Twentynine Palms (aka 29 Palms): Bruno Dumont’s Violent Art Film

French director Bruno Dumont scored big in the international film festival circuit with his first two films, Life of Jesus and Humanite, but his third, Twentynine Palms takes a decidedly step downward, artistically and commercially.

Twentynine Palms represents the worst qualities of a trashy European art film: It’s pretentious, monotonous, nihilistic, and minimalist to a fault in plot or characterization.

The voyeuristic (and prurient) film aims at titillating (ad shocking) audiences with its imagery of frontal nudity (both female and male) and graphic portrayal of sex and violence.

Based on his work thus far, it’s safe to say that Dumont is attracted to exploring the extremities in human behavior, the lower depths.  Unfortunately, he shoots wild, picaresque landscapes, such as Joshua Park, without showing any of their beauty, and he stages explicit sex scenes that are devoid of any erotic appeal.

David (David Wissak), a young Los Angeleno, takes a film-location-scouting trip to the California’s Joshua Tree desert with his girlfriend Katia (Katia Golubeva), a Russian immigrant.

As they drive mindlessly across the desert, David occasionally stops his Red Hummer, jumps out and urges Katia into the driver’s seat.

The tale’s central (and only) characters are a bizarre couple; we never find out how they had met or what keeps them together. Katia speaks no English and he speaks no Russian, and so they communicate in broken French, a language in which neither is confident, which leads to all kinds of misunderstandings.

Most of their daytime is spent driving and or walking around the empty desert, often naked.  They can only communicate in two ways, by endlessly arguing and by having sex–and barely so.  They seem to be locked within their inner psyches and to live at the whims of their desires, which they either refuse or unable to express in a way that is mutually rewarding.

Katia appears to be childish, temperamental, and indecisive; she suddenly breaks into tears with no apparent reason.

The movie soon falls victim to its repetitive patterns, with bouts of frantic sex, followed by impassioned fights and hasty reconciliations, and then back to frantic sex.

The camera contrasts the vastness, timelessness and emptiness of the barren landscape with the two individuals, who are dwarfed when placed against the gorgeous setting (used to much better effect by other directors).

But the desert contains its own threats and menaces. Stopped by a pick-up full of rednecks, David is beaten and raped while Katia is stripped and forced to watch.

Back at the motel after their ordeal, David loses his mind and, after cutting off his hair, stabs Katia to death. The police find the Hummer in the desert with his corpse beside it.

It’s not clear if the story is meant as a cautionary tale about the difficulties of communications between two people from different cultures, or the impossibility of maintaining a meaningful relationship with a volatile, sexually driven woman.

Stylistically and thematically, the film is strange and monotonous.  The horrifically violent, explosively brutal conclusion is shocking, all right, but is unearned.