The Loneliest Planet begins with close-up trained on the body of a beautiful woman, naked and trembling. It's not what it sounds like. Nica (Hani Furstenberg), on a pre-marriage honeymoon with fiancé Alex (Gael García Bernal) in rural Georgia, is taking a makeshift shower. As Nica pogoes up and down on an unseen platform in an attempt to keep warm, her slim, androgynous body, doused in milky white soap suds, becomes a blur of motion set to the violent beat of her feet. It takes a moment for the eyes to adjust, to register what we're seeing: Is this body male or female? Is this a mundane act or some strange, exotic ritual?
With this opening image, writer-director Julia Loktev sets up her extraordinary second fiction feature in two ways: She announces an intention to explore sex and gender murkiness and warns that this is a film to watch carefully, one that demands distraction-free contemplation. Loktev takes a painterly approach, crafting a study in colors — the vibrant green landscape, entire campfire-lit scenes registering as dances of shadow and warm flashes of skin, Furstenberg's wild red hair filling the frame — as she also charts the variable shades and tones of a single relationship. Within a scantily plotted, novella-style narrative (the movie is an adaptation of a short story by Tom Bissell), single shots become story events that mere mention would spoil.
By the time Alex and Nica hire a guide, Dato (played by real-life guide Bidzina Gujabidze), to lead them on a backpacking trip through a desolate Eastern European mountain range, the couple has already been on the road for three weeks, and they show little sign of wearing down each other's nerves. They're so comfortable together that they discuss bowel regularity, and yet they're still hot enough for each other that a modicum of privacy leads to desperate groping. It's an ideal relationship — or maybe just idealized. Out in the wild, they've sunk deep into each other, apparently having put aside their real world completely: There's no mention of what they do for a living or where they live (other than "America"). They don't use cell phones or even read books. It's just them.
As Loktev documents their travels, she's also showing us how this man and soon-to-be wife see each other. Nica prides herself on her toughness, in defiance of presumed feminine weakness. She shows off chin-ups while slightly pudgy Alex watches; she responds to every male show of concern for her physical capability with "I'm fine" or "Don't worry. I'm strong."
In one scene, a beautifully calibrated harbinger of doom, she gleefully schools the guide on the proper English pronunciation of the word "bitch" through raucous repetition.
And then something happens: In a moment of fear, Alex's knee-jerk reaction reveals his own cowardice and puts Nica's life at risk. The incident is never addressed after the fact, and yet its dark shadow hangs over and informs the film's entire second half. The moment itself is jaw-dropping, and it casts an incredible tension over everything that follows. You don't know what's going to happen next, and Loktev has established a space in which it feels as though absolutely anything could.
The title, an apparent play on the Lonely Planet travel guides designed for boho tourists like Loktev's couple, takes on more complicated connotations as the trio delve into rugged, desolate terrain. Those books are intended as salves for the worries of tourists heading into unknown territory, but their expertise is limited to experiences and conveniences that can be bought; any kind of mortal or existential quandary sparked by or on foreign soil is beyond their purview. In a good relationship, you feel like you can survive anything the world throws at you. Loktev expertly trains her camera through a fissure in such a bond and reveals an unshakable vision of the terror of facing the unknown without a guide.