Hell is where you find it, boy. In the nutty Euro-art tradition of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point and Wenders’s Paris, Texas, Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms is a movie by a European auteur gone looking for America and discovering its heart of darkness in the highway, gas station, and motel room moonscape of the limitless West. And in the more recent, even nuttier Amerindie manner of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry and Vincent Gallo’s still unreleased The Brown Bunny, it’s a provocatively minimalist exercise constructed from chunks of real time and drafts of nothingness.
Dumont’s trademark, established in his previous features Life of Jesus and Humanité, is a sense of belligerent time-wasting. He makes the aimless visceral. Thus, although pointedly devoid of social context, every action in Twentynine Palms is given enormous weight. Driving toward Death Valley with their Hummer radio tuned to Hawaiian ethno-funk, shaggy-haired David (David Wissak) and his petite amie, Katia (Katia Golubeva, the memorable succubus in Leos Carax’s Pola X) are captivated by the sight of a distant wind farm. The pair, who converse in limited French, pull over for a closer look. “Someday I want to see you pee,” David muses. That desire is coyly frustrated, but Dumont soon treats the spectator to David and Katia’s strenuous tryst in the motel swimming pool—the first of their many uncomfortable-looking and increasingly noisy fucks.
David, it would seem, is scouting locations. He and Katia drive off the road into the desert to clamber naked through the primordial landscape like Adam and Eve. He’s monosyllabic and she’s high-strung. Communication comes and goes like a distant radio station. Katia’s helium squeak rises to hysteria when David inadvertently sideswipes a stray dog—which eventually limps off on three legs. (Introducing Twentynine Palms at the Toronto film festival last September, Dumont compared cinema itself to just such a creature—asserting that the audience is the missing limb.)
Irritating improv and bad acting are crucial to the Dumont experience. In an interview with Mark Peranson in Cinema Scope, the director gallantly characterized his leading lady as a “pain in the ass” and a “strange person.” Working like a junk sculptor with a particularly recalcitrant piece of bric-a-brac, he realized that he’d have to modify his conception of the couple’s relationship in order to accommodate the actress’s lack of passion. Not that her combative nature isn’t convincing. After some relatively relaxed sex, Golubeva’s easily offended Katia wanders off alone into the night—setting the stage for a petulant lovers’ tussle in the middle of the highway. Twentynine Palms might have been titled The Screamers—and not just because David telegraphs his orgasm with a Tarzanic bellow. Eros inevitably merges with violence in Dumont’s world. The filmmaker shifts gears for a denouement that combines aspects of Deliverance and Psycho.
Dumont’s Life of Jesus was a most impressive debut, and many critics found the outrageously deadpan, visually grandiose police procedural Humanité some sort of great movie. I look forward to their response to Twentynine Palms. Dumont’s taste for the elemental has always flirted with the moronic. But this time, he’s dozed off at the wheel and drifted well over the line.