Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 19, 2011 11:34 am 
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Two paths diverge in the wild

Hardy and sophisticated offbeat travelers both, Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael García Bernal), who are to be married in a few months, take a camping trip through the Caucasus with a Georgian mountain guide, Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze). Along the way -- at the film's midpoint -- an incident happens that breaks the cozy mood between them, possibly forever. After Alec makes a split decision that shocks Nica, the two become distant. The title is perhaps a mocking reference to the rough tour guide series, "Lonely Planet." Nica and Alex seem to be intimate and perfectly matched and the trip is gong pretty smoothly, but it all seems to turn into a subtle psychological hell.

This is the sophomore feature of Julia Loktev, who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and grew up in the US, studying film at NYU. Her first film was a documentary, Moment of Impact, which focused on the consequences of a near-fatal car accident that her father suffered. Her first fiction feature, Day Night Day Night (shown at Lincoln Center's New Directors/New Films series in 2007), was about a would-be suicide bomber in Times Square. The director has also exhibited art pieces at Tate Modern and P.S.1, and recently received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Loktev achieves great immediacy in the way she shoots the pair early on bathing, cuddling, and making love in rough surroundings, seemingly in perfect tune with each other. Israel-based, NY-born Furstenburg has luminous skin and flaming red hair; García Bernal has his usual charisma and charm. The pair are almost too clearly cast for each having both playful and melancholy sides: it's almost as if they play only in those two keys. Gujabidze has no particular charm, and his English is a bit rough. But that's the point. He's a real mountaineer and guide, not an actor, and his presence adds to the documentary feel. The other player is the grass-covered, beautiful Khevi region of the Caucasus, which helps mitigate the monotony of an adventure that for the viewer is lacking in much of interest, unless reviewing Spanish verbs, crossing a stream, or doing tricks with a string fascinate you.

The film uses much more limited material and more rudimentary dialogue, but plays with space and time in ways that might suggest the Antonioni of L'Avventura. And in both films events lead up to an event that changes things and that's never fully understood. Whatever the mid-point event in Loneliest Planet means to the characters, they don't discuss it.

Loktev works well in her harsh style. For me, a richer and more nuanced study of the decline of a seemingly perfect relationship between two young people can be found in Maren Ade's Everyone Else, which was part of the 2009 NYFF, and got a limited US theatrical release in 2010. I reviewed it as part of the NYFF. For some, The Loneliest Planet is a maddening snooze-fest, yet another example of how an art film can be like watching paint dry. But for the attentive, adventurous festival viewer, its fresh, raw approach offers stimulation and food for thought.

The Loneliest Planet is a an exhausting, intense watching experience, all the more focused for its vivid immediacy and lack of many plot or dialogue guidelines. It's a taut, effective film, with some pure landscape moments enhanced by Richard Skelton's spare, shimmering music. But Loktev doesn't make as good use as she might of the rearrangement of sensibility. She tends to rely too much toward the end on randomly accumulated material, and the last two sequences are weak. The way Nika and Alex are thrust upon us without backstories, along with the lack of discussion of events, contributes to a mystery that makes this a movie audiences will want to debate. For me the situation suggests a failure of nerve, the kind of thing you might find in a Hemingway short story about a couple game hunting, though his famous "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomer" is almost the reverse of this tale, which is freely adapted from the story, "Expensive Trips Nowhere," by Tom Bissell. In the wild, with a guide, an urban civilized man's courage may be more sorely and starkly tested. Maybe this story could take place anywhere. Loktev has tried to eschew pretty-pretty effects, but the lush, wide-open Georgian landscape is still a bit too distracting. However she is true to the original story: Bissell's fiction generally transpires in Central Asian settings.

The Loneliest Planet , 113 mins., was shown at Locarno and Toronto and later at the New York (2011) and London (2012) festivals. Seen and reviewed as part of the 49th New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, 2011. US release finally came Oct. 26, 2012, with critical raves (Metacritic 76%)

I may have been hard on it, if you judge by them. In a thumbnail review for The New Yorker. Richard Brody describes the finale of what he calls this "variation on a theme by Ernest Hemingway" thus: "Yet just as the archly framed hike seems ready to sink into a miasma of flip condescension, something astonishing happens—the couple encounter another rural wanderer, whose threats prompt Alex into an act of cowardice from which the relationship seems unlikely to recover. Loktev’s staging of the crucial moment is expert; her look at the aftermath is poignant and nuanced, culminating in a nocturnal sequence that condenses a world of bitter and incommensurable experience—and an unexpectedly stringent morality—into a single shot. In English and Georgian."

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