Chasms of Despair
Set in the ruggedly majestic and eerily barren Caucasus Mountains, Julia Loktev’s latest film The Loneliest Planet (2011) follows two young hikers and their guide on a journey through the Georgian wilderness. If you watch the film expecting a traditional mountain adventure narrative, you may be disappointed. Certainly there is no shortage of spectacular nature footage, but the story itself contains none of the narrative payoff that traditional nature adventure movies promise. With the Russo-Georgian war written into the background and tension of all variety bursting through the story’s seams, the movie is more about the frailty and unpredictable wilderness of human emotion and the treacherous journey from emotional connection to alienation than it is about tragic or victorious efforts to summit mountains.
Certainly the main characters of The Loneliest Planet, Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) fall into a chasm, but it is not a literal one. Rather, it is the divide that opens up between the couple – a chasm of despair, betrayal, and distrust. While the film is definitely grounded in the physical reality of the vast wilderness where it’s set, that environment’s potential to shift on a whim reflects the interior landscape of the film’s characters and the fragility of their relationship as much as it does the turbulence of nature itself.
In one sense, the picture’s title represents the actual physical earth, whose monumental scope makes the people who occupy it seem miniscule. But the idea of “the loneliest planet” also applies to the human interior landscape; it is what our emotional world can become when we are alienated from ourselves and from each other. The film shows how our inner geography and the terrain that connects us can shift as violently and unpredictably as nature. Loktev merges the characters with their dramatic setting. They reflect each other. And in that complex reflection we come to see a world full of contradictions: culture vs. nature; proximity vs. distance; and intimacy vs. alienation.
The landscape is minimally barren while also vastly foreboding. It seems infinitely open yet oppressively claustrophobic. The characters who occupy it seem small and insignificant in the face of the enormous mountains, yet the terrain of the characters’ internal emotional landscape is as brutally rough as the geography through which they hike. We are thrust into intense close-ups with the characters, forcing us to experience them in almost suffocating proximity, but then the camera pulls back and makes us feel their profound alienation from each other and in relation to the landscape. Nothing is stable, and everything is unpredictable.
It is through this brilliant manipulation of our sense of scale that The Loneliest Planet turns existential alienation into high cinematic art. Loktev makes psychologically tense films by subverting the overt narrative and leading the audience through the difficult terrain of her aggressively abstract emotional minimalism. The Loneliest Planet adapts Tom Bissell’s short story “Expensive Trips to Nowhere” into a 133-minute film with only three significant characters. By stretching the story over two hours with everything hinging on one short moment, the plot moves from sparse to non-existent. We are thrown into a film that demands we “feel” what’s happening on a guttural experiential level delivered through cinematic technique more than screenplay and storyline.
Like Loktev’s previous film Day Night Day Night (2006) which follows 48 hours in the life of a female suicide bomber in New York City, The Loneliest Planet introduces us to its characters in medias res. They are dumped in the middle of a narrative fraught with tension and foreboding menace, yet we are not given the specific details of their circumstances. We are asked to hit the ground running with the characters and figure things out as we witness them unfold. We don’t know that the girl in Day Night Day Night is a suicide bomber until well into the film. And we have no idea in The Loneliest Planet that Alex and Nica are engaged to be married until the movie is almost over. In both these films, we aren’t told what is happening. Instead we have to “feel” what is happening as details are slowly revealed. This approach makes for a very intense way of experiencing films that are laden with emotional complexity.
In The Loneliest Planet, much of the feeling is delivered through sound, environment, lighting, acting and framing since the dialogue is minimal and what dialogue does exist is largely unintelligible. We join the seemingly happy young couple in the middle of a travel adventure. But all their happiness feels precarious and on the verge of some foreboding tragedy. The film opens with the naked Nica jumping violently on a piece of metal sheeting. The noise of her feet hitting metal is nearly deafening, creating a cacophony of sound and disorientation. Close-ups of her wet skin, tangled hair and face show us a woman who is experiencing extreme joy or insufferable trauma; she is either in the throes of ecstasy or plagued by some horrible torment. Alex pours pitchers of water over Nica’s body, and we’re not sure what is happening as the look on Nica’s face could be ecstasy or insanity, and Alex could be desperately tending to a mad woman or happily caring for his loving partner.
