In 1960, Psycho invented the phenomenon of ‘hyped secrecy,’ which drove the masses to cinematheques worldwide so they could know what all those coy bastards were alluding to in their cryptic post-screening cinegasms. Few films have been able to achieve such a level of intrigue after its release (although The Sixth Sense comes close). Usually, itâ€™s the result of a clever twist that changes our perception of a character’s motives, or sometimes it’s a (rare) satisfactory resolution to a nagging question (what the hell does “Rosebud” mean!), and they’ll almost always be found in either the horror, thriller, or crime genres. Julia Loktev’s third film The Loneliest Planet – a mellow drama cum melodrama – is structured solely and entirely around an ‘event’ at its halfway point that entirely reconfigures how we read the film. It’s such a boldly sly move that, along with her masterfully spare sophomore film Day Night Day Night, Loktev has effectively situated herself as the twenty-first century’s (M)inimalist heir to Hitchcock.
Opening up with a horrifying shot of a human (initially the sex is unclear), naked and soapy, jumping up and down compulsively, Loktev grips us from the get-go. Unsure of where the acclaimed event actually occurred in the film, but only sure that one exists, it’s easy to believe that that was it (it isn’t). Nonetheless, it’s a striking and unsettling intro that easily disturbs the remainder of the pre-game half of the film, which is deceptively banal. A couple, comprised of Alex (Gael GarcÃa Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg), is on vacation, hiking through the hilly landscape of Georgia. Alex is multilingual, so many of their filler conversations are about translations and verb conjugations; they also walk a lot. Long, chapter-dividing shots show the the pair and their guide, Dato (non-actor Bidzina Gujabidze), in long shot, crossing from frame-left to frame-right, recalling the languid strolls in Meek’s Cutoff – this decade’s other minimal walk-a-thon.
Beginning here, there is a certain awareness for captial ‘M’ Minimalism littered throughout the film, possibly a conscious allusion on Loktev’s part to situate herself with that bygone milieu. The aforementioned long shots are very precisely framed so that the hills dissect the compositions into abstract geometries (a bit like Kiarostamiâ€™s zig-zags, actually). There isn’t anything as manufactured as a Robert Smithson land sculpture, nor as rigid as GÃ¼nter Fruhtrunk’s brand of Geometric Abstraction, but these guys are certainly evoked. Loktev also calls for a specific form of repetition in her dialgoue that brings to mind Minimalist music, specifically Philip Glass (and even more, his epic opera Einstein On the Beach. At one point, Alex and Nica are doing handstands together, both counting aloud – apparently as a playful competition – and their counting creates a Glass-esque layering of numbers. Later, in the film’s funniest moment, a session of pedagogical language training (communication is a big theme in this movie) in which Alex and Nica try to teach Dato to say the phrase “Bitch on the Beach” (note the reference to the opera title) results in a bit of phasing when the trio repeat the line again and again on top of each other.
This is all before that thing that happens, the ‘Event’ we shall not name, which creates an explosion of ideas in its own right. Suddenly, The Loneliest Planet takes shape as a study on instinct vs. acquired mannerisms. What is companionship, what is it for, and what roles do we all play in each other’s survival? These broader questions inform the rupture of a relationship, and expose the fragility of the tissue that links two partners. It’s the stuff of every quarrel – when the veil of unity is lifted and both partners are reminded that they are individuals, that there are certain things that we all are damned to experience alone. It’s an alienating feeling, for sure, and is probably why this half of the film has been so divisive. Sure, there are some nagging rough edges, like some heavy-handed moments (the river crossing) where Loktev oversells her themes. Bernal, as well, is still a flat actor with limited range, and it brings the level of affect down slightly in the home stretch (especially in relation to the superb turn by Furstenberg). However, this is a film of ideas, and they’re expertly designed to ricochet in our minds long after the tents are packed up.
Reviewed on September 13th at the 2011 Toronto Int. Film Festival – Visions Programme