Life is Good, but Good Life is Better: Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, featuring Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg

By Daniel Garrett

The Loneliest Planet
Directed by Julia Loktev
Parts and Labor/Flying Moon Production
Sundance Selects, 2012

It is one of the ironies of life—absurd, amusing, bitter, tragic—that the trials we prepare for as being difficult and significant are rarely the ones that most trouble us: and after the intimate and trusting couple, Alex and Nica, in The Loneliest Planet visit Asia and hire a guide to take them on foot through the mountainous terrain of Georgia, they have a few experiences that shake them: they are accosted during their trip and, for a moment, the man, Alex, does something that suggests that he loves himself more than he loves the woman, Nica.  Then, when Nica falls into a stream, Alex is the second man, not the first, to reach her and help.  Is Alex as loving, and as dependable, as she thought?  They pull away from each other and it is not clear that their relationship will survive.  Their journey has become spiritual as well as geographic, achieving a danger and strangeness equal to the great landscapes they traverse.  Gael Garcia Bernal plays Alex and Hani Furstenberg plays Nica and Bidzina Gujabidze plays their guide Dato, an older man who has his own sad story and who, after shared stories and drinking, feels close to Nica.  The natural beauty of a regal wilderness and the charm of an old culture are captivating, but the film, inspired by a Tom Bissell story, “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” turns on the kind of tale of challenged love that anyone could see himself or herself in.

Gael Garcia Bernal as Alex is goofily sweet and moodily sultry, and the red-haired Hani Furstenberg as Nica is original, seeming natural and experimental, sensitive and sensuous with traits yet to be charted.  The man and woman in the story, Alex and Nica, are lovers and peers, with what seems sibling closeness, though a strong sexual current is evident in their relationship.  What happens in the film allows a consideration of the new masculinity, which can seem like no masculinity at all.  Women have criticized the old patriarchal model, but the new model is not yet perfected.  The Loneliest Planet is one of those films in which little seems to be happening—but the journey in it is both intimate and grand, and what the film contains is worth time and thought: ordinary life, strange culture, personal relations, complexity, and sex.  It takes the time to show encounters with children and old people, to notice a spider web, and to display a game of catch played with Anonymous, and a hilariously awkward dance in a local bar.  The paths the tourist couple takes is long, sometimes desolate, sometimes awesome, sometimes both; and they walk over tiny bridges above rushing waters and over sharp rocks near jagged mountains.  The guide Dato, played by Bidzina Gujabidze, finds a mineral rock he says has healing properties, and also wild cumin that they can eat; and Dato tells Alex and Nica a long joke about Chinese population control and official brutality.  Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) suggests something of how far cultures and cultural prejudices travel when Dato says he wants to buy a car, but that American cars are faulty—possibly because of black workers—and that he would prefer a Japanese car, for he can trust the quality.  The importance of a guide becomes apparent when the tour encounters strangers and when there is a rupture between the couple: Dato offers protection, help, company, a bond.  It is odd that we learn more about the guide, a foreigner, than we do about the westerners: his story is one of work, war, drink, marital separation, and a car accident. The couple comes back together when Nica goes out to meet Alex in the rain and shares her covering with him, and then returns to their ritual of Alex suggesting verbs for her to conjugate.  It feels like life, and it looks like art.  Some of the film’s images are like paintings—realist, Impressionist, and Abstract Expressionist; and the film has a great angular, throbbing modern musical score.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.