*What follows first is a review of the movie free of narrative spoilers, followed by a short take on some of the implications of the specific spoiler.*
Nature has a way of infiltrating movies to such a degree that it almost belongs in the credits list in some capacity. The Thin Red Line – with its dejected longing and at times flat out shallow philosophizing – is elevated by the inimitable power of the pacific scenery. Swaths of undulating hills decorated by knee-high grass swaying in sporadic gusts of wind as they capture, with heliotropic obedience, the brilliant bursts of gold and ashen pockets of shadow which disappear and reemerge in manic, unpredictable succession, a balletic display of uncontainable force and beauty upon which soldiers heap heartbreak and despondency. It is an immediate representation of manufactured impermanence vs. ethereal longevity. And yet since man is, by definition, a component of nature, the concerns and fears of these men, though dwarfed in the presence of this eternal arena, are none the less belonging to it. These hills have harbored countless men and women throughout history, all with unique existential concerns. While the particular psychic crises afflicting each soldier are doubtless their own, what remains constant is the immeasurably awe-inspiring power the landscape possesses and wields – men at once making history and joining its ranks.
What The Loneliest Planet and its director, Julia Loktev, work to achieve with their own stunningly gorgeous vistas is not dissimilar to Malick in TTRL. Placing an internal monologue amidst and against elemental backdrops, the storyteller conveys to the audience a definite sense of proportion. These people, our protagonists, are an incredibly small part of a vast place which predates them and will outlast them. It is a narrative means of showcasing and constantly reiterating the insignificance in the grand scheme of these people, which is obviously an incredibly risky move for someone who wants people to become invested in the picture. The strategy succeeds, however, because the flip-side of emphasizing humanity’s inefficacy against the natural world is to render the atmosphere almost alien. There are mountains (in this case, the Georgian Caucuses) and streams and plains – environments certainly familiar to the average person, but when these sights no longer inspire reverence or, for that matter, recognition – the focus shifts deeply and engrossingly to what the characters and, by extension, the audience can relate to – each other.
The movie opens as two engaged tourists (Gabriel Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) are austerely making their way through eastern Europe. They give off the impression of being experienced travelers – different combinations of no more than t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, hiking pants and boots are worn at any time, with midsized personal backpacks containing a tent and sleeping materials. With their tour guide (Bidzina Gujabidze), the group meander along unstable and rocky cliffsides, cross streams via precarious walking-wires and generally immerse themselves in their mountainous environs. Along the way, the kind of microscopic exchanges and kindnesses of a long gestating love are displayed, whether it is Bernal, a native spanish speaker, helping Furstenberg with conjugation exercises, handstand endurance exhibitions or lending a hand with whatever physical task best benefits the group at that moment. These glimpses into a relationship of such obvious intimacy prove to be a brilliant contrast to the distinctly non-human surroundings, almost answering the scenery’s unknowable challenge with a bond equally impregnable.
That is, until it’s not. At just about the midway point of the film an incident takes place which throws into doubt all the implied connections of the first half. It becomes difficult viewing, since the humanity at the center served as gorgeous relief to the natural, while from this point on it devolves, taking on characteristics as impassive and unrelatable as the Caucuses. From a narrative standpoint, The Loneliest Planet does not bring much to the table. The major incident happens halfway through, and it is up to the audience to assign the appropriate meaning and context. If what you saw before resonated deeply, then the rest likely will as well. If you couldn’t bring yourself to care about these people, it’s unlikely their futures will prove riveting, either. Regardless of impact, the movie is risky and I think should be praised for that fact alone. It is undeniably ambiguous, and slack storytelling is made up for by what the audience projects onto the characters and the settings. It can be argued that most works of art are dependent, to some degree, on the emotional baggage inherent within each observer, though that given is stretched to a much greater degree here and I can’t argue anyone who would find fault in that. Despite that, it is a full length feature which hinges on the beauty of a landscape, the mostly unspoken chemistry of its stars, the recognition of a momentary inciting incident, and the nuanced fallout from said event, which proves an intoxicating combination.
So, the event: When the elderly man of the other trio our protagonists run into is worked up and takes offense to their presence and, potentially, a gesture by Bernal, he turns and points his rifle at him point blank. Immediately, Bernal retreats and puts Furstenberg in front of himself, until quickly regaining composure and resuming their original positions.
This event says quite a bit about the two people, not all of them bad, in my opinion, though I’ll save the positive interpretation for last.
Furstenberg is understandably floored by this action. One thing it says is: “Kill her first, if you must.” It also implies cowardice within Bernal. Both of these implications, as well as many others which might feed upon earlier aspects of their relationship, prove powerful enough for the duo to reconsider their relationship. The mise en scene expertly captures the emotional distance both people find themselves at from the other: the decision is so severe and lasting in its reverberations, it’s apparent the two can do nothing except replay it mentally. What Bernal comes to find, as is evidenced by his stalled attempts to resume communication, is that the one thing which may be worse than doing something horribly alienating to someone you love is to discuss it. It has happened, and it was horrible, but as long as it is not acknowledged it does not have to be re-lived again. Each moment of non-communication is torture, and so it is between two incredibly painful alternatives he finds himself. This is also where the scenery shifts from gorgeous and awe-inspiring to absolutely suffocating. The pair is trapped in a land that even without personal complications was entirely foreign. Now it is infused with pain and anger and confusion and such psychic, heartbreaking doubt which is embedded in the recognition that the person you love and the relationship you’ve maintained is not and are not what you thought. The action calls into question all the beautiful exchanges the audience saw before, and makes no promise that they can be mended and recaptured. There is a precise pain, the movie contends, which follows the inability of being able to speak with the one person whom you wish to most.
All the above is only a real issue, in my opinion, when viewed through a rather stereotypical vision of the man-woman relationship. There are several moments in the film (Furstenberg outlasting Bernal in handstands, her assurances to their guide that she is strong and competent to make it across the river un-aided, she verbally announces herself as “Strong” before the trek begins) which display Furstenberg as powerful. A long-term relationship between the two would no doubt make this fact known to Bernal in a very real, very implicit manner. If taken at face value, these are two people thrust into a dangerous situation, and what happens? One hides behind the other. The movie explores the suggestion that Bernal acted “incorrectly” or was a coward. If on some deeper level he appreciated that Furstenberg was the stronger of the two, did he actually do anything wrong? If his immediate reaction to the introduction of a threat is to retreat behind her, acknowledging her as alpha, is that incorrect?