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A Filmmaker’s Shock and Awe

Russian-born Julia Loktev’s haunting new The Loneliest Planet sends beautiful youth into the wilderness

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Gael García Bernal, Bidzina Gujabidze, and Hani Furstenberg in The Loneliest Planet, directed by Julia Loktev. (Inti Briones)

Like Day Night Day Night, The Loneliest Planet has a two-part structure. For the movie’s first half, Nica and Alex are exploring a kind of paradise. (They are reading A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov’s romantic novel of military doings in the 19th-century Caucasian wilderness, but they have no sense that contemporary Georgia might possibly be a war zone.) Almost exactly midway through the movie, something happens that changes their relationship to each other as well as their relationship with the guide. The hinge between the film’s two parts is an enigmatic but undeniable threat and an all-too-human response. Here, the moment of impact is neither an automobile accident nor an explosion, but Alex’s instinctual, unconscious, perhaps even reflexive, act and Nica’s emotional reaction to it.

For the hitherto happy tourists, the world has turned inexplicably dangerous; the couple’s innocence is lost. Nica feels betrayed. Alex is frozen, no longer himself. (Writing this, I cannot help but think of the filmmaker’s father.) At least, this attribution of feeling is how we might imagine what has happened to Nica and Alex. From a film narrative point of view, the event is a Hitchcockian stunt. We see something unfold without fully understanding what exactly is going on—just like Nica and Alex. They have no language with which to talk about the event, and Dato, who grasps exactly what happened, volunteers no explanation.

The trip goes on in painful silence. The landscape gets a bit stranger—and even a little allegorical. The party stops to rest beside some sort of industrial installation. Without much enthusiasm, the couple explores a damp cavern and ruined house that might have appeared in Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Alex is unsure how to reestablish contact. Nica sends him mixed messages and, when he fails to respond, she gradually reconnects with Dato—most dramatically when she slips and falls into a stream from which she is grateful to be swept up and carried out by the guide. Once again, Alex is betrayed by his instincts. That’s it, save for a drunken evening in which, still without addressing the Inexplicable Incident, Nica and Alex expose a bit more of their individual natures and Dato reveals something of his story. In a way, he’s guiding us to a deeper, darker place.

“A story with such an unusual beginning must also have an unusual ending,” one character tells another in A Hero of Our Time. The Loneliest Planet opens with a banging fanfare; its final note is a diminuendo, albeit only in the sense that the thing that happens midway through the movie continues to reverberate right through to the last frame. Day dawns and the planet is no less beautiful. But every one of its inhabitants—or at least the three whom we have had the chance to study—is very much alone.

CORRECTION, October 26: This article originally stated that in Moment of Impact Loktev plays a CD of sound effects to see if her father will respond. It is Loktev’s mother who plays the CD for her husband, and the car crash sound is heard by coincidence, not intent.

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Julia Loktev writes:

It is always an honor to have J. Hoberman write about my work. I discover new things about my films (and perhaps myself) through his insights. However, here I must take issue with one crucial detail. Georgia was not a war zone at the time we shot and is not a war zone now, and my many Georgian friends would be quite insulted at that suggestion. We shot in 2010, two years after a 5-day war with Russia. We were certainly not shooting in South Ossetia or Abkhazia, the regions that were the focus of the war and of ongoing territorial disputes. The area where we shot in has not been a war zone at all in the post-Soviet times. Georgia today is a quite peaceful and stable society, and there are quite a few travelers there, though the ghosts of past wars do lurk in the background, and the film reflects this. In the film, Nica asks, “Were you in the war?,” suggesting the couple do have an awareness of this. (She doesn’t say, “Oh wow, so like there was a war here, no way!”) I would never want to make a film about people blithely traveling in a war zone. Thank you again. Julia Loktev

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A Filmmaker’s Shock and Awe

Russian-born Julia Loktev’s haunting new The Loneliest Planet sends beautiful youth into the wilderness

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