This guest post by Cal Cleary appears as part of our theme week on Masculinity.
It’s a frequently stated truism that the patriarchy hurts men the same way it hurts women. The system of rigid gender expectations can be punishing for anyone who doesn’t conform to its strictures. Those punishments aren’t just external; failure to live up a made-up masculine ideal can cause considerable internal anguish. Few films have dealt with the transformative strength of that failure as powerfully as The Loneliest Planet. Written and directed by Julia Loktev, loosely adapting Tom Bissell’s short story “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” the film is, in part, a powerful meditation on the way a single moment can clash with a man’s internalized expectations to destroy his sense of self.
The Loneliest Planet is, essentially, a movie with three characters. Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael García Bernal) are engaged, a pair of active world-travelers who can tackle any challenge together. Before their wedding, they visit the country of Georgia, where they hire a guide, Dato (renowned Georgian mountaineer Bidzina Gujabidze), to take them on a long hike through the nation’s incredibly scenic countryside. Along the way, they meet a group of heavily armed men who are suspicious of the trio, questioning them briefly. Then, they walk back, exploring more of Georgia’s gorgeous natural landscapes.
That really is it for plot. But the key twist in the film’s halfway point is what gives the film its power, and there’s no real way to discuss what the movie is saying about masculinity without first talking about the twist. So, for the spoiler averse – and this is the rare twist best experienced without knowing quite what to expect – I suggest taking a break and checking the movie out now. For those who’ve seen it, or who don’t mind a bit of foreknowledge, however, read on…
The key moment, the scene that gives the film its shape, happens at the halfway point, when the trio meets the armed men. Neither Alex nor Nica share a language with him, so they aren’t sure what the confrontation is about. Despite the presence of guns, Loktev shoots the scene in a fairly low-key manner, highlighting not the tension but the lack of control for the two tourists. It is this lack of control that makes Alex so uncomfortable. He tries to insert himself in a conflict that Dato appears to be handling well, demanding to know what’s going on – only to find a large rifle leveled at his face. Alex’s immediate response is to push Nica in front of the barrel and hide behind her – but only for a second. After that gut reaction, he reasserts himself, pushing Nica back behind him and aggressively posturing for her, recklessly pressing his forehead to the rifle’s barrel.
It turns out to be a false alarm. Dato talks the armed men down, and then he accompanies Nica and Alex as they walk back home. At no point do any of the characters discuss what just happened. Alex grows immediately taciturn, and Nica is clearly uncomfortable. Something very fundamental about their relationship has changed, and Julia Loktev does an amazing job at showing how differently Alex and Nica see that event without ever coming out and saying it.
Throughout the first half of the film, most characters outside the small group instinctively defer to Alex, a role he happily relegates to his equally competent partner. A group of locals approached as they seek out a guide ask Alex if Nica is his wife – she answers. They ask Alex if Nica can carry a heavy-enough load to be an effective hiker – she answers. Early in the film, during a perilous river-crossing, Dato has concerns that Nica can make the trip safely, but Alex lets Nica go first, and has no doubts that she’ll be able to handle herself. Alex is comfortable not taking the lead, despite what everyone else expects, and Loktev constantly reinforces that through the staging and the shot composition, as well as frequent interludes that highlight the physicality they have in common, the confidence they have in their own bodies working precisely how they want.
Alex is, in many ways, the ideal of the modern man: Handsome, athletic, intelligent, well-traveled, well-off financially but still environmentally sensitive, and with a romantic partner he treats as an equal. Because of this, he has no trouble shrugging off the gendered stereotypes expected of his relationship in the first half of the film. But as soon as he is given reason to doubt his own traditionally defined masculinity, it all falls apart. Suddenly, he thinks Nica needs help lifting her own pack, needs help steadying herself while she takes off a shoe – help he himself refuses to accept from her later, when he twists his ankle and tries to shrug it off. It isn’t the external expectations that get to him, the fear of judgment from other people, but his own concern that he isn’t man enough. The specifics of how masculinity presents may have changed from the days of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” a story with thematic and structural ties to Loktev’s film, but the way some men react when they begin to question their own masculinity has not.
Nica, of course, is shaken up just as much as Alex by the event with the gunman, but the way Loktev and her performers portray the aftermath, their violations seem very different. As portrayed by Furstenberg, Nica seems to feel betrayed by Alex’s action, but she is clearly willing to forgive him as she processes what happened. She begins to open up again. Alex, on the other hand, seems to feel unmanned. Both characters are profoundly shaken up by the incident, but Nica fears for her life, no longer certain if she can trust her partner, while Alex fears that he looks weak. Which is, I guess, a purely visual way of expressing Margaret Atwood’s classic sentiment: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
The Loneliest Planet is a difficult movie in a lot of ways, telling almost its entire movie nonverbally. Indeed, the characters’ feelings and relationships are mostly defined by their staging and the camera’s movement, which can make the long, dialogue-free stretches feel slow. Until you start to notice the way the landscapes change to counter the emotional state of the characters, or the way walking order during the hike can define relationships. Until you realize that the film is very much about language, and that the things Alex and Nica can’t bring themselves to say are far more important than any words they may use to paper over the issue.
The Loneliest Planet ends in uncertainty. Alex and Nica are back together, but the casual intimacy of the film’s earliest moments is gone, perhaps forever. Even at the end, Alex is more withdrawn. He has learned something very dark about himself, and it’s something he still can’t quite process. You can be a sensitive multi-lingual world-travelling guy who looks like Gael García Bernal, but can you still consider yourself a man, he seems to wonder, if you’re a coward?
Cal Cleary spends most of his time judging others, writing film and comic reviews for GeekRex and novel reviews for Luxury Reading. When he’s not writing online, he’s librarianing in rural Ohio, and he definitely hasn’t figured out that librarianing is not a real word. Follow him on Twitter (@comicalibrarian) for links to more of his work.