No audience reaction in Venice came close to the one accorded Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms: hysterical laughter, sardonic applause, emphatic walkouts, appalled gasps, vociferous booing (and the occasional defiant “Bravo!”). The Humanite director’s Death Valley void is the real Lost in Translation—a French-speaking Russian actress and an American actor with minimal French traipse through an iconic American landscape, under the supervision of a French filmmaker who barely speaks English.
A photographer (David Wissak) and his girlfriend (Pola X‘s Katia Golubeva) drive around the desert in a red Hummer, sulk, squabble, otherwise fail to communicate, and vigorously fuck, beginning with a splashing pool-sex scene out of Showgirls. Cultivating an aggressive affectlessness and queasy hermeticism, Dumont seals the couple off to such an extent that every passing stranger and approaching headlight seems to constitute a threat. The climactic violations, dutifully invasive and irrational, reduce the movie—on one level a single-minded experiment in abstract horror—to a simplistic formula linking sex, violence, and man’s animalistic nature. Wissak’s character has a habit of unleashing a piercing slaughterhouse howl at the moment of climax—the first time it happens, it functions as release for the audience too, to judge by the reciprocal guffaws. Dumont got his revenge—we weren’t laughing by the end. At the press conference, journalists tried to get the director to comment on the previous night’s uproar, but he would only shrug and offer some cryptic advice: “I encourage you to take off your clothes and go naked into Mother Nature.”