Eye For Film >> Movies >> Twentynine Palms (2003) Film Review
Twentynine Palms is one of those rare films that provokes such loathing in those that dislike it that any attempt to persuade them of its merits is largely a waste of time. It is the third film to be written and directed by Bruno Dumont, whose similarly uncompromising second film, Cannes Grand Prix winner L’Humanité, polarised critical opinion when it was released in 1999. Rather than polarise critics a second time, however, Twentynine Palms was greeted upon its release with almost universal hoots of derision. Panned for the same reasons his earlier films were praised, it seems as though its director is no longer the fortunate recipient of the benefit of the doubt.
The plot, such as it exists, concerns a young couple who drive out to the eponymous town in the California desert. David is a photographer scouting locations for a magazine shoot, and his girlfriend Katia is tagging along. Not much happens by way of incident. She’s childish, sullen, moody and volatile – prone to outbursts of jealousy, weeping, rage and laughter. He’s vaguely arrogant, impatient and distant. They fuck and fight with one another in the middle of nowhere, their relationship becoming increasingly frayed until two meaningless outbursts of extreme violence lay them both to waste.
Shot in an incredibly spare and pared back style with only two actors, Dumont uses extremely long unbroken takes and shoots a lot of the action in long-shot. The narrative unfolds at a snail’s pace, there is no score at all and hardly any dialogue. A film fundamentally about people who are unable communicate, Dumont has his characters speak in a combination of English and halting French (he’s American, she’s Russian), punctuated by long silences.
Their breakdown in communication, however, is less because of the language barrier than because neither character is willing to accept how far apart they’ve drifted. “I don’t understand you!” David cries in exasperation at one point. “You’re saying things I don’t understand!” “There’s nothing to understand” she replies. Language becomes increasingly meaningless, their declarations of love increasingly mechanical. Their relationship is as arid as the location - at one point they even have to abandon their attempts to make love in the desert because Katia says she is “too dry”.
Their fights are futile, increasingly bitter and often motivated by little more than their barely suppressed resentment and frustration with one another. They resolve them with the extended bouts of increasingly desperate, primal sex that have become, or have always been, their only means of communication. Either way, their isolation from other human beings brings the tensions between them to a head.
What makes all this compelling is the underlying sense of brooding menace. There is something unsettlingly agoraphobic and threatening about cinematographer Georges Lechaptois’ carefully composed shots of the desert’s empty vast open spaces and the carefully designed sound which magnifies the characters’ breathing in the stillness.
This feeling of ill-defined unease that bubbles below the deceptively banal surface of the story comes both from within their relationship and without. Their sex slips briefly out of control when David pushes Katia’s head beneath the water in the pool to fellate him and she starts to choke. In another vaguely disconcerting scene, Katia watches David absently fondling himself through his towel as he watches a television programme about incest. The couple’s rows become more violent, their conversations less articulate, but when violence finally does erupt, it is a random act of primitive cruelty from without, and a catalyst that finally sees the relationship’s tensions explode into mutual annihilation.
Critics have complained that Dumont’s film is self-important in theme and execution, petulant in its implied criticism of American barbarism, and risible in its depiction of the couple’s endless bestial lovemaking. In response it should be conceded that the film isn’t an unqualified success, even if accepted on its own rather difficult terms. Certainly, those who are tempted to rent the film by the quotation on the box (attributed to Total Film), which describes it as “Deliverance meets Psycho”, will be disappointed. It doesn’t bear meaningful comparison to either.
But even admirers of Antonioni or Bresson, both of whose films have clearly informed Dumont’s minimalist approach, will need to watch the film with patience and sympathy. There are longeurs, the sex scenes are mannered and at times clumsy (in both senses) and, although the film is full of striking images and compositions, some of the key scenes are poorly staged. But on balance, although Twentynine Palms is a flawed and possibly even failed experiment, it is nevertheless a brave, frequently intriguing and occasionally fascinating one with enough to reward the receptive viewer should their taste be that way inclined.Reviewed on: 01 Sep 2005