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A Filmmaker’s Shock and Awe

Russian-born Julia Loktev’s haunting new The Loneliest Planet sends beautiful youth into the wilderness

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Gael García Bernal, Bidzina Gujabidze, and Hani Furstenberg in The Loneliest Planet, directed by Julia Loktev. (Inti Briones)

Julia Loktev called her first feature, a documentary about the sudden accident that forever changed her parents’ lives, Moment of Impact. It’s a title that could apply to Loktev’s brilliant second feature, Day Night Day Night (2006), as well as her latest, opening this week, The Loneliest Planet.

The phrase could also describe Loktev’s aesthetic. The Russian-born filmmaker isn’t exactly a disciple of Sergei Eisenstein, but her approach is suggestive of an assertion Eisenstein made in his first published article “Montage of Attractions.” He was writing on theater but soon applied his ideas to cinema: The medium’s “basic materials” are found in the spectator and arise “from our guiding of the spectator into a desired direction (or a desired mood).” Accordingly, the audience is subjected to a calculated series of surprises or jolts.

That cine Loktev is, to some degree, predicated on the nature of shock (including the shock of “non-recognition”) may also have something to do with her childhood. The filmmaker was relocated at age 9, brought by her parents, both computer scientists, from the city then called Leningrad to deepest America (Loveland, Colo.). Thus transplanted, Loktev has perhaps taken as her mission a desire to unsettle, as The Loneliest Planet surely does with its account of two innocents abroad.

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Loktev’s movies are at once cerebral and visceral and scaled-down for intimate intensity. Essentially experimental in her approach to audience manipulation, she made her way to cinema through sound art and video installations. Moment of Impact (1998) was a highly personal and disturbingly intrusive documentary on the daily life of the filmmaker’s severely disabled father as well as a portrait of her mother, devoting herself to the care of a helpless man whose emotional affect was destroyed in a split second as he crossed the street.

The “moment of impact” is eternal. Loktev can do little more than observe her parents’ situation and insist we do the same. At one point, her mother plays a CD of sound effects that by sad coincidence happens to contain the unmistakable sounds of a car crash. (Her father doesn’t respond.) Writing in The Nation, Stuart Klawans called Moment of Impact “a film about the impenetrabilities we all run up against in family life, only more so. … It’s also about the emotional distance that exists between the subject of any documentary and the filmmaker—or for that matter between the subject and the audience.”

If Moment of Impact projects viewer discomfort as a state of being, Day Night Day Night—a movie that tracks 24 hours in the life of a would-be suicide bomber—evoked terror as existential condition. The movie is an abstract thriller that, as its title implies, has two halves. The first is devoted to the terrorist’s preparation: A frail-looking young woman is brought to an anonymous motel room where she is drilled, outfitted, and videotaped by masked handlers. Politics are never mentioned; process is all. Day Night Day Night’s second half begins with the unnamed woman’s emergence from the Port Authority Bus Terminal into the sensory bombardment of midday Eighth Avenue. She wanders through Times Square, an explosive device in her backpack and her finger on the switch.

As the moment of impact approaches, the tension mounts until one realizes that Day Night Day Night has nothing to do with the psychology of the suicide bomber and everything to do with the psychology of the spectator. Although less overtly schematic than Day Night Day Night, The Loneliest Planet—freely adapted from McSweeney’s writer Tom Bissell’s short story “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” published in his collection God Lives in St. Petersburg—is an equally unsettling exercise in directing the audience. Nica and Alex, a frisky pair of 30-ish backpackers played by Israeli-American actress Hani Furstenberg and Mexican star Gael García Bernal, hike into the ruggedly beautiful Caucasian outback; led by a laconic guide Dato (Georgian mountaineer Bidzina Gujabidze, a man who twice scaled Mt. Everest), they venture off the road and outside the global village, to experience their own life-changing instant.

Loktev is far more subtle in her orchestration and far less apt to pass judgment on her characters than was Hemingway. That’s our job, if we can manage it.

Nica and Alex are seasoned, if youthful, travelers, attached to the adventurous tourism associated with the Australian guidebooks to which the movie’s title alludes. They seem notable in their openness to experience and high-spirited mutual affection. They radiate the self-enjoyment of the blessed—and they are beautiful. The flames of Furstenberg’s luxuriant red hair all but sear the screen; the movie could almost be an ad for the cargo pants she models. The couple is on holiday and their trek into the grassy, treeless mountains is as gorgeous as any National Geographic travelogue. (“I really grew up with this mythical image of Georgia,” Loktev told an interviewer. “It was the vacation paradise of the Soviet Union. My parents traveled there, my mother once did a three-week trek through the Caucasus Mountains when she was in university. And then I got the idea for the film while I was traveling in Georgia.”)

A triumphantly visual movie, The Loneliest Planet develops an interplay between freedom and confinement. Loktev keeps her camera close to her actors, then cuts back to show them dwarfed by the majestic, indifferent landscape. The space is epic but the sky is rarely seen, contributing to a sense of enclosure. (According to the filmmaker, cinematographer Inti Briones deliberately eschewed showing the tops of the mountains.) Loktev films certain activities in real time to heighten the sense of film as lived experience; narrative arises naturally out of the situation. Dato, who in the way of guides feels obliged to entertain his employers with interesting bits of local nature lore, is noticeably attentive to Nica. Perhaps he is only being polite, but a triangle inevitably emerges.

The underlying sexual tension should resonate for anyone familiar with the pathology of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” or the dynamics of Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water. Loktev, however, is far more subtle in her orchestration and far less apt to pass judgment on her characters than was Hemingway. That’s our job, if we can manage it. At several times in the movie, including its opening moments, we hear something before we see it, and more than once we see something but, without knowledge of Russian or Georgian, cannot understand it.

Like Day Night Day Night, The Loneliest Planet has a two-part structure. For the movie’s first half, Nica and Alex are exploring a kind of paradise. (They are reading A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov’s romantic novel of military doings in the 19th-century Caucasian wilderness, but they have no sense that contemporary Georgia might possibly be a war zone.) Almost exactly midway through the movie, something happens that changes their relationship to each other as well as their relationship with the guide. The hinge between the film’s two parts is an enigmatic but undeniable threat and an all-too-human response. Here, the moment of impact is neither an automobile accident nor an explosion, but Alex’s instinctual, unconscious, perhaps even reflexive, act and Nica’s emotional reaction to it.

For the hitherto happy tourists, the world has turned inexplicably dangerous; the couple’s innocence is lost. Nica feels betrayed. Alex is frozen, no longer himself. (Writing this, I cannot help but think of the filmmaker’s father.) At least, this attribution of feeling is how we might imagine what has happened to Nica and Alex. From a film narrative point of view, the event is a Hitchcockian stunt. We see something unfold without fully understanding what exactly is going on—just like Nica and Alex. They have no language with which to talk about the event, and Dato, who grasps exactly what happened, volunteers no explanation.

The trip goes on in painful silence. The landscape gets a bit stranger—and even a little allegorical. The party stops to rest beside some sort of industrial installation. Without much enthusiasm, the couple explores a damp cavern and ruined house that might have appeared in Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Alex is unsure how to reestablish contact. Nica sends him mixed messages and, when he fails to respond, she gradually reconnects with Dato—most dramatically when she slips and falls into a stream from which she is grateful to be swept up and carried out by the guide. Once again, Alex is betrayed by his instincts. That’s it, save for a drunken evening in which, still without addressing the Inexplicable Incident, Nica and Alex expose a bit more of their individual natures and Dato reveals something of his story. In a way, he’s guiding us to a deeper, darker place.

“A story with such an unusual beginning must also have an unusual ending,” one character tells another in A Hero of Our Time. The Loneliest Planet opens with a banging fanfare; its final note is a diminuendo, albeit only in the sense that the thing that happens midway through the movie continues to reverberate right through to the last frame. Day dawns and the planet is no less beautiful. But every one of its inhabitants—or at least the three whom we have had the chance to study—is very much alone.

CORRECTION, October 26: This article originally stated that in Moment of Impact Loktev plays a CD of sound effects to see if her father will respond. It is Loktev’s mother who plays the CD for her husband, and the car crash sound is heard by coincidence, not intent.

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Julia Loktev writes:

It is always an honor to have J. Hoberman write about my work. I discover new things about my films (and perhaps myself) through his insights. However, here I must take issue with one crucial detail. Georgia was not a war zone at the time we shot and is not a war zone now, and my many Georgian friends would be quite insulted at that suggestion. We shot in 2010, two years after a 5-day war with Russia. We were certainly not shooting in South Ossetia or Abkhazia, the regions that were the focus of the war and of ongoing territorial disputes. The area where we shot in has not been a war zone at all in the post-Soviet times. Georgia today is a quite peaceful and stable society, and there are quite a few travelers there, though the ghosts of past wars do lurk in the background, and the film reflects this. In the film, Nica asks, “Were you in the war?,” suggesting the couple do have an awareness of this. (She doesn’t say, “Oh wow, so like there was a war here, no way!”) I would never want to make a film about people blithely traveling in a war zone. Thank you again. Julia Loktev

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A Filmmaker’s Shock and Awe

Russian-born Julia Loktev’s haunting new The Loneliest Planet sends beautiful youth into the wilderness