Written & Directed By Julia Loktev
(Based on a story by Tom Bissell)
Key Performances: Hani Furstenberg
with Gael Garcia Bernal and Bidzina Gujabidze
Summary: The Loneliest Planet is the story of a 30 year old woman named Nica (Hani Furstenberg) who travels well off the beaten path with her fiancé Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and their Georgian guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze).
These three people are quite alone in the wild, and despite the quiet that surrounds them, the mountains of Georgia are filled with danger. Nica is strong, athletic, and physically adroit . . . until something happens that shakes her confidence.
Julia Loktev, excelling as both director and screenwriter, based her plot for The Loneliest Planet on Tom Bissells story ”Expensive Trips Nowhere”, but there are crucial differences. Most important is the central point of view, which Loktev has changed from male to female. We walk along with Nica for long stretches of time, hearing what she hears and seeing what she sees, as if the camera has been lodged right inside her body.
The Loneliest Planet is terrific, a masterful example of how film, as a medium, can transport us into the body of someone like Nica, and make the world a larger and more vivid place than it ever could have been before we made this trip with her.
Flashback Number One: I’m walking down a street in suburban New Jersey with my best friend. I am a high school senior, a virgin, and a budding Feminist. “But maybe there are good reasons for statutory rape laws,” I say to her. “After all, inside we’re just holes.” “You may be ‘just a hole,’” she replies indignantly, “but I’m an active hole!”
Flashback Number Two: I’m in a hotel room in Indiana. I am a computer consultant—educated, accomplished, and happily married. But the night before I had had a frightening incident on a dark highway, and now I’m having sexual fantasies about the mechanic who rescued me.
I’m beginning my review in Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine because these are the vivid memories that sprang to mind after watching Julia Loktev’s remarkable new film The Loneliest Planet. I’m betting many women can recall similar moments, moments when the need to be a strong, modern, independent woman clashed with a deep internal longing for male protection, moments that are rarely, if ever, depicted on the big screen.
The Loneliest Planet is the story of a 30 year old woman named “Nica” (Hani Furstenberg) who travels well off the beaten path with her fiancé “Alex” (Gael Garcia Bernal).
The title references a company named “Lonely Planet.” Here is my summary of Wikipedia’s lengthy description: “Lonely Planet is the largest travel guide book and digital media publisher in the world . . . One of the first series of travel books aimed at backpackers and other low-cost travelers, Lonely Planet currently publishes about 500 titles in 8 languages, as well as TV programs, a magazine, mobile phone applications and websites.”
Lonely Planet is owned by BBC Worldwide, so its writers now cover some pretty fancy places (Amsterdam, Montreal and San Francisco are all featured on today’s homepage), but in Loktev’s film Nica and Alex have gone somewhere way off the typical tourist map. The Loneliest Planet is set in the Central Asian nation of Georgia (historically one of the Soviet Socialist Republics in the now defunct USSR).
Here’s how the Lonely Planet website describes Georgia: “With sublimely perched old churches, watchtowers and castles dotting its fantastic mountain scenery, Georgia has to be one of the most beautiful countries on earth.” And traveling with Nica and Alex on their trip, this is exactly what we see.
But the website also cautions: “Travel Alert: The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office recommends against all travel to some areas and against all non-essential travel to others, please check with your relevant national government.” And by the end of The Loneliest Planet, we have learned the meaning of these sobering words too.
Loktev, excelling as both director and screenwriter, based her plot for The Loneliest Planet on Tom Bissell’s story “Expensive Trips Nowhere” (published in the 2005 collection God Lives in St. Petersburg), but there are crucial differences. Jayne and Douglas, the central couple in Bissell’s story, are clearly Americans and they carry a lot of explicitly American baggage with them (both literal and figurative). The narrator is Douglas, and most of what happens is described from his point of view. Their guide is Viktor, a Russian now living in Kazakhstan (where Bissell’s original story is set).
In The Loneliest Planet, by contrast, Nica and Alex are never identified as Americans nor do they carry around any shiny new American stuff. Gael Garcia Bernal is an internationally known actor who has starred in Oscar-nominated films by Mexican directors Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros and Babel) and Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También). Hani Furstenberg, although born in the USA, is best known for well-regarded supporting roles in films by prominent Israeli directors like Joseph Cedar (Campfire) and Eytan Fox (Yossi and Jagger). Although clearly from the “First World,” Nica and Alex have no backstory. They could have arrived in Georgia from almost anywhere; we know them only as they are, in Georgia.
The guide in The Loneliest Planet is named “Dato” (played by Georgian mountaineer Bidzina Gujabidze), and we do learn a bit about his past. In a crucial scene near the end, Dato describes his life, complete with a wife and child who are absent from Bissell’s version. In Loktev’s hands, the Georgian native emerges from the backdrop to become a character with heft and dimensionality.
Most critical, however, is the central point of view, which Loktev has changed from male to female. While driving her characters to the drop off point for their hike, Loktev fixes her camera on the nape of Nica’s neck, and she buries it in the luxuriant hair gathered there—tendrils flying everywhere—as we ascend the mountain. There is very little dialogue; no voiceovers, or verbal explanations. We simply walk along with Nica, side-by-side, for long stretches of time, hearing what she hears and seeing what she sees, as if the camera has been lodged right inside her body.
I was frankly mesmerized by the hypnotic visuals, the subtle movements and gestures that slowly reveal interpersonal dynamics and point to individual destinies. Nica, Alex, and Dato walk and walk; facing the challenges of rocks and rivers, they climb higher and higher until something happens and they have to get back down. Well of course “something happens,” although I won’t be the one to tell you what. These three people are quite alone in the wild, and despite the quiet that surrounds them, the mountains of Georgia are filled with danger.
Flashback Number Three: I’m on a plush vacation in Hawaii. We get off the van at a cliffside overlook, but our guide wants us to climb higher for a better view. Surrounded by thick roots and wet leaves, I freeze. I know if I go up, I’ll likely slip coming down. My husband laughs at me and suddenly I’m alone, gazing out over the serene peninsula that once contained the infamous Molokai Leper Colony.
Nica has none of my fears: she’s strong, athletic, and physically adroit . . . until “something happens” that shakes her confidence. The ascent was merely ominous, but the descent is treacherous, and I love that Loktev knows this and plots her narrative accordingly. (In Bissell’s story, Douglas has arranged for a helicopter to scoop them up at the top and shuttle them back to civilization.)
The Loneliest Planet is terrific, a masterful example of how film, as a medium, can transport us from inside the head of someone like Douglas into the body of someone like Nica, and make the world a larger more vivid place than it ever could have been before we made this trip with her.
Gael Garcia Bernal,
Bidzina Gujabidze, and Hani Furstenberg
© Jan Lisa Huttner (10/25/12)—Special for WomenArts
Photo credits: Courtesy of IFC.