The opening scene in writer-director Julia Loktev's (Moment of Impact, Day Night Day) film The Loneliest Planet, which opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre, is a shot of a naked girl attempting to take a shower by having her boyfriend drench her with hot water from a teapot. The film is about a couple who backpack through a remote part of Eastern Europe is anything but a romance (there's plenty of sex, but the characters are camping, so they're often fully clothed when they're doing it), so what was Loktev thinking?
"I just wanted to show how vulnerable she is in that position," says Loktev via phone from her Brooklyn, New York home.
In that sense, the scene certainly foreshadows what's to come as Alex (Gael García Bernal) and Nika (Hani Furstenberg) trek through a mountain region with a surly guide (Bidzina Gujabidze) leading the way. At one point, they encounter a group of natives, and their brief exchange with the strangers sends the couple into a tailspin. While the film suggests all isn't right with Alex and Nica from the start, the movie hardly follows a predictable pattern as it explores the dynamics of their relationship.
"I think we're trained to think that when people are happy and in love and traveling, bad things will happen to them," Loktev says. "But what happens is not what people expect. It's completely, completely different from the clichéd horror movie. To me, it's much more devastating and even more nuanced."
Loktev, who grew up in Russia, also makes good use of the rugged landscape and includes shots of the group hiking along rocky paths or wading through thick brush. At times, the movie is tedious. But it captures the strange, slightly exotic feeling of being in a remote location untouched by civilization.
"We were shooting in the mountains with a crew of about a dozen people," Loktev explains. "We were shooting every day in the elements and dealing with nature with three- or four-minute shots when we had to hike along with the actors and get up in the darkness and hike to our location, sometimes camping. We were living the film, but that was also part of the beautiful thing about shooting it. We were so immersed in nature and so immersed in what it means to be in the mountains. That permeates every frame."
In actuality, they weren't that far from civilization. But Loktev intentionally made it seem as if the travelers were completely isolated.
"This drastic incident happens when you're more than a day's walk from the village," she says. "Being in the middle of nature, they don't have what they would cling to for safety. How do you watch this couple go through what might be the most challenging moment in their relationship in the middle of the mountains, this foreign country, more than a day's walk from the village and with this other guy. It's crucial that they're not alone. It's a more extreme version of when you had a fight with your lover and then had to go out to dinner with someone else."
— Jeff Niesel
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