Despite the elemental grandeur of its setting and the irony of its title, The Loneliest Planet (2011) hinges neither on the cruelty of nature nor of civilization, but on the betrayals endemic to interpersonal relationships. A deceptively minimal and decidedly haunted pastoral tour that follows a couple of affianced Americans trekking through the rugged beauty of Georgia’s Caucasus, the ambitious third feature by Russian-born, US-bred director Julia Loktev channels a series of oppositions—the distant and the intimate, nature and culture, man and woman, action and reaction—into a terse, pared-down narrative that flirts with allegorical implication while remaining viscerally grounded. Walking and talking constitute the film’s nominal action, but it is silence, a certain existential incommunicability, that prevails.
Nica (the fiery-maned Hani Furstenberg) is strikingly revealed in the first frame, bouncing naked and cold in a washbasin, as Alex (Gael García Bernal, bearded and becalmed) rushes to her relief with buckets of hot water. Though hewing closely to her characters, Loktev discloses little of them beyond gesture and immediate surroundings, a visual strategy that intimates the fundamental inscrutability of other people that was the lesson of Tom Bissell’s “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” the short story that inspired the film’s cautionary conceit. Staying as guests in a small village while seeking out a guide for their mountain trek—the negotiations proceeding without the aid of translation or subtitles, Loktev emphasizing those inevitable confusions intrinsic to travel abroad—the couple, clearly as infatuated with each other as with their upcoming adventure, loiter in their post-Soviet surroundings, doing handstands, having sex, drinking in the disco. This pre-journey idyll establishes an innocuous tone that is destined to be disturbed, but Loktev’s rigorous immediacy eschews easy portent. Her stark editing scheme offers legibility, but not necessarily insight—an aesthetic of detachment that may in fact be a deeper form of engagement, privileging intuition over understanding.