Art for art’s sake has its purpose: after all, The Loneliest Planet is an absolutely beautiful travelogue, one that Julia Loktev has filled with long, languid looks at the Georgian countryside (Georgia the country, not the state). It feels slight as a film, however: an hour is spent establishing the relationship between two young and invincible lovebirds, Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg), as they wander through the wilderness (along with a terse yet colorful tour guide, played by an actual tour guide named Bidzina Gujabidze), only so that a momentary encounter with an armed stranger can shake them up with a dear old brush with mortality. There are none of the survivalist extremes (or delusions) of Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours; because it is so isolated and straightforward, it feels less affecting than the non-linear Into the Wild. Ironically, the no-nonsense approach, in which everything speaks for itself, makes The Loneliest Planet feel more real than either of these two other films (both of which were based on real stories), and yet far less interesting. After all that wandering about, in which the viewer wonders what the film is about, to then have to spend another hour watching Bernal and Furstenberg cope with their close encounter . . . the performances are fine but flimsy. We get it, we get it, we get it.
None of this is accidental: the film is meant to be repetitive, with a parallel structure to that of The Scarlet Letter, in which there is a transitional moment at the center that warps and reflects all that follows. The long tracking shots and the decision to shoot from far away is meant to emphasize their isolation and smallness (against the wild), and the film successfully captures a series of small and subtle shifts in complex emotional states. After spending so long waiting for something to happen, we’re meant to then wait for a follow-up, because in real life, things simply occur (or don’t) and then continue to occur (or not). It’s as much a subversion of our expectations as the scene in Funny Games in which the antagonist pauses and rewinds the action, demonstrating the control that we have ceded for entertainment; here, the film demonstrates just how dull and deadly life can be . . . by being dull. But again, so what? This is a slight, singular point to make: we get it, we get it, we get it.
Perhaps I’m biased. I was mugged a number of years ago, held up at knife-point in the lobby of my building, so I understand the sensation of being lost and adrift after such a sudden, potentially deadly situation. I get how devastating it is, especially when you’re young, to have your illusion of invulnerability pierced, to realize that your sense of order means nothing; no matter how nice you are, it could easily, suddenly end. (To this end, it seems useless to be paralyzed by a terrorist attack or incidence of domestic violence; you could just as easily be hit by a car, a falling meteorite, a stray bullet.) This is perhaps an important concept to realize, and perhaps it is helpful to see it reflected through the perfect relationship of two other people (Bernal and Furstenberg are terrific actors in this piece). And yet again, what does it accomplish? Those who know they are mortal don’t need to spend two hours watching actors come to this realization; those who do not most likely will not understand (or sit through) this two hour public service announcement and/or Georgian tourism promotion. The film is not likely to have much of an effect on anybody, which makes you wonder why it was made in the first place. I’d continue, but I think you get it, you get it, you get it.