This is a review of Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, and the calendar pretext is that the movie will play at the San Francisco Film Festival on April 24 and 27. Not all of you will be able to get to the Bay Area, but, since last August, The Loneliest Planet has already played at the festivals of Locarno, Toronto, New York, London and the AFI. Still, it has not “opened” yet. That is promised for this August, albeit on a limited basis.
What does limited mean? Well, Loktev and the rest of us might bear in mind what happened with her previous film, her first, Day Night Day Night. That opened in 2006 at the Cannes Film Festival, and it then played at Telluride, Toronto, Chicago, and in the New York New Directors series. It won prizes, including that given by young critics at Cannes. It became available on release to the general public in May of 2007, and then grossed $31,777. At its peak, it was playing on all of six screens. Those numbers mean that at best about 4,000 people saw it. I suspect the accumulated audience from its festival screenings was larger. Most people who have seen Day Night Day Night saw it at festivals, or subsequently on DVD.
In reviewing The Loneliest Planet now, I am breaking a convention that says reviews should be held for a film’s theatrical release. But, in my defense, that embargo is out-of-date, and against the grain of how independent films make their way. I may be urging a few more people to find the film in San Francisco; I may have implanted the idea of the film in places far beyond northern California; and I may have provided a quote that will assist in the eventual release of the film, however limited. Here is the quote: “The Loneliest Planet is a film you will never forget because it turns on the kind of small incident that could happen to any of us and alter our life in just a few seconds.”
Now, I can’t tell you about the incident because even to hint at it would be to deplete the shock and spoil the discovery of the moment and its implications. But I will tell you that you do not need to be alarmed in advance: It’s not that a bomb goes off, that a monster appears and tears off the hero’s head, or that an Area 51-like secret stronghold springs out of the green ground of the Caucasus wilderness. Anyway, you’ve seen those things, more or less, time and again, and you know that they are hideous and boring at the same time.
The situation of the film is as follows: Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) are on a hiking holiday in Georgia, in the Caucasus. They are much in love, and we learn that they will be married when they go home. They hire a local guide, Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), to take them to remote places. So the three of them set off with backpacks that carry provisions and camping gear. Reviews, when they come, may tell you that the photography is as beautiful as the countryside. That’s understandable, but I prefer to say that, quite simply, we behold the Caucasus and a testing walk. There are steep slopes and narrow paths; wild streams and flimsy bridges; there is long grass and short, in many shades of green. There are rocks and stones. And the film is constructed, shot, and edited to convey the arduous days of the journey, the labor of the hike, as well as the relief of the evening camp, and the lovers in love in their tent.
Something happens, about halfway through the film. No one is killed; no one sees God; Angelina Jolie is not waiting at the top of the next hill, in an adrenaline gown, looking as if she had just stepped out of Vogue or Vanity Fair. The incident is minor, in a way, yet momentous, too. You will know what it is when you see it, and at that point you will grasp the exceptional ambition of this absorbing movie. Quite often, its photography is distant and sustained, and its pacing is lifelike and gradual—it takes a long time sometimes to walk from one place to another. But that only sets us up for the dynamic of a moment.
You have to see The Loneliest Planet, for it is one of those works that prepares you for life, that make you wary, alive and responsible, and which … well, you’ll never forget it.
In a way, it’s the reverse of Loktev’s first film, Day Night Day Night, which is devoted to a process and a preparation for something that does not happen. An unnamed, unattached, unexplained, and unaffiliated young woman (Luisa Williams) comes to New York and prepares to blow herself up with a bomb in Times Square. Again, the intensity of that first film is minimalist: There is no “story” other than the making ready; there is no interaction between people beyond instruction and obedience. The bomb-carrier is what will be called “a terrorist” if the bomb goes off. But the picture gives no sign of what the cause or the attitude might be behind the “outrage.” You could say that it makes us feel the mounting tension in the young woman, but that suggests too familiar and melodramatic an approach. We never side with this woman, or against her. We observe the process, and I think the audience is convinced of its plausibility, its massive intent, and its vulnerability to chance and vagary. But this something does not happen.
Day Night Day Night is as riveting as a Bresson film, and as formally beautiful, and it asks what Bresson required in actors—that they not act, that they exist in the process of the film and its passage of time. The Loneliest Planet is more developed, more human and more troubling—because we do like and feel for this couple in a strange land.
Julia Loktev was born in Leningrad, but her family came to America when she was nine. She lived in Colorado and then she studied film at New York University. In the space of about fifteen years she has made these two feature films and a documentary, Moment of Impact, which I have not seen (it’s about the severe brain damage her father suffered in an accident). She is one of the most radical, intelligent and talented filmmakers now at work. The Loneliest Planet is an experience you deserve. So search it out, no matter how limited the release.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.