-house aesthetic going on here, an aesthetic which generally encourages longer, more static shots. That being said, Loktev holds everything here just long enough to cross from “effective” to “irritating”: it’s no hyperbole to say that almost every shot and scene needed much more judicial use of the trimming tool than they ultimately received.
To compound issues, the film manages to criminally under-use Bernal (one of our most expressive, interesting modern actors) and Gujabidze (the real emotional center of the film), while tipping the scales in favor of Furstenberg, who more often than not radiates blankness more than any kind of relatable emotion. Chalk this up to the script, which saddles poor Furstenberg with scenes like the aforementioned “Don Gato” monstrosity, but there were few times that I ever felt she was more than another “quirky manic pixie girl.” While Bernal gets the odd moment to shine, here and there, Furstenberg gets an equal amount of camera-time and far less to do with it. For a film that is, fundamentally, about a relationship between two people, The Loneliest Planet often feels like only one of the principals is doing any heavy lifting.
Lest all of the above suggest that I hated The Loneliest Planet, let me lay that to rest: I never really became invested in it enough to feel strongly one way or the other. More than anything, I was disappointed, since there are plenty of moments that hint at what the film actually could have been: the inciting incident is genuinely tense, even if Force Majeure used that particular plot device in a more effective manner…the campfire scene where Dato relates his hard-luck story is a real gut-punch, much more powerful and emotionally resonate than anything that came before…the impromptu volleyball game is genuinely cute and fun, the exact tone that the first half of the film tries (and fails) to nail…those eye-popping visuals…the problem ends up being that Loktev introduces some genuinely interesting elements and then proceeds to focus on the most uninteresting, repetitive parts of the narrative.
Ultimately, my biggest beef with the film isn’t that nothing (literally) happens until almost the midpoint of a two-hour film: I’ve seen plenty of films where it seems like nothing is going on until nearly the conclusion and liked them just fine. My biggest beef with the film is that any moment of forward momentum or genuine interest exists only as momentary up-blips on a generally inert lifeline. The Loneliest Planet takes its time getting to its destination, only to, ultimately, never arrive. It’s the equivalent of someone taking the time to careful arrange the letters on a poster-board sign, only to run out of room with half the word still missing. There’s a good film nestled in The Loneliest Planet’s bloat, like the tiny center of a set of Russian stacking dolls: whether you want to take the time to get to it, however, is a question only you can answer.