TwentyNine Palms Review
When European directors move to North America, the beauty and openness of the scenery can leave their films striped of a story in favour of admittedly stunning imagery. Zabriskie Point sees Antonioni's camera gaze out to the horizon, leaving his message from the counterculture burning up in the sun. Prettily empty films can be calming and hypnotic but one always comes away slightly unsatisfied.
Morvern Callar is equally beautiful to look at - any one frame could be isolated and would work wonderfully as a still image - but has a depth that causes it to linger in the mind long after it has ended. Morvern was a glimpse of the chill of Oban in the shimmering Mediterranean light, which kept her at a distance, quite unlike Antonioni's sixties ciphers, who became absorbed into the desert.
Either result would be more than enough to have given Twentynine Palms some shape but Bruno Dumont's 2003 film feel like it has been deliberately made without form. It is a languid, moody story about a twentysomething couple in the Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave Desert - Denny (David Wissack) is a photographer scouting for locations and is accompanied by his girlfriend, Cris (Yekaterina Golubeva). It is clear that the relationship is in its final days but the couple tour the desert in search of landscapes suitable for Denny's upcoming but unmentioned assignment. They buy ice-cream, are verbally abused by a passing motorist, run over a three-legged dog, fight and make love. The emptiness of their surroundings is, however, beguiling and when they feel at their most alone, something terrible happens that will cause the final bonds in their relationship to snap.
The first ninety minutes of Twentynine Palms are beautiful and uncluttered but also flimsy. Wissack and Golubeva make an attractive couple but they are dispassionate and the arguments they have are begun and concluded offscreen, which keeps the audience at a distance. We see their disagreement but we also see the sex that they mechanically use to communicate to one another. She is French, he is American and although they have a smattering of one another's languages it doesn't seem to be enough. They have sex in the pool, their motel room and the desert and Cris gives Denny a blowjob in the doorway of their room but the lack of emotion between them only makes each act less comforting - this is a couple having sex only because there is nothing else for them to do. When we see Cris urinating in the desert as Denny's back is turned - he tells her that all he wants to do is watch her pee - we realise that we are being given the opportunity to get closer to her than is given to Denny and when he slaps Cris after she runs out on him, there really isn't anywhere else for this couple to go. As the man choreographing all of this, Dumont feeds each argument, physical fight and sexual act to us until he has nothing left but an extreme act of sexual violence to offer.
Saying that Twentynine Palms has much in common with Deliverance does rather give away the ending but as the DVD cover also makes that claim, I am happy to repeat it here. What the two films have in common is that it can be argued that director Bruno Dumont has fallen in love with the scenery of the Mojave desert just as John Boorman did with the Chattoga River in Georgia. Where Boorman drew out the threat of violence within the surrounding forest, so too does Dumont in the desert. The clear difference between the two is that Deliverance is not only about the rape of Ned Beatty's Bobby Trippe by Bill McKinney's mountain man. That one act of extreme violence may well be a culmination of the feeling of dread that exists as Beatty, Cox, Voight and Reynolds travel down river but it is not the sole reason for the film. Twentynine Palms, on the other hand, really has nothing other than the rape and physical violence that occurs during the film's last half hour.
But it still left this viewer confused. I'm sure that Dumont has intended Twentynine Palms to be a statement on something but I'm really not sure what. The only things that came to mind were that it's awfully dull watching people have sex and that people who drive 4x4/SUV/pickups are, to put it bluntly, assholes.
Denny is an asshole who appears to care more for keeping his massive car free of scratches than he does his girlfriend. By driving and being unable to control this enormous car, he runs over a three-legged dog that is slowly hopping alongside his Hummer. Similarly, the motorist who shouts at them is driving a pickup as are their attackers whilst the only car that presents no threat to them is a little saloon. Such is the paranoia of a 4x4 driver that it is the sight of this car that it causes Cris to panic. The large number of shots of Cris and Denny driving in his Hummer, oblivious to the violence outside their SUV windows, suggests that being isolated within such a large vehicle is only fleeting but that they're so entrenched in their attitude to notice.
Of course, this may not be the intended comment but there simply isn't very much else here. Had Twentynine Palms been a short film, say fifteen minutes or less, it would certainly have been interesting but the ninety minutes of arguing, driving and sex are as empty as the Californian desert. If that was Dumont's intended statement, then he has achieved it on an intellectual level but what he has failed to do is to capture the heart of his argument, leaving Twentynine Palms as a soulless exercise in experimental filmmaking.
Dumont has favoured the use of long shots for TwentyNine Palms so digital noise is kept to a minimum. Add this to the sharpness of the picture and the reproduction of rich colours of the American landscapes and this film has received an excellent transfer from Tartan.
The audio track has fared just as well. Despite the Region 1 having Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks, IMDB do not - please comment below if this is an error - and Tartan have released the film with a 2.0 Stereo track. Given the nature of the film, it was important that the audio track is free of noise and Tartan do not disappoint, allowing the ambient noise of the desert to be heard.
Unfortunately, the subtitles are a bit of a letdown. With the dialogue being a mix of French and English, selecting to display the English subtitles only does so for the French dialogue and vice versa.
Making Of Twentynine Palms (34m16s): Presented in what looks to be a direct transfer from fuzzy videotape, this is a behind-the-scenes documentary from the first day of shooting to the end of principal filming. Featuring extensive interviews with director Bruno Dumont, this does an excellent job of having the director explains his intentions in making this experimental horror film.
Interview With The Producer (21m30s): Filmed very informally in a hotel room - the feature begins mid-sentence and the sound takes a little time to reach its normal level - this feature has Jean Brehat talking about his initial meeting with Bruno Dumont and the films that they have made together as well as the making of Twentynine Palms. Of particular interest for fans of Dumont's work will be his recalling of moments from the making of La Vie de Jésus and L'Humanité.
Poster Concepts: This is essentially a photo gallery of eighteen images showing various ideas that were worked upon before the film's theatrical release.
Original Theatrical Trailer (1m05s): This trailer plays up on the tensions and horror of the film and it is only in its final moments that the relaxed pace of the film is made clear.
Tartan have also included a set of film notes by Tom Dawson but with this being a check disc, I do not have a copy of these to review.
Bruno Dumont has described Twentynine Palms as an experimental horror film but that, I think, is rather more hopeful than honest. Such a description suggests that Twentynine Palms is in a similar vein to those of David Lynch but Dumont has failed to capture the surreal nature of the desert as Lynch did with Wild At Heart, leaving a film punctuated only by sex and violence. There is a little too much of one and not enough of the other.
With an excellent transfer and a good range of extras, this would be a fine film for those who appreciate the tiresome experiments of Catherine Breillat or Vincent Gallo but anyone expecting it to live up to the beauty and power of Boorman's Deliverance will be disappointed.
Last updated: 23/05/2018 06:37:03