TWENTYNINE PALMS (Bruno Dumont, 2003)

French filmmaker Bruno Dumont’s unhyphenated Twentynine Palms has attracted rude controversy. (The Lynchian title clues us into the influence of David Lynch’s phenomenal 1997 Lost Highway.) I have already written about Dumont’s first two films, The Life of Jesus (1997) and Humanity (1999). The former won the Prix Jean Vigo, the International Jury Award at the Sao Paulo International Film Festival, the “Discovery of the Year” European Film Award, the Sutherland Trophy at the London Film Festival, and the FIPRESCI Award at the Chicago International Film Festival; the latter won the Grand Prix, and best actor and best actress for Emmanuel Schotté and Séverine Caneele, at Cannes. With Twentynine Palms the prizes stopped. His first two films pegged Dumont as cinema’s heir to Robert Bresson, whose intense materiality yields to intense spirituality in a brace of the finest films ever made. With Twentynine Palms the transcendence stopped. I delayed seeing the film as long as I could just to avoid the quarrels and cruelty that the film has provoked. (J. Hoberman wrote in the Village Voice, for instance, “Dumont’s taste for the elemental has always flirted with the moronic.”) With Twentynine Palms my defense of Dumont, in the classical sense, hasn’t stopped.

I have no idea what others expected. But the excessive and insupportable violence that is supposed to have marred and mangled Dumont’s third film never, for me, materialized. Having spent Thanksgiving night cringing and averting my eyes as I viewed for the first (and last) time Sam Raimi’s dumb, gory Spider-Man (2002), I must protest that every frame of Dumont’s film is watchable. Its violence, so vividly implied that Dumont scarcely has to show any, is nowhere near the Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) level of gluttony. Twentynine Palms is a good film besides.

One wonders: beneath all the protests against the film’s alleged violence, are people really objecting to the film’s voluminous instances of sexual intercourse between the two main characters, David and Katia, played moodily and combatively by David Wissak and Katia Golubeva? Is it just too much for some to see so much young naked flesh blending in with the rock formations in California’s Joshua Tree National Park?

David is a freelance photographer scouting locations for a shoot. (This experience is based on Dumont’s own as he scouted for locations for an American movie shoot.) Katia is his companion, a high-strung, possessive beauty who would be more congenially matched with someone more sensitive and emotionally responsive than David. The parched desert is the perfect setting for the pair’s bouts of misunderstanding and temperament.

In truth, however, neither David, who is American, nor Katia, who is not, is the film’s protagonist. America itself is the main character. We hear bits and pieces of Dumont’s vision of it as David watches television in the couple’s motel room at Twentynine Palms, their base of shelter away from home. For instance, there is the Jerry Springer episode where a man informs his wife that he has had sex with their daughter. There is George W. Bush, too, on the radio, doing his best to sound presidential about his nasty and pointless war. And, of course, there is the denouement wherein the couple, out in the wilderness, become victims of vicious, predatory strangers out of Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972) and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969). The whole thing ends in the bloodbath that is America, where from the top on down people have reason to believe they can get away with anything. The violence that befalls David and Katia may have something to do with their contentiousness as a couple, but not much; rather, the violence randomly interrupts the unpleasant ordinariness of their mutual existence. It is violence that has no other reason for being than a frustrated will to power that demands satisfaction. The anonymity of the violence is like war. The loveliness of Nature in which it erupts sets the myth of America against America’s reality and painfully reminds us all that America was meant for better things than the ways in which it is currently behaving in Iraq and towards Iran.

There are two key elements to the film’s presentation. One is visual; the other, aural. Much of the film is on the road, the couple taking turns driving their Hummer, the camera simulating their sight through endless anonymous trails. Sex breaks the monotony as the two take to the rocks in their unconscious hommage to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970). The road trip is correlative to the myth that one can get lost in America; the camera records this subjectively. But it is an objective camera that “finds” the pair when they are copulating or, simply, resting naked on a rock. It is this use of the camera that exposes their vulnerability and prepares us for what will happen to them at the end.

This visual aspect of the film is counterpointed with the couple’s audible breathing, which also encapsulates their vulnerability by reminding us of their reality, their humanity.

Indeed, many shots, such as those of the couple making love in the outdoor motel pool as traffic noisily whizzes by up above, bring into concert the elements of their seclusion—their being as “lost” as they want to be—and their being poised for discovery and being intruded upon. At the end, David and Katia’s secret world collides with the secret world of the roving rapists and killers. This brings to mind Lulu’s crossing paths with Jack the Ripper in Pandora’s Box (1928), although what resonates with the irony of fate in Georg W. Pabst’s film resonates here, in Dumont’s film, with his sense of a particular place—America as a mythic domain out of which one can be plucked at any moment for a brutal dose of American reality.

Dumont has said that he employed the techniques of the modern American horror film to achieve what he wanted in Twentynine Palms. This is another way of saying that that particular genre is the one that America is currently conforming to most in its practice and behavior. With Bush and Cheney in charge, the U.S. is now like a horror film. It is a place of evil that an outsider like Dumont is quicker to recognize, and, because of America’s influence around the world, one suspects that his vision started at home.

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