The second narrative feature from writer/director Julia Loktev (Day Night Day Night played TIFF in 2006), The Loneliest Planet stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg as Alex and Nica, a newly-engaged couple who hire a guide (played by real-life guide Bidzina Gujabidze) to lead them on a backpacking trip in the mountains of Georgia. The title, an apparent play on the Lonely Planet travel guides designed for boho tourists like Loktev's couple, takes on more complicated connotations as the trio delve into rugged, desolate terrain, both literally and figuratively.
The movie opens with the most disarming image I've seen at the festival thus far.
A body, naked but doused in milky white soap suds, pogoes up and down, feet creating a violent drum beat against an unseen platform. With the body's slender build and the velocity of its motion, for awhile its difficult to tell if we're looking at a male or female, an adult or a child. For me to reveal how that ambiguity resolves would spoil the visceral, breathtaking power of the shot. This is a problem which one who has seen Loktev's arresting feature faces again and again in trying to describe it to someone who hasn't. Within Loktev's scantly plotted narrative, single images become spoiler-worthy events.
In fact, what plot there is in Planet hinges on another single shot, which comes about an hour in, and, like the opening image although briefer, combines a kind of violence with a scrambling of traditional markers of gender identity. This moment is edge-of-your-seat stunning precisely because you don't know what's going to happen next, and Loktev has established a space in which it seems that absolutely anything could.
Loktev is extraordinarily attuned to minute specifics of emotion. She also seems to thrive on setting up limitations and then plowing through them: huge chunks of the film pass with no dialogue, but plenty said; a sex scene that takes place in three-quarters darkness manages to squirm-inducingly evoke sweaty, cramped rutting mostly via sound effect. As painterly as naturalistic, linear narrative cinema gets, Planet is literally a study in colors--the vibrant green landscape, blue or green lit interiors, Furstenberg's wild red hair filling the frame--and also the gradient scale of a single relationship.