The young couple move through unnamed mountain villages, snapping photographs and engaging in unintelligible conversations with others and between themselves. There is a hint of danger in everything they do. Much of the sense of danger is delivered through Loktev’s manipulation of sound and camerawork and the fact that it is so hard to understand what is happening in the movie. Whether walking on their hands, swinging from handrails in a train car, or dancing in a nightclub, Alex and Nica’s actions are infused with a sense of careless abandon that coats the undeniable threat and tension underneath, a sense that things can topple at any moment.
And they do topple. The entire story hinges on one moment when everything between the couple changes. In that single moment, their careless abandon vanishes and the emotional wilderness of human disconnection, betrayal and distrust opens into a vast chasm of alienation. But that moment doesn’t come from nowhere. It builds throughout the film. Over an hour of disorientation and tension leads to that pivotal moment. The constant state of quiet menace combined with the seemingly insurmountable and infinite landscape of the Caucasus Mountains makes us feel the fragile and treacherous terrain of human relationships and that we live in a constant state of emotional hazard whether we are consciously aware of it or not.
Tensions come in many forms and at every turn in the film. The language barrier makes every scene in the film feel strained. Foreign languages are spoken without subtitles. We don’t know what people are saying, what language they are speaking, what their intention is, or where they are leading us. The communications between Nica and Alex consist mostly of inaudible mumbles and sporadic laughter. It isn’t until we are well into the film that we hear muddled American English spoken by Nica. Nica and Alex are constantly practicing conjugating Spanish verbs while they are hiking through the mountains. Nica mispronounces the words, and Alex corrects her. The words are never explained to the audience, and they have no meaning or bearing on the film other than providing further jumbled communications that force us to feel what’s happening through disorientation and tension rather than understand through rational explanation. When Nica and Alex do laugh it is both completely reckless and also laced with a sense of laughing in danger’s face. We’re not sure what they’re laughing at or what the intent of the laughter is.
The communication tensions between Alex, Nica and their guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) are fraught with tension and menace. Dato speaks to the couple with a heavy Georgian accent, closing in on them with his words and his physical presence. We get a sense of underlying disdain in his relationship to the couple. Because of his constant proximity and the fact that we can’t understand him, we are led to believe that he could turn on the couple at any moment. Dato leads their way through the mountains, and his actions are filled with a subtle “unspoken” sense of danger. He hands the couple plants to eat, and we can’t help but wonder if they are poisonous or hallucinogenic. He spends a long time telling a castration joke about a Chinese doctor that involves rocks and crushing male body parts. Dato’s language falls in and out of clarity. The couple looks on with awkward smiles, and we don’t know if they are really enjoying the joke, if Dato is seriously funny, or if he is delivering a threat wrapped in a parable.
We can’t understand anything Dato is saying, and it seems that neither can the couple. In another scene, Dato plays a game with a rope. He eventually ties it around Nica’s wrists in a knot, and she is held captive until he unties it. The threat and sense of sexual taunting seems undeniable, but we can’t understand Dato’s words so we can’t be sure of his intent. We only see his actions and must base our assumptions on very limited information. That is part of the point of the film. When communications fail, we inscribe meaning formed from deeply rooted cultural conditioning combined with primal responses. The film requires that we respond on a guttural level to what we are experiencing, and our gut is informed by our cultural expectations, especially those based on gender roles.
