The Loneliest Planet

The Loneliest Planet

****

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

One act, lasting maybe a second, stands at the core of Julia Loktev's remarkable film about a young couple on a hiking trip in Georgia's Caucasus mountains. The "incident", as it was politely referenced by everyone at the press conference, splits the story into two equal parts.

With loud clanking of metal, a dry naked woman hopping up and down in a shower to keep warm, in the middle of nowhere, until her boyfriend scrambles in and apologetically pours hot water over her from a kettle, the journey begins.

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For a long time there are only sounds and the locals speak a language most viewers won't understand (there are no subtitles). We are in Georgia, in a small and poor mountain village and the young tourist Alex, played by an exuberant Gael García Bernal, "like a kitten", the director told me, mock-fights the village children with a banana, does pull-ups in an abandoned school bus, and is very much in love with his girlfriend.

The actress Hani Furstenberg plays Nica with similar abandon, doing gymnastics and laughing her head off when a big black pig pees right in front of them and the camera. At that point in the film, I was convinced, that the director had been inspired by Jacques Demy's 1970 fairy tale musical Once Upon A Time, where a princess (played by Catherine Deneuve) becomes a pig-keeper and has a fantastic sequence with her prince about what young lovers dream of doing (eating lots of cake, smoking pipes, rolling down hills…).

It turns out that Loktev had never seen the film but likes Demy very much and I was still on the right track towards the mirror phase, if you want to use Lacanian terms. The vintage Soviet Lomo prime lenses on the camera, Loktev enlightened me after the press conference, are what produces the magical feel of the images. The couple with all their movement, and sounds are in the Imaginary; the entrance into the symbolic order has not yet happened. They throw a child's ball over a high wall, waiting for it to return, over and over again, and it does so, without us or them knowing who is throwing it back from the other side.

The next day, childhood is about to end on a hiking trip for the couple's relationship. We wonder if the sleazy man who dances with Nica in the local "club" and is wearing a T-shirt that has "Hot girls - Alcohol - Myself" in English written on it, could possibly be their guide deep into the landscape.

The terrain is fantastic: fields, streams, rocks play as much a part as the actors do. The choice of nature is carefully directed: "We didn't want to see the tops of mountains, to allow the sky give us an escape. The sky could only come in slivers."

The local guide, played by Georgia's most prominent mountaineer and non-actor Bidzina Gujabidze, is a constant presence from now on. He helps the couple cross rivers, explains the difference in intelligence between sheep and goats, advertises a stone for kidney problems (plus it "makes skin very good like baby's ass"), feeds them cumin flowers and then tells them "within two hours you'll die" - as a joke. While they walk and carry kindling, Alex teaches Nica Spanish by having her conjugate verbs. Sentences are left half finished, language in the name of the father is not yet crucial.

Images stick - bamboo flower pattern cotton underpants, a tiny goat's horn to drink from, red hair washed in a brook over red rocks.

After the incident, the games of playing house are over. Silence, or fully constructed sentences replace the sounds and mumblings and laughs from before the "fall". Time is irreversible, Alex wants Nica to conjugate the verb to hear, not to smell.

Julia Loktev's inspired voyage in Georgia (Roberto Rossellini's Voyage In Italy, 1953 was a major influence for this film) explores issues from hospitality to masculinity (as does Hansel and Gretel, another influence she mentioned to me). Like her fiction debut Day Night Day Night (2006), one of the most powerful and haunting films about terrorism in New York City I have seen, The Loneliest Planet spins a carefully constructed net around your imagination.

Reviewed on: 10 Oct 2011
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A young couple are taken by surprise on a trek deep into the Caucasus Mountains.
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Director: Julia Loktev

Writer: Julia Loktev

Starring: Gael Garca Bernal, Hani Furstenberg, Bidzina Gujabidze

Year: 2011

Runtime: 113 minutes

Country: Germany, USA


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