With his first film, Life of Jesus, philosophy professor turned film maker, Bruno Dumont announced himself as a director to watch. His sophomore effort La Humanite managed to spark equal amounts of praise and condemnation, solidifying Dumont as a provocateur with a bleak view. Twentynine Palms, which feels like an odd combination of Zabriske Point and Deliverance, adds another slow-paced, meditative shocker to his resume and is, no doubt, a film that should divide viewers as either a thoughtful work of existentialist horror or an indulgent failed experiment.
A couple, David and Katia (David Wissack and Katerina Golubeva), travel around the Joshua Tree National Park where David, a photographer, is scouting for photo shoot locations. They fight. They screw. They screw and fight. They drive arcoss rough backroads in David's hummer and stop at some picturesque desert locales or modest motels. And then, something really bad happens that suddenly leads to a shocking grindhouse finale.
As the end credits rolled, I jotted down in my notes, "Feels more like an experiment than a fully realized film." Then, as I watched the DVD interview with Dumont, one of the first things he says is that he thought of the film as an experimental horror movie. Guess I deserve a little pat on the back. (pat-pat-pat)
The fact that David is a photographer is sort of stated matter of factly early on. I don't recall ever seeing him with a camera in hand, and it is clear that to Dumont it wasn't really important and was just a throwaway reason for why they are there. Dumont favors minutia over such details and clearly doesn't aim for conventional plotting and tacking on standard narrative information. His films become revealing simply due to the mood conveyed by an actors face or the framing of a piece of scenery rather than some long bit of dialogue. Unfortunately, when it comes to Twentynine Palms this minutia becomes repetitive and it seems his intentions were far more sketched out than in Life of Jesus or La Humanite where, I feel, his minimalist skills worked to far better effect.
So, what is the point? Well, David is American and Katia is French. He has limited understanding of French and she has limited understanding of English. When they speak, it sort of a mixture of the two, often with Katia speaking in French and David responding in English. On top of that, they have the typical, some would say stereotyped, communication troubles between men and women. For instance, when Katia utters the classic, "What are you thinking?" to David, who responds, "Nothing." Katia doesn't believe him and prods him further, and when he insists he isn't thinking about anything really, she takes it as his hiding something and goes into an angry fit. As much as I would like to side on this being some pat, bad stand up comedy routine observation about the difference between the sexes, I've experienced it on more than one occasion with similar (though probably less emotional) reactions. I've been on that end, just thinking about a dull grey haze of "Work. Shower. Eat.", only to be accused of hiding some deep emotional secret from my lover.
As I said, this kink in David and Katia's relationship would be fine if Dumont wasn't so repetitive with it. We also get a scene with David half-glancing at a restaurant waitress, which leads to another hysteric accusatory tirade from Katia that he was lusting after the waitress. They stop and eat some ice cream. David asks Katia if hers is good and she replies, "It is good but it is not good.", which leads to an argument about how he doesn't understand her sometimes. Again, it is the minimal style that makes the scenes feel repetitive; they serve a purpose and convey essential information, but in the basic "they drive- they stop- they stay at a hotel- they drive- they stop..." plotting, it gets old. Really, though there is a steady sense of things unraveling, only some bouts of furious sex and a whopper of a finale shake things up and turn the film on its ear.
Dumont appears to be making a comment on nature, its beauty, its violence, and how the human equation figures into this. We may call ourselves civilized, but much of our behavior, including within our most intimate relationships, can suggest we aren't a far cry from basic animalistic impulses. I did enjoy it, and see it as a good examination of love, aggression, and evil, but I think Dumont's own style actually gets in the way. His simple plotting and reluctance to "direct" gives his actors some looseness but also boxes them in. In the end, it the kind of film where I think I got the point pretty early on, and if it wasn't for the punch-in-the-face finale, I'd have felt I'd wasted the better part of an hour in Twentynine Palms.
The DVD: Wellspring.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. 'Whattaya want? The film was lensed in the freakin' desert, which is a locale that is pretty hard to photograph in a bad light. Dumont says he hates composition, which to me seems like a big paradox for a director, especially one who favors long, locked down takes. Sorry Bruno, you got some lovely shots. But, he did avoid the striking sunsets that most directors would be prone to including in their desert based film. It is mainly very stark sunny exteriors and simple interiors. The transfer is fine. Printwise the color, contrast, and sharpness appear in pretty good shape, with little softness and no serious dirt or damage. Technically, there is some slight edge enhancement in a few scenes.
Sound: Dolby Stereo or 5.1 Surround. The dialogue is a mix of English and French, with English subtitles for the French. Again, in keeping with Dumonts simple, anti-cinema rules, there is no score to the film, and I'd venture to guess even the atmospheric noise was all on-set recorded with little to zero post-recorded fx. The audio is fine, but as I said, there isn't a lot going on.
Extras: Trailer— Directors Note of Intent and Bio text info— Director Interview (10:21)— Wellspring Previews for nine different titles including Life of Jesus and La Humanite.
Conclusion: Well, when I heard the French DVD release had some good extras, mainly a 36 minute "making of" featurette and producer interview, I had my hopes the US release might acquire them. Well, Wellspring didn't grab either of those but do offer a very good director interview. The film itself is a little oblique. I'd say it is best reserved as a casual rental. Maybe worth a purchase if you are a fan of Dumont's other films.