The sound and the setting in the film add to the tension. We don’t even learn the actual geographic location until during the last twenty minutes when Dato talks about his life. Up until that point, we are in a geographic nowhere land (unless we have read something about the film that places it in the Caucasus Mountains). Nothing in the film itself gives us geographical grounding, so we are immediately plunged into wandering in a state of dislocation. The sound of the movie fluctuates between grand music that underscores the vastness of the landscape and the sound of the hikers’ feet walking over rocks. One scene shows the hikers in microscopic scale as they enter the picture from off screen and then traverse a trail across the screen in real time. In this scene, the mountains seem infinitely huge and the hikers infinitesimally small.
Yet as large as the landscape is, we do not feel freedom but claustrophobia. I felt myself holding my breath watching them make this long trek across the mountains, and I felt nearly suffocated by the time they reached the other end of the screen. The primary action in the film is walking as the hikers walk over rocks, across mud, through fields, and across streams, but we do not know to what end they are walking. It’s just a continual series of sound and movement. Wind whips through the landscape. Rain pours on plastic sheeting. A single bird screeches across the sky. The sound of a tent zipper is as jarring as machine gun fire. It is a landscape of nothingness, and what fills it is the tension between the characters.
Loktev oscillates between close-ups and long shots to further disorient us. At some points, the characters’ heads bulge off the screen. At others, the characters linger at the margins with the landscape pushing out between them. The way the characters are framed in relation to each other provides further complexity and tension. When the movie starts, Nica and Alex are inseparable. They do everything together. As they continue on their journey, distance grows between them. Nica begins walking by Dato’s side with Alex lingering behind as we feel the growing distance and underlying sexual tension in the film. Regardless of whether Loktev is closing in on her characters or pulling back and letting the landscape fill the frame, the result is equally claustrophobic. There is no escaping the emotional tension in the film whether we are thrust in the faces of the characters or our eyes are filled with the barren majesty of the mountains.
When the pivotal moment occurs and we reach the scene that changes everything, again we have no idea what is going on. There is a confrontation. Words are spoken that we don’t understand. People enter the scene, and we don’t know who they are. Alex and Nica respond from a combination of primal and cultural responses. They seem to have as little control over their responses as they do of the clouds which eventually open up and drench them with rain. This one moment operates like an earthquake between the couple, causing a rift in their emotional landscape that may never close. We are left with a portrait of devastating alienation and a complex picture of the reality of our primal nature versus the artifice of our cultural conditioning.
The incident divides Alex and Nica, and the barren emotional wasteland that opens up between them is utterly vast and all-consuming. There are no angry words spoken, no long explanations, excuses or apologies. There is only silence and empty space. The acting and filmmaking make the distance between Alex and Nica a tangible thing. All the wreckless joy is wiped from their faces, the color from their skin, and the very life from their bodies as they walk listlessly and joylessly through the mountains. They occupy opposite sides of the screen, the landscape between them filled with rocks and mud. They wander disconnected and emotionally removed through an old abandoned house, the wrecked remains of a home in the middle of nowhere, a symbol of their failed ideals.
We can’t really look at what happens in the movie and not question gender roles and expectations. Dato’s castration joke didn’t come out of nowhere. Certainly he was commenting on Nica and Alex’s relationship. Nica inserts herself into the narrative as a woman who forcefully attempts to be independent. She demonstrates her physical strength and endurance at every turn. In one scene when they cross a dangerous cable bridge over a chasm, Nica insists that she can do it on her own. She crosses it, loses her footing, catches herself, then laughs, insistent that she is as strong as any man. In another scene, she and Alex have a handstand competition in front of a monumentally huge mountain. They count how long they can hold the stance. In a gender reversal demonstration of physical strength, Nica takes the lead by maintaining a firm, fixed unmoving position while Alex struggles to maintain his balance. Their bodies dressed in green merge perfectly with the landscape of the mountains, and they are both part of the unforgiving landscape while alien from it. In many ways, Nica is the naïve American woman who has the cultural luxury to travel the world and demonstrate her freedom. She physically takes on the world while being clueless of the threats that she may encounter in the places she travels both externally and internally. She thinks she has conquered primal nature through physical and cultural advantage, but primal nature is beyond conquest.
