This review of Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms is part of the New French Extremity Retrospective series.
Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms begins unassuming and unsuspecting, with two lovers (David Wissack and Katerina Golubeva) riding down the California highway. It then continues unassuming for the next hour.
He is an American photographer, and she is a Russian immigrant. They speak different languages, yet they seem to understand each other completely fine (they speak in French to bridge the gap, so the language barrier is effectively meaningless). They drive, stop at a wind farm, drive, arrive at a motel, eat dinner, drive, have sex on a rock face, sunbathe naked (which seems a dangerous proposition), drive, swim in a pool, drive.
Aside from the isolating and off-putting sexual charge that the couple (mostly David) put forward, not much happens in this first half. Plot-wise, some may say that nothing at all happens. We simply follow this couple on their journey. We know little to nothing about them. We don’t know where they met, how long they’ve been together, where exactly they intend