(Julia Loktev, 2011)
Engaged to be married, Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) are travelling through the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia. They engage a local guide, Dato (Bidzina Gudjabinze) to lead them through a particularly empty and stunning stretch of wilderness.
This is the basis of the first hour of Loktev's exceptional film. This young couple are plainly middle class Westerners - the type who like to go to relatively untouristed places like Georgia. Nica and Dato later discuss the many exotic countries she has visited, and she and Alex are smilingly interested in everything they encounter. They flirt and play with one another as they walk through some ravishingly beautiful landscapes, and the sensual intimacy of their relationship - and how much of it may be based on an intuitive, largely wordless communication - is established in the opening scene, where Alex washes Nica's hair in a little guesthouse bedroom.
Dato initially seems quiet and somewhat mysterious, but he opens up as they travel, revealing a quiet, slightly melancholy personality. All of this Loktev's alert, incisive eye captures, her camera tracking close alongside these people as they walk and noting every gesture, glance and nuance they exchange. The dynamics of the relationships here are beautifully calibrated, and the few ominous notes struck in the first act ring loudly through the vast, empty valleys of the story, introducing a vital tension to what might otherwise be a well-executed but pointless mixture of character study and travelogue.
And then, at around the midpoint of the film, something happens. The potential for violence appears suddenly, and the way one of the characters responds in that moment changes the dynamic between these people, changes the way they see one another, changes the way they see themselves. The moment is brief but shocking, its impact colossal.
Both are in shock for a while afterward, and here Loktev's method really shows its worth. We can see that they are now blind to the beauty around them, their gazes turned only inward, the intimacy between them blasted away by what has happened. Dato's presence - and his old-fashioned, uncompromised masculinity - complicates their relationship further.
Loktev mixes her close-ups of the faces of her principals with longer shots, acknowledging but never overplaying the beauty of her locations. Perhaps most impressive is the way she frames these figures in relation to one another - few films are so good on the subtleties of body language, on the way people move apart and together. She sticks mostly to a mastershot style, with few cuts and simple, precisely chosen compositions suiting the quiet, timeless setting for the story. Her greatest talent seems to be her ability to imbue her story and themes into her mise-en-scene. She does this, making her film almost claustrophobically intent on the relationship of the central couple while never forgetting the vastness of the deep green wilderness surrounding them.
This sort of film demands a lot of an audience; close attention, a willingness to interpret, a degree of patience with ambiguity and deliberate pacing. But it is entirely worthwhile in this case. For all that much is elusive here, there is a haunting quality to The Loneliest Planet. It may frustrate somewhat, but it is provocative and - in its technical credits, from Inti Briones' superb cinematography to Richard Skelton's score - thoroughly beautiful throughout. All three actors are excellent, and for all its artistic ambition, its central ideas are universal and fascinating.
Together with Loktev's last film Day Night Day Night, it suggests that Loktev is one of the great rising talents of International cinema, and it is worth watching for whatever she does next.