Rewinding to surprise Spirit nominee 'The Loneliest Planet'

Posted by · 5:45 pm · November 27th, 2012

Every year, the Independent Spirit Award nominations reveal American independent cinema to be a landscape where, to pinch Orwell’s well-worn line, some are more equal than others. The awards may idealistically present themselves as a union of Davids standing tall against the hulking big-studio Goliaths, but the cosy we’re-all-in-this-together front doesn’t ring true when the nominees show up the gaping class chasms that exist merely within the so-called indie sphere.

No one’s pretending a shoestring independent like “Middle of Nowhere” genuinely comes from the same stock as a starry mainstream entertainment like “Silver Linings Playbook”; these awards may ostensibly pitch them as fighting the same good fight, but they’re doing so against very different obstacles. 

All of which is to say that, as worthy of recognition as “Silver Linings Playbook” (or, if you prefer, “Moonrise Kingdom”) may be, the Spirit Awards are most useful when they shine a light on genuine fringe works that aren’t likely to receive many more accolades as the season unfolds. For a film like “Keep the Lights On,” for example, today’s Best Feature nomination represents a significant endgame in terms of attracting publicity and prospective viewers; for the Weinsteins’ Best Picture Oscar hopeful, meanwhile, it’s merely a handy notch on the bedpost.

Another name whose nomination today already represents a form of victory is Julia Loktev. When her challenging, much-admired but little-seen festival soldier  “The Loneliest Planet” popped up in the Best Director lineup — pushing indie veteran and Best Feature nominee Richard Linklater out of the running, to boot — Twitter lit up simultaneously with the delight of attuned critics and the confusion of awards enthusiasts still uninitiated in the film’s disquieting pleasures.

Frankly, this nomination would be surprising even if “The Loneliest Planet” were more widely seen: its gutsy, opaque, quasi-European sensibility doesn’t invite the approval of any mass voting body, let alone one with a notion of independence as qualifier-laden as that of the Spirits. It’s a nomination to celebrate, even if you find admiring the film at arm’s length.

Following on from the film’s similarly unexpected Best Feature nod at the Gotham Awards, this mini-surge of attention for a film that’s been quietly travelling the festival circuit for over a year has me eager for a return visit: some parts of Loktev’s starkly designed relationship drama have gnawed at me since our first encounter at the IndieLisboa festival back in April, others remain elusive. Such is the unstable place the film occupies in my memory that I’d forgotten I actually reviewed it. It took a reader to point me back to my own review, buried under an unspecific headline — so today seems a good occasion to repurpose it:

“At London last autumn, I heard precious little chatter about “The Loneliest Planet” (B+), a gutsy, ostentatiously forbidding relationship drama from Russian-American writer-director Julia Loktev that also took top honors at last year”s AFI Fest; at Lisbon, promoted to big-ticket status via more streamlined programming, it more readily invites your attention.

It deserves it, too: existing at a kind of twilit international meeting point between US mumblecore and the so-called “slow cinema” that Eastern European filmmakers, especially, have lately brought into arthouse fashion, Loktev”s third feature is a testy, deceptively languorous exercise in nerve, pivoting on essential narrative micro-incidents that belie the scale of both its setting and its filmmaking: not unlike Kelly Reichardt”s “Meek”s Cutoff,” this a story of humanity made smaller by the comparative vastness of the elements.

Those elements, in this case, belong to the intimidatingly verdant Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, where chipper, nearlywed American couple Alex and Nica (Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) are spending the summer hiking – the film”s title, as well as implying man-versus-nature disparities, is a cruelly funny dig at the chummy, youth-oriented series of travel guides that have sent countless well-meaning trustafarians backpacking. With hulking local Dato (first-time actor Bidzina Gujabidze) hired to guide them through this tricky terrain, they set off in a gung-ho spirit that predictably dwindles with each rough-sleeping night, making an advance honeymoon into a critical relationship test – one Alex subconsciously and rather drastically fails during a fraught altercation with some threatening mountain residents.

His error, best left unspecified here, is never articulated or analyzed by any of the principals; nor, smartly, does Loktev choose to dwell on its gender politics. What it does prise open, however, is the audience”s curiosity and eventual scepticism as to the raw material of their relationship and the value of their future marriage – placed far outside an everyday social context, Alex and Nica not only have very little in common, but also exhibit few productive differences. Dato is with the audience in this observation, though his attempts to exploit the tension between them are as regressively misguided as Alex”s initial offense.

Loktev allows this subtly fascinating moral disconnect to fracture and fester over gruellingly long take after gruellingly long take, her wind-whipped camera and rattling sound design ensuring the physical demands of this vacation are no less precisely conveyed than the emotional ones. The actors, for their part, suffer it well. Bernal”s puppyish qualities, by turn winsome and petulant, are cleverly used, but Furstenberg is the revelation here, her faintly put-on girlishness making it difficult to decipher the character”s wall of pet neuroses from, when it arrives, her genuine panic. It”s this kind of bruised turn “The Loneliest Planet” needs to temper filmmaking that, however dazzlingly accomplished, can be a little too satisfied with its barriers. Often brilliant, often boring, often at once, Loktev”s film should remain a valuable conversation piece.”

Have you seen “The Loneliest Planet?” Are you surprised and/or pleased by its success with the Gotham and Spirit voters? Let us know in the comments. 

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