In a movie, when a woman says to her fiance, “Give me a verb,” the filmmaker responsible for that line obviously differs from most of her peers. It’s a way of asking for action, without actually asking for action. When asked in “The Loneliest Planet,” “give me a verb” is part of a game the couple plays: He’s been teaching her Spanish, she conjugates the words he tosses out. It follows a primal and decisive split-second reaction to danger that happens at the film’s halfway point. That response is very much the reason to see this movie, which Julia Loktev has written and directed with a haunting emphasis on the shortcomings of some interpersonal communication.
Before the incident, Nica and Alex (Hani Furstenberg and Gael Garcia Bernal) have been enjoying a blissful, days-long trek in the Georgian Caucasus. They stand with a herd of sheep. They cross streams on a pipe-and-wire bridge. They leap across boulders. They eat wild cumin. They count the seconds they can remain erect in a headstand (“one chimpanzee, two chimpanzees . . .”). They weather taunts and tales of their dour Georgian guide, Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze). If it’s not quite heaven, it is the sort of ethereal travel experience two young outdoorspeople and probable yoga-doers thrive on. And then that placidity changes with one encounter. The trip continues but it’s not the same, even after Nica and Alex attempt to put it past them. They’ve crossed into some new place.
And Loktev’s filmmaking takes note. A journey that had been traveling from the left of the camera frame to the right starts to move mostly in the opposite direction. And the long shots which were already long to begin with seem to get wider and wider and wider, until you can no longer see the people within the landscape. The microclimates suddenly seem meteorological, psychological, and emotional. And the soundtrack conjures violence in an act as uneventful as the unzipping of a tent. Loktev is an uncommonly gifted filmmaker, born in Leningrad, raised in the United States. She’s made three movies — “Moment of Impact” (1998) and “Day Night Day Night” (2006) are the previous two — and I can’t think of a newish American director whose ideas about the cinematic scale and use of space are as consistently vivid and purposeful. Like Paul Thomas Anderson, she appears to be the sort of director who works only when she has something to say.
What’s happened in “The Loneliest Planet,” which borrows its core premise from a very different Tom Bissell short story (“Expensive Trips Nowhere”), takes the couple by surprise. The love between Nica and Alex is strong. He cares for her. The film opens with the surreal sound and sight of Nica hopping up and down naked in a washtub. She’s freezing, waiting for Alex to pour warm water over her tremendous red hair. That introduction receives an unhappy rhyming shot later on, after the incident. The relationship they think they have suddenly means something else, a personality trait Nica might not have known she valued becomes all the more desirable when she realizes it’s demonstrably absent from her future husband. Suddenly, Dato’s harmless bigotry, rugged taciturnity, and sad, war torn life are characteristics both Nica and an audience gradually awaken to, while the former childlike Alex retreats deeper into himself.
In “Day Night Day Night,” Loktev wondered what’s left for a suicide bomber who fails in her mission. The movie achieved dread and suspense in a way few movies do. This new movie wonders, with equally piquant existentialism, what happens when a stupid glitch or a selfish gesture upends your belief — be it romantic or religious. How do you go on? People will argue that Loktev is flirting with commentary on gender roles. There is that, but the movie is more sophisticated than a sort of feminism. Under similar circumstances, any relationship of any combination of genders would undergo some kind of self-examination. The movie captures a kind of tragedy of self. Who, really, are you under the X-ray of pressure and can that person be overlooked or forgiven? Nica doesn’t simply want a verb. She wants someone to be that verb, too. As for us, the verb Loktev’s movies deserve is “go.”