The meat of Julia Loktev’s “The Loneliest Planet” stems from a single action that lasts no more than five seconds, nearly an hour into the film, and is never referenced again. An unfortunately timed bathroom break would render the second half unintelligible. There’s no denying that this structure is daring in its unwillingness to pander to inattentive viewers, but it’s a substantive artistic choice, too — a reflection of the reality that one moment can change the entirety of a life.
That said, even the most dedicated of viewers will be tested by the long, meandering lead-up to the critical event, given that in contemporary cinema, we expect the inciting incident to arrive five minutes into the film, not 55. Engaged couple Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael García Bernal), about whom writer/director Loktev tells the audience little, hire a local tour-guide (Bidzina Gujabidze) to take them backpacking through the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia. They do a lot of walking, a little talking (mainly Alex teaching Nica to speak Spanish), tumble down a grassy hill like schoolchildren, and appear to be in love. Loktev often cuts to beautiful long shots that showcase the mountains, seemingly acknowledging that these characters aren’t particularly interesting early on.
But then, all of a sudden, everything changes with the aforementioned consequence-laden occurrence — the key distinction between “The Loneliest Planet” and Gus Van Sant’s plotless “Gerry,” the other notable movie primarily composed of extended takes of people walking through a remote landscape. In its second half, Loktev’s film has a clear narrative and accompanying ideas, even if they’re explored on an almost exclusively internal basis through the evolving, unspoken dynamic between Nica and Alex.
Now, whether the narrative and ideas, which center around what is perceived as an act of cowardice and betrayal, are complex enough to justify an entire feature, I’m not entirely sure. Without getting into spoilers–the spontaneous nature of the film’s turning point is critical to its core message–I will say that “The Loneliest Planet” at times reminded me of an Interpersonal Communication class I took in college, in which students were assigned to read dozens of government-funded studies that reached seemingly obvious conclusions about human behavior like, “People tell lies when they perceive that the consequences of telling the truth exceed those of telling a lie and the likelihood of being caught in the lie is low.”
Nonetheless, even if “The Loneliest Planet” uses its game-changing moment to explore unsurprising emotional truths, Furstenberg and Bernal are so achingly authentic in the directions they take their characters’ internal struggles that they evoke enough sympathy and empathy in the audience to guarantee valuable viewer reflection on the human condition. For as grueling as Loktev’s minimalist stylistic approach can be during the first half, it sure gives the actors unparalleled freedom to explore a wide range of tortured feelings in the second. Many viewers will find this too small a reward for all the time and patience that the film requires to reach it, but those looking for a different-than-usual kind of storytelling may just connect with “The Loneliest Planet.”