Sometimes a filmmaker comes along whose work is acclaimed --
and I just don't get it. Such is the case with Bruno Dumont (L'Humanite,
La Vie de Jésus). So I approached seeing his latest effort --
Twentynine Palms which screened as part of the 2004 "Rendez-vous
with French Cinema" at Lincoln Center -- with some trepidation.
In his three films to date, Dumont has dealt with a similar theme:
a situation fraught with ennui that is disturbed by a shocking act and
Twentynine Palms is no different. Instead of setting his film in Flanders,
however, the writer-director has moved the setting to the desert of
Southern California near the town of Twentynine Palms. David (David
Wissack) and Katia (Yekaterina Golubeva, here credited as Katia
Golubeva) are a couple in love. He's a photographer scouting locations
for an upcoming shoot. She's his girlfriend. They can barely communicate
as her English is as limited as his French, but they do understand the
universal language of love. During their road trip through the picturesque
desert, they stop to enjoy the view, to urinate by the roadside
(interestingly, she won't let him watch her) and to have passionate
sex (in swimming pools, motel rooms and out in the open air).
There's little of a dramatic nature that occurs for the first two-thirds
of the film. The couple bicker, make love (with David's screams an
admixture of pain and pleasure), and pass the time. (Not unlike the
characters in Dumont's earlier work.) Some of the scenery is breathtaking,
so the audience doesn't get completely bored. (The director has always
had a painterly eye when it comes to using nature.) But, ultimately, David
and Katia are not that interesting. It's only when an extreme act of
violence that comes out of nowhere (not unlike that of Catherine
Breillat's far superior Fat Girl) that the film veers off course.
[SPOILER AHEAD: If you don't want to know how the film ends,
skip this last paragraph.]
Knowing Dumont's penchant for breaking the boredom of his
character's lives with violence of some sort, one sits waiting for the
moment in the film, expecting that one of his leads will snap. Instead,
the violence arrives from outside when the couple's Hummer is rammed
from behind and a group of cretin-like men pull them from their car. They
strip Katia and force her to watch as one man brutally rapes David. Now,
this raises a whole set of issues. What exactly is Dumont trying to say
about America, and or about men? Is homosexual rape the most heinous
and disturbing image he could conjure? If so, then is the writer-director
homophobic? Or merely trying to be provocative? I couldn't quite make
up mind, but it was at that point he lost me as a viewer. Nevermind that
the aftermath of the rape results in an even more brutal act of violence.
Nevermind that the film's ending was almost poetic. I can appreciate that
the director wanted the couple to undergo something awful and
life-altering, but to settle for male rape merely smacks of an attempt
to be controversial.
(Also note: this film should not be confused with the little seen 29 Palms,
a crime drama, starring Jeremy Davies and Chris O'Donnell, about a
hit man chasing a whistle blower through the same desert area that
Dumont's film is set. That film is available now on DVD.)
MPAA Rating: None (nudity, sexual content, language)
Running time: 130 mins.
Viewed at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center
2004"Rendez-vous with French Cinema"