By my nature, I’m profoundly skeptical,” says director Bruno Dumont, “and I try to communicate to my audience the physical experience of that skepticism.” It’s that skepticism that fuels Dumont’s new Twentynine Palms (opening April 9) and propels its main characters, a man and woman aimlessly making their way through an unwelcoming SoCal desert, to a demystifying finale that allows the director to chart a frightening dialectic between pleasure and pain.
Dumont’s previous films, the maddeningly ambiguous Humanité and the Bressonian The Life of Jesus (both screening at Anthology this week), invited allegorical readings. If a glimmer of Adam and Eve exists in the fucking, squabbling couple at the center of Twentynine Palms, is Eden the seemingly untainted desert that casts them out? Fiercely anti-religious, the Gallic visionary feels his audience shouldn’t look for allegory in his latest polemic but admits to being interested “in philosophy and religion in their most primitive and savage forms.” He adds, “I think that’s why my cinema is seen as so radical, because I’m trying to reinvent it.”
Dumont cites the arrangement of subjects in Matisse’s paintings as a philosophical point of reference. “Twentynine Palms is a fine-art experiment,” he explains. “I tried to reduce and even do away with all the important notions of figurative cinema.” Not surprisingly, it’s a film of sinister divides—the aqueous space David Wissak must navigate inside a motel pool in order to reach Katia Golubeva is as deadly as the bathroom door they use to keep each other at bay. The director, who calls his controversial ending a kind of “Pavlovian slap,” is quick to point out that Twentynine Palms has no hidden ideology, describing it only as a distinctly American horror film. “It’s a film about the sensation of American cinema, and it’s an experiment using that sensation. It’s like taking a train ride through a haunted house,” he says. But when pressed to address the political implications of the film’s violence at a time when Janet Jackson’s tit inspires more debate and congressional spitfire than a high school shooting, Dumont admits he did want to confront and exasperate us with “the absolute representation of horror.” He concludes, “The film is an assault against puritanism.”