Few were prepared for Julia Loktev's astounding "Day Night Day Night," a harrowing bare-bones drama about a young, innocuous woman preparing to become a suicide bomber. Though it was only her second film (and her first narrative), the project exhuded the confidence and prowess of a more seasoned filmmaker -- contemporary American indies just don't come like this, especially from someone with little experience under their belt. It was something special, and those it touched made sure that Loktev was on their radar.
And it took a couple of years, but thankfully the director has returned with "The Loneliest Planet," another spare, observant slice of minimalism that she had done so well a few years prior. This time Loktev explores the complexities of love (among other things) through one couple (Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) and their dedicated Georgian tour guide (Bidzina Gujabidze), centering on one cringing moment during their extensive hike through the Caucasus Mountains. We're being a bit vague because -- like our highly positive review states -- the less you know, the more effective the film is. It's a tough sell, but those gaga over alluring unbroken takes and unhurried pacing will find a lot to love within the lavishly shot 'Planet.'
We had a chance to talk to Loktev about the film and she shined a light on the inspiration for the story, the movies she kept in the back of her mind while shooting, and the roles men and women take in relationships. "The Loneliest Planet" opens up in New York and L.A. this weekend starting Friday, October 26th.
Loosely based on Tom Bissell’s short story “Expensive Trips to Nowhere” (and while we haven’t read it, the filmmaker claims to have only stuck to its devastating turning point), Loktev fleshed out ‘Planet’ with experiences based on her various travels, including a brave, post-college solo journey through Russia, Central Asia, and “all of the ‘stans.” “People told me I was completely out of my mind to do it, and I said good, I'm doing it,” she chuckled. “I feel like I've met this couple while traveling so many times. In fact, I met a couple like this bicycling from China to Turkey.”
What really captivated the director was the fascination of how quickly things could get thrown off balance and the possible futility in repairing a relationship marred by an act of foolish weakness. “These are such delicate things, and trying to work with these actors on these very nuanced emotional moments was difficult. That was the real challenge and yet exciting proposition with the film, working with the three and negotiating this complex relationship.” The hard work paid off as the filmmaker manages to convey a great deal of emotion and ideas with subtle, delicate interactions between the characters.
Loktev admitted that there are over a hundred films on her mind at all times, but there were two in particular that she pulled from for ‘Planet.’ “Roberto Rosselini’s ‘Journey To Italy’ is a film that is very beautiful to me. It has nothing to do with hiking, but does feature a couple on a trip,” the director stated. The films do bear some resemblance, as the Italian filmmaker’s 1954 picture also focuses on the tenuous, fragile bond between two people. “Mikhail Kalatozov’s ‘The Letter Never Sent,’ which is a little seen film of his about these geologists making it through the wilderness in Siberia, is another one that was influential.” Best known for “I Am Cuba,” “The Letter Never Sent” is a gorgeous work (released on Criterion Blu-ray this year, have at it), which focuses not only on the survival of four people, but the kinship between them. Both of the films she mentioned are admittedly quite different from ‘Planet’ but do have a distinct way of thinking about environments and emotions, something which left a deep impression on the filmmaker.
Though the director doesn’t personally care if movies are spoiled for her (“I’m more interested in how something happens then what happens, particularly the reverberations of how something unfolds”), she realizes that most audiences do. What we can say is that the film contains a single shocking moment that changes the course of the entire movie -- and calling it a plot twist would be doing the piece a huge disservice. “I think in film we are used to so much foreshadowing and build up, but sometimes, excuse me, shit happens and there's no foreshadowing,” she stated bluntly, referencing a key moment in her life -- her father getting hit by a car and, as a result, suffering extreme brain damage (which is detailed in her documentary “Moment of Impact”) -- that changed not only her way of working but her general perspective on life. “It's been pointed out to me that all three of my films have had these huge transformative moments. I’m not really concerned with the fact that it’s a twist or something like that, it’s the living after the event that interests me the most.”
Using the central relationship between Bernal and Furstenberg, Loktev explores the roles that each gender plays, but more importantly, the roles they are expected to perform. Maybe a man taking care of a woman is an outdated notion, but when asked whether everyone (regardless of gender) just wants to be provided for, she replied, “In different ways, yeah. I think most people want that.” After relaying a story in which Georgian men rushed to save her from falling into a body of water, the filmmaker admitted that these qualities are still very alluring. “We all want sensitive men to be completely independent, and then comes this desire for a certain kind of masculinity that may seem old fashioned, but I have to say, is extremely attractive.”