In ‘The Loneliest Planet,’ a pervasive dread, or maybe that’s just ‘relationships’

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'The Loneliest Planet' is out now. (Courtesy IFC Films)
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The first sound you hear in The Loneliest Planet, before you see a thing, is a pretty unmistakable signifier: creaking bedsprings and a headboard steadily smacking against a wall.

And yet, while the opening shot does reveal a naked woman, her frenzied activity doesn’t look sexual. She’s jumping up and down, soaking wet, on what might be a trampoline. Is this some kind of mystical rite, or a form of torture? Is it pure surrealism? A man walks in, with a “sorry, sorry, sorry,” and delivers her a pitcher of warm water. She is taking an improvised shower.

In the films of the Russian-born, American-bred Julia Loktev, sound and image exist in a state of uneasy tension, neither one inherently worthy of our trust. (She actually began her career as a producer of audio performances for Montreal radio.) Disorientation is her métier, and The Loneliest Planet is a meticulously composed, near-perfect balancing act that reserves its rewards for those willing to submit their undivided attention.

As with Loktev’s last film, Day Night Day Night, which closely tracked a cryptically motivated 19-year-old woman’s decision to set off a suicide bomb in Times Square, The Loneliest Planet (which borrows its narrative skeleton from, but ditches the sociological critique of, Tom Bissell’s short story “Expensive Trips Nowhere”) is a partially abstract exercise in the development of a crisis. But in this mesmerizing, much more surprising film, Loktev never reveals a ticking time bomb—we have no idea what’s about to detonate, and have every reason to suspect that our sense of foreboding is an invention, or a reflex.

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Without much dialogue, the film quickly introduces our shower buddies as Alex and Nica (Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg), an attractive couple in their early 30s on a pre-wedding backpacking trip in the Caucausus Mountains of formerly Soviet Georgia. The couple hires a local guide, Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), to lead them on a multi-day hiking trip, and with minimal fuss they set off into the wild. (The Loneliest Planet was almost certainly a difficult shoot, with the crew—like the movie’s hikers—carrying the equipment on their backs, competing against gravity.) The Westerners need not have read The Sheltering Sky to know that this story doesn’t usually end in rapture and enlightenment, but that doesn’t make the developments any less unpredictable.

An open-air journey that feels entirely pressurized, The Loneliest Planet pulses with ambient horror. Loktev establishes a tense character dynamic without having to insist: the very presence of Dato, as a guard, jester, and third wheel means that Alex and Nica are no longer simply dependent on each other. And yet their reliance on Dato—not just a hired hand but a human being with slowly revealed history—is necessarily tinged with distrust: you don’t have to be schooled on slasher films to wonder why he’s so dexterous with ropes and knives. Though the menace lacks a locatable source, our otherwise happy honeymooners are, at the very least, caught in a seemingly infinite and constantly shifting landscape without any private space.

The movie even seems designed to surprise even those who know that a Thing Will Happen, offering the audience at least a couple red herrings. The movie’s foreboding sometimes verges on the comical. The hikers are always one misstep away from a dangerous slip, and there are a couple of nasty falls. In one scene, Dato stops them in their tracks after hearing an unidentified sound, giving us every reason to suspect this will turn into an episode of Lost. (It doesn’t.)

Loktev is an incredible editor, arranging the juxtaposition of individual shots to striking effect. In one early scene, a furtive sexual encounter shrouded in extreme darkness cuts to Furstenberg’s red hair bursting wildly into frame. In a recurring motif, the cameras that lead the hikers up various peaks in a naturalistic style are interrupted by long-take, eye-of-god shots taken from across the valley, scored to Richard Skelton’s densely layered strings. Loktev gives us momentary breaks from the claustrophobia to remind us that the characters have no such luxury.

In this film about communication, language is another slippery determinant. The fact that all non-English dialogue is left unsubtitled provides a fertile source of mystery, comedy, and terror. Is there something dangerous about Dato’s inability to pronounce “bitch” and “beach” as separate words? How much of Alex and Nica’s emotional bond stems from their being the only two fluent English speakers around? And what does the fact that Alex uses their downtime to teach Nica how to conjugate Spanish verbs say about their commitment to Being Here Now?

Saying that the movie’s drama pivots on a single moment—a snap decision—makes it sound plot-driven. Teasing us with a deterministic tourists-in-peril scenario, The Loneliest Planet aims for the universal in its sense that the very term “relationship” exists to elide a fundamental source of friction. Which of our actions are most revealing of our character, and which can be ignored? Where is the border between the forgivable and the irrevocable? In its examination of the triggers and reflexes that can turn affection into suffocation, The Loneliest Planet resembles Maren Ade’s Everyone Else, another recent New York Film Festival standout.

Loktev sets up an unorthodox narrative, jolting us with a climax at the midpoint. The movie’s second half represents an extended aftermath of the film’s only plot development, and the story’s tricky emotional core. Alex and Nica’s fumbling attempts to re-establish communication in the wake of a status-quo-shattering judgment call is both uncomfortably true to life and somewhat antidramatic. The tension of the movie’s first hour dissipates into a more mysterious haze—one that accommodates both feminist and antifeminist readings—and remains somewhat unresolved, still pivoting.

Loktev is already a Guggenheim-certified prodigy, and The Loneliest Planet represents an emotional quantum leap for her brand of visceral minimalism. At the risk of making a snap decision I’ll wish I could take back, I’ll say this: She’s one of the few experimental filmmakers I’d love to see go Hollywood.

‘The Loneliest Planet’ is showing at the IFC Center now through Oct. 30. Director Julia Loktev will appear at the Oct 27 screenings at 7:10 and 9:40.