When the incident occurs that drives Alex and Nica apart, all Nica’s notions of gender are thrown out the window. Survival instincts and primal responses get mixed up with socially coded gender roles, and Nica and Alex end up being alienated from each other and from themselves. What follows in the film is as complex and unexplainable as the actions that drive Nica and Alex apart. On the one hand, we understand the primal response that led to the rift; on the other, we are aware of the cultural roles that condition us to expect a different response.
As the relationship disintegrates, we are led to believe that Nica will prove to be the weak one who has gone mad or insane. Yet as Loktev manipulates the characters’ positions in relation to each other and the landscape, we see that Alex is the one struggling with a kind of madness, shame and emasculation. He has become the “castrated” punch line in a random trick of chance. But nothing is that clear and simple. In a scene which mirrors the bridge crossing earlier in the film, Nica attempts to cross a rushing river independently when she falls in. It is Dato, not Alex, who pulls her out of the water and carries her to safety in a moment of masculine chivalry. In that one moment, Nica seems to comprehend on some primal level that her vision of gender independence was flawed, or at least not as clear-cut as she liked to believe. She wants to be saved, which is in direct contradiction to the earlier scene when she insists on only helping herself. But all of these complications are not “told” to us; rather, we are asked to experience them through the environment and tensions created by the filmmaker and the actors.
The only intelligible narrative in the film takes place in the last twenty minutes when Dato and Nica get drunk by the campfire while Alex holes up in a tent. All factual details and comprehensive narrative are contained in this one campfire scene. Dato tells Nica his story, and this is when we learn that the film takes place with the Russo-Georgian war as a backdrop, and that the tension of that war and America’s relationship to the landscape quietly underscores the many divides and tensions within the film. Dato tells a story of his failed sense of duty and the emotional legacy of his own betrayals to himself and his family.
This is also the scene when we learn that Alex and Nica are engaged to be married as Dato asks Nica when the wedding will be held. At one point, the sexual tension between Dato and Nica surfaces when Dato kisses Nica while her fiancé broods in the tent. Dato attempts to play counterpoint to Alex’s castrated male, but Nica eventually pushes him off. Dato’s story underscores the failings of Nica and Alex – their own betrayals to themselves and each other, and it also emphasizes the complex tensions between primal emotional and sexual impulses versus cultural codes that inform much of the film.
The scene ends with Nica joining Alex in the tent. They attempt to have sex, but Nica rolls over disengaged and eventually leaves the tent to puke into the landscape. She bends over and vomits out everything – the booze she drank, the lies she was living, the poison between her and Alex, and her failed ideals. It all comes up from her stomach as Alex stands behind her, patting her back more as an impotent gesture of resignation than comfort.
The movie ends at daybreak when the hikers pack up their tents in silence. Wind whips through the landscape as the three characters disassemble tent poles. The last “human” sound we hear in the film is the sound of a zipper closing a tent with finality. No words are spoken as the characters are left in the middle of the wilderness of their emotions and the landscape that surrounds them. The zipper is closed, and there is nowhere to go except to keep walking.
I walked out of the theater overwhelmed by this literally breathtaking piece of experiential cinema. Even though it feels so alienating and claustrophobic that I often felt like I couldn’t breathe, I still was completely immersed in the physical and emotional landscape of the film for its entire 133 minute running time. When I walked out onto the sidewalk and took that first breath of fresh air, I was almost knocked off my feet with relief. Yet, I was throttled by the power of Loktev’s filmmaking. No one is making movies like her. Through their abstract emotional minimalism, they ask us to question our own tumultuous relation to our interior and exterior landscapes in ways that no other films are doing. I would gladly take a journey to The Loneliest Planet again, even if the trek seems infinitely insurmountable.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at email@example.com.