|Cast:||Katia Golubeva, David Wissak|
“There’s nothing to understand” – Katia
The genesis of Twentynine Palms came during Bruno Dumont’s trip to the California desert. It’s not so much that the locations are more dangerous, and thus scarier, than his Northern France hometown of Bailleul, but the dry, dusty, and mountainous surroundings are a startling change from the vegetative farmlands he’s used to. Dumont has crafted Twentynine Palms around the horror of dislocation, thus the landscape is arguably the main character.
The two humans, David (David Wissak) and Katia (Katia Golubeva) are outsiders scouting locations for his photoshoot, but very decidedly treating the trip as a vacation. David is presumably from somewhere in America, but has been working abroad, undoubtedly meeting Katia in France not too long ago. The duo tend to be irrationally comfortable when they are alone in any environment, whether it be the mountains where they climb and sprawl out naked or the hotel pool where they have sex. Dumont’s cinema is not a religious one where Adam & Eve change through the wisdom they’re naked, there’s no discovery in Twentynine Palms, only varying moods and feelings. Serenity or terror are merely illusions based on something that’s seeped into your head from the way you see things around you. If there’s a consistent, it’s Katia’s fear of everyone they come across. She leaves the pool as soon as others show up, fears David is going to be run over by a car even though he’s well off the shoulder and the car doesn’t appear to be a swerving drunk or cell phone kamikaze.
The manner in which the audience interacts with the landscape shots is altered by what we’ve recently seen from the humans. Although Dumont’s trademark alternating of close-up with wide angle shots creates a conflict between human beings and the landscape, our movie watching tendency is to ignore abstractions and intangibles opting to focus on traditional conflicts between characters. There’s certainly plenty of quarrels due to David & Katia spending so much time together, as the couple is in the midst of discovering just how incompatible they are. Katia says, “I love you” and David replies, I want you.” David wants to be allowed to watch Katia pee on the side of the road, while Katia wants to get to know David, although he’s essentially unknowable. The fact that English is David’s first language and Katia doesn’t speak it at all makes things more difficult; they have to stumble through Jean Claude Van Damme conversations where David throws in English words for lack of the proper French. However, Katia is even more difficult to understand, saying the polar opposite back to back and telling refusing to explain herself. Unwilling to answer each other’s questions, they act on urge and impulse, repeating the bare essentials of survival and relationship, eating, screwing, defecating, and driving around (for his work).
Bruno Dumont not only removes all the cliches of the road and horror genres, any semblance of a plot and anything self-evident are out the window in an attempt to force the audience to meditate. In an interview with New Statesman Dumont stated, “My films are completely philosophical. It’s a metaphysical cinema: good, evil, love, hate.” His characters aren’t well developed humans to adore or abhor, as philosophy eschews unique and specific individuals in favor of broad generalizations on how people think and act. In Dumont’s case, they can’t find meaning or purpose, so they respond with animalistic instincts and sensibilities. There’s very little dialogue in Twentynine Palms, and what is said is mundane and meaningless because Dumont isn’t interested in explaining his film to the audience (hence Katia’s refusal to try to make David understand). Dumont avoids answering questions, allowing his spectators to spectate. He won’t even come right out and tell you the particular topics for analysis, which makes the viewing process all the more interesting.
Twentynine Palms shows a bleak progression in Dumont’s work. Pharaon in L’Humanite was weighed down by the miserable world, but having reverted back to their most primitive state, the human race in Twentynine Palms is now entirely lacking in compassion. These people have no conscience, feel no remorse, and experience no guilt, which makes everyone a potential threat. This is more the world we see in certain period pieces, whether it be cavemen, sword and sandal, or wild wild west where anyone you encounter may try to rob, rape, or murder you. The big difference is the hero and any sense of glamour or nostalgia has been removed.
David is no less violent than anyone else simply because he’s the leading man. Love gives him a channel for his animalistic nature, but as they are discordant any attempt at fusion is doomed to result in fission. David’s violence isn’t even latent, its simply finds an outlet in the tempestuous sex he has with Katia. As David works, speaks English, and drives safely, his role is caretaker to Katia’s helpless victim. A random act of senseless violence prompts a brief role reversal, but this way if life is not only foreign to David, it’s in conflict with his nature. Perhaps his final action is simply an extreme rejection of this new role to reassert himself as the alpha male?
I used to think Twentynine Palms was more similar to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, as both European masters were relying heavily on landscapes to make their first film in the USA. The later portion where Mark and Daria are naked and alone in Death Valley has obvious similarities, but the conflict in Zabriskie Point is counterculture vs. establishment, with Antonioni clearly siding with the former. In Twentynine Palms, no one seems to have anything in common, lacking anything to live for or believe in, which makes it a film of our solitary, pessimistic, and cynical times. Their void causes polarized feelings to become indiscriminate actions that theoretically fill the hole but actually have no meaning. As in Yasuzo Masumura’s Blind Beast, the relationships only bond is sensation - pleasure or pain, agony or ecstasy - that is notable only for its intensity. Positive or negative no longer exists, as feeling something is anything and everything.
This viewing I’m more reminded of Antonioni’s beautiful but terrifying L’Avventura. The milieu of the island, evoked through the spacial photography and quiet nature initially breeds a form of happiness and excitement, as it’s a relief from their perpetual boredom. But in this isolated area that seems so tranquil, a sort of oppression begins to seep into their psyche. The mountains become ominous, and everything slowly becomes a threat in one way or another. Both directors linger on the topography with their photographic compositions emphasizing the space that eventually calls attention to the emptiness, a serenity that becomes eerie, the illusion of tranquility, and the passage of time. Their work is haunting and moody, with severe lingering after effects.
These minimalist depictions of relationships and values require patience and never shine a bright light on the goodness of humanity, but Dumont seems to be far more off-putting to audiences, partially because he's not afraid to be critical in interviews as well. Perhaps part of the difference is Antonioni targets a specific privileged few they could be expected to resent (Antonioni’s day was before the wealthy conglomerates figured out how to consolidate the media then use it to glorify themselves and act almost solely only in their interests) whereas Dumant’s characters represent the human race in general, so they could just as easily be you or I. I think its largely the raw directness of his sex and violence, though Antonioni’s later films were unfairly criticized for simply having a lot of nudity as if, especially since the actresses could have been his granddaughters, that made the film somehow automatically bad (Identification of a Woman is certainly one of his top works). Dumont doesn’t do things in an operatic or representational manner that renders it enjoyable for mass consumption. Everything is meant to be factual rather than choreographed so he films a real sex scene, or in Flanders he elicits a genuine reaction, surprising one of his soldiers by having a bomb go off next to him rather than having him do some rehearsed mugging. Generally, the art that's the furthest from the norm is the most beloved or hated, with it taking years for the audience to catch up with the artist, resulting in their stature growing when it's too late. In any case, while Antonioni may be boring and incomprehensible to some, he doesn't quite polarize audiences to the extent that people either retreat from the theater in disgust halfway through or stay for the duration and give the film a standing ovation.
Both directors demand your interactions and interpretations, though where Antonioni is clearly modern Dumont seems to make an effort to be symbolic and metaphoric. He uses modern attire to keep from making period pieces, but he’d prefer his audience considered the general concepts than the latest social or political event. This is a difficult point because human nature is to relate to what you are currently going through, hence people wind up thinking Flanders is somehow about the latest Iraq war. In L’Avventura, Antonioni pursues the mystery aspect of the human interaction with the landscape as a way to show their emotional vacuum that renders them numb and indifferent to their “quest” to find the missing woman. Dumont pursues the horror of the vacuum in Twentynine Palms, the devastating effects of utter irrelevance to everything resulting in a life of whimsically satisfying cravings. What really scares us is the absence of familiarity, and the possibility of the highly unlikely, not so much for the potential devastation but because we might have to get used to the changes it entails. This is the cinema of absence, whether it be humans or the foundations of humanity such as the capability to feel love and compassion.
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