The official website for Twentynine Palms, California, pop. 21,000, is boosterish Chamber of Commerce stuff: "We are the gateway to Mojave Desert, Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave Preserve, and the great California Outback." There's no interest cultivating a Twin Peaks vibe, therefore no mention of the ghoulish, off-putting Bruno Dumont picture (at the Brattle July 16-18), also Twentynine Palms, filmed in these environs and shot mostly in this town.
Are they missing a chance of a Prince Edwards Island-like breakthrough, Japanese bus tours coming for the sacred site of Anne of Green Gables? Hardly. For Twentynine Palms, only the most morbid tourist would pilgrimage to where the movie scenes ocurred: the squabbling, the fornicating, the penultimate Deliverance moment, the ultimate Psycho ending.
Twentynine Palms is a slasher film waiting to happen, and waiting we must do, for almost two streched-thin hours before the violence smashes through. Dumont's movie is, by type, a monosyllabic road movie, in which characters ride and ride on the highway with a dribble of talk, perhaps two lines of dialogue, every hundred miles. Think Wim Wenders's Kings of the Road, Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, Gus Van Sant's Gerry. Here we've got David (David Wissak), a floppy-haired photographer scouting a shoot, driving a Hummer, accompanied by his Russian-but-French-speaking girfriend Katia (Katia Golubeva), who could have been a Modigliani artist model.
We know nothing at all about our two protagonists, learn nothing factual (they never query each other, or refer to their pasts), we gather only what we observe of their behavior. Katia has moments of emotional fragility: she's hysterical when a dog is hit by a car, she gets wounded by David when his sexual advances get hyper-aggressive. David is a wound-up fuck machine, and there's a definite edge whenever he suddenly has a go at his girlfriend: bouncing her head on his cock, screaming out in orgasm, a chest-pounding Tarzan emitting on jungle vines. At moments, Katia grooves on David's supermanliness; she rests her head on his thighs and says, "Je t'aime" after he has orally exploded. But, turning on a dime, she becomes appalled by his behavior, and wants to run away from him.
The film's most telling moment: David's enmeshed in watching a Jerry Springer Show in which, he explains to Katia, "A father confesses to his wife that he's slept with his daughter." "Poor thing," Katia responds, empathetically. "Who?" David wonders, not getting it. "You wouldn't do that?" Katia asks him, intuiting he's capable of unspeakable deeds. And speaking of the unspeakable: on the TV in the background, we see Jerry's cave people, a yahoo chorus to David-and-Katia's loaded exchange.
Bruno Dumont is the Gallic filmmaker whose two earlier works, The Life of Jesus (1997) and l'Humanite (1999), were gothic regional tales set in non-tourist, blue-collar, rural France: cruel, bloody, Bressonian, intensely spiritual and philosophical. Even among heady film critics, these films caused strong division, being both championed and truly, deeply reviled. I was among Dumont's staunch defenders (a minority) when l'Humanite won the Grand Prize given by the David Cronenberg-led jury at Cannes 1999. I thought that metaphysical murder mystery, however grotesque, was a kind of masterpiece. Yet I step away from Twentynine Palms, which seems as bogus, also as needlessly ugly, as others claim of l'Humanite. (The chief virtue: Georges Lechaplois's sublime cinematography of the Southern California desert.)
Was Twentynine Palms rejected for Cannes 2003, or was it finished too late to qualify? Whatever, the premiere came at Venice 2003 (I wasn't there), for which the Village Voice's Dennis Lim reported a volatile, mostly negative reception; the international critics corps were unmoved by Dumont's Adam and Eve bare-assed cavorting, and semi-porn coupling, at the Joshua Tree forest. Dumont stood his ground, lecturing the skeptical attending his press conference: "I encourage you to take off your clothes and go naked in Mother Nature."
(Boston Phoenix, August, 2004)