Hani Furstenberg and Gael Garc'a Bernal in "The Loneliest Planet." (Inti Briones / Sundance…)
With a strong, strange sense of place that makes it something like a science fiction film that is nevertheless set in the here and now, "The Loneliest Planet" unfolds against the lush, exotic flora of the Caucasus Mountains in the country of Georgia. Writer-director Julia Loktev's film follows the story of Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael García Bernal), a couple engaged to be married, as they backpack their way through the region.
The film interlaces the couple's own relationship with that of their guide, Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), and other locals as they remain perennial outsiders because of their economic status — tourists in multiple senses of the word. But Loktev gives fuller attention to the dynamic between Nica and Alex, as their adventure pushes their relationship to the breaking point.
Though the short story on which the film is based, "Expensive Trips Nowhere" by Tom Bissell, was set in Central Asia, Loktev decided that the otherworldly mountain ranges of Georgia, which she had visited previously, were where she wanted to set the action. Loktev uses her spare, elemental storytelling style — nothing much happens, until something does — as an entry point to the story's core exploration of male-female dynamics.
"I spent so many hours looking at mountains on Google Earth," Loktev said by phone from her home in New York, noting that Kazakhstan, for example, looked too much like Colorado to her. "The landscape is like music in the film — it completely changes the tone of the film. It's there throughout, and you feel it at every moment."
Bernal, increasingly busy as a producer as well as an actor, had long remembered the vivid descriptions of the Caucasus from Mikhail Lermontov's 19th-century novel "A Hero of Our Time." So for him, traveling to the remote region for the film was a selling point.
"It's like the old part of what the world is," the Mexican-born Bernal said in a conversation from Buenos Aires, where he lives some of the time."The account you make up in your mind is somewhat an illusion, but when you see it for real it's even far more incredible than you imagined."
The American-born Furstenberg had established her acting career in Israel, making "The Loneliest Planet" her first major English-language film role. Loktev saw two Israeli movies featuring Furstenberg, Eytan Fox's "Yossi & Jagger" and Joseph Cedar's "Campfire," and was struck by how different she seemed from film to film.
Furstenberg admitted that she'd never been much of a hiker and that despite training before shooting, she wasn't really prepared for what she encountered in Georgia, both in terms of the altitude and how overwhelming the landscape was.
"I felt very small and disconnected. Gael was much more one with the mountains," Furstenberg said by phone from New York, where she is appearing onstage in Adam Rapp's new play, "Through the Yellow Hour." "I felt very much like somebody just placed me in this weird place and I didn't have anything to grasp onto really that can make me feel safe," she said, adding that she developed vertigo and discovered she had an intense fear of heights while on the mountain. "I felt like we were on Mars, walking."
Loktev, 42, was born in Russia and immigrated to the United States as a child, with her family settling in Colorado. She moved to New York City in her early 20s. Her first feature was the 1998 documentary "Moment of Impact," which explored her father's paralysis after being hit by a car, followed by the 2006 fiction feature "Day Night Day Night," which follows a suicide bomber preparing an attack on Times Square.
In "The Loneliest Planet," it takes only a single moment for Nica and Alex, when faced with an unexpected peril, to alter their relationship, seemingly for good. In the middle of nowhere, they have no option but to continue their journey together, even as each of them might now want only to get away from the other.
"I know men and women tend to see this very differently," Furstenberg said of how audiences respond to the film's investigation of gender politics. "I think it's just a very interesting question that I as a woman tend to deal with a lot. A strong woman who feels very independent and feels like she could do everything herself still needs her man to be manly. It's kind of this paradox that I think modern-day society is dealing with."
Bernal agreed that there is a tension between the sensitivity required of the modern man and the more brutish, less refined notions of traditional masculinity. "I don't know if we will ever be released from the archetype of what a woman and a man should be like," said Bernal. "I don't know if we'll ever be able to get rid of those preconceptions. There will always be an internal conflict there. It's full of contradictions and ambiguities.
"There's not right or wrong. It's very difficult to judge it morally. So we deal with it more as an anthropological thing: Why did we end up doing what we did?"