Love’s Work in the Reel[1]

Julia Loktev’s Film The Loneliest Planet in Review

Jeffrey Metcalfe

In the midst of a multiplicity of choices, it is difficult to find a film these days whose images and narrative do not come with a short expiration date. For anyone who has ever been in love, The Loneliest Planet is such a film. It is haunting. By following a couple’s movements through the empty foothills of Georgia, it manages to capture that elusive spirit of love that is born out of struggle. As Bonhoffer criticized his culture for being a society in which grace was cheap, so too, our contemporary culture is a place were love comes too easily, and perhaps, not at all. Yet in her film The Loneliest Planet, Julia Loktev is able to portray love not simply as a feeling, but a work, an equivocal wrestling with naïveté, betrayal, self-doubt, self-hatred, and reconciliation that ends, if not joyfully, at least with a possibility of hope.

The vast expanse of the Georgian wilderness helps to bring out that relationship. In a routinely occurring wide angled shot accompanied by the music of a lonely cello, the camera remains motionless, taking in the stillness of the landscape as the couple and their guide move across it in isolation, the distance between each person exposing the undercurrents of their relationships. As this midrashic scene is cut, often suddenly and with little warning, the viewer is brought back into the particular interactions between the couple. No music is heard throughout these interactions, only the monotony of footsteps. In the beginning, this cultivates an atmosphere of wild, romantic love, sweet and innocent in its tender touches and promiscuous play. With the sweeping landscapes of lush green, an edenic feeling hangs in the air, and while a physical distance remains between the couple throughout the midrashic scenes, one has a sense that the crossing of this distance is an invitation to adventure.

As Irenaeus argued, a Garden of Eden can only last so long; insofar as it is populated by the naïve – albeit, the beautifully naïve – a fall is inevitable.[2] What is surprising about the fall in The Loneliest Planet is the unpredictably believable way it occurs. During a rare encounter with others in the wilderness, a split second slight movement (perhaps even precognitive) by the male character draws into question what appeared before as love. The movement, consciously willed or not, is a profound act of betrayal, a moment of a lover putting himself before his beloved. The ironic dilemma: if the partner of the opposite gender had committed that same movement, it is unclear whether an equivalent betrayal would have taken place.

The implications of this movement and ensuing dilemma come to dominate not only the interactions in the rest of the film, but the memory of all that went before. Were those moments of testing each other’s physical strength really play, or were they a more serious competition? Perhaps what appeared to be love from the beginning was just an easy romance, a cheap love, unable to negotiate the ways in which even lovers have boundaries.

For the male character, this inaugurates a period of self-hatred. In his betrayal, he is forced to confront the limits of what he thought was limitless love, a limit in himself that he finds unforgiveable. For the female character, this leads to self-doubt. Angry about the event, she is more angry with herself, for while she holds herself as a strong liberated woman, nevertheless, a part of her strongly desires her lover to treat her with chivalry, even in its patronizing forms.

Forgiveness amidst such a flood of self-torment and relational tensions does not come easy and this begins to be reflected in the landscape. Where the Georgian foothills once seemed green with grass, we now see a terrain of barren rocks and muddy shale. But the question remains, has the landscape actually changed? Or, is it that in the light of betrayal, we are becoming aware that it was never really Eden to begin with? Likewise, although the midrashic scenes employ the same cello music, it comes to sound differently, more lonely and despairing. The monotony of the journey continues only now we get the sense that the spaces between the walkers no longer offer the adventure of boundaries to be overcome, but the impossible limits of each person’s singularity, a singularity that seems to drain the power of love.

Or does it?

There are no easy answers or returns in The Loneliest Planet, indeed before the end there is more betrayal, while attempts at reconciliation are spurned. Yet the film does not leave us without a glimpse of hope. As the tents are being packed up, a sign of the continuing journey, we see a hand busy at work. Silently, it reaches out and touches the other with a hesitant touch of tenderness: a gesture of faith. This is love’s work and it doesn’t come cheap.

Jeffrey Metcalfe is a postulant for ordination in the Diocese of Quebec, and is presently pursuing a master of divinity degree at Trinity College, Toronto. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.

[1] The idea of love’s work comes from Gillian Rose’s philosophical memoirs by the same name. Cf. Gillian Rose, Love’s Work (New York: New York Review Books, 2011).

[2] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, in The Early Christian Fathers: a Selection from the Writings of the Fatehrs from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius, edited and translated by Henry Bettenson (London: Oxford University Press, 2010), 69.


One thought on “Love’s Work in the Reel[1]

  1. Jeffrey, I worked on this film and I just wanted to say, this is the most insightful review I have read (and I think I’ve read them all!) You really ‘got’ it. I know Julia thinks so, too. Beautifully written. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s