Writer-director Julia Lotkev’s The Loneliest Planet is based on a short story, and you can tell. Throughout most of this drama about an engaged couple touring the Caucasus Mountains, nothing happens. Then something happens, ever so briefly. But it’s enough to alter the dynamic between the two lovers and their guide, and the change is as sizable as the mountain range itself.
Alex (Gael García Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) are a young, handsome pair vacationing before their wedding. They’re playful, athletic, and obviously in love, making games out of standing on their heads, coiling themselves around the poles of an abandoned bus, running up and then rolling down hills. She has him test her Spanish by giving her verbs to conjugate. It’s all pretty adorable, and they don’t damper their friskiness even when they’re joined by a local guide, Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze). They just put a bit of distance between themselves and Dato and return to flirting in their own little world.
For most of the film’s nearly two hours, the three travelers are the only characters we see—often, their tiny figures are set against wide shots of enormous green hills, highlighting their isolation. But suddenly some other men appear, seemingly arguing with Dato and then pulling a gun on the couple when they dare move. What happens next is so unexpected it may make you gasp.
Before the incident, Alex is loving and attentive, while Nica exudes an I-am-woman confidence. (“I’m strong,” she says at one point, when they have to carry stuff. And later when they’re crossing a ravine on a veritable tightrope: “I don’t need help, I’m fine.”) Dato tells jokes and personal stories. Afterward, however, all three may as well be on separate continents, with Alex turning sheepish, Nica doubtful, and Dato just staying out of it.
Lotkev stretches the material as far as it can possibly go, and, somewhat remarkably, it works. The tone is almost lulling as we watch these three hike quietly among the hills, as though it’s a Eurasian Meek’s Cutoff. You feel the affection between the couple before pre-Event and the awkwardness between them post-. And though the action doesn’t exactly pick up in the film’s second half—except for Dato’s somewhat uncomfortable opening up about his personal life—the very nothingness that continues amps up your anticipation about what will happen, because something’s got to, right?
Well, not really. The film ends with less flair than it had at its beginning (much less, actually, considering that the opening scene is Nica soaped up, naked, and jumping up and down to keep warm), and though the closing shot still leaves us wondering about the fate of the couple, it caps a satisfying-enough experience. If nothing else, The Loneliest Planet offers you a leisurely, intimate look at nature, both of the Earth and of humankind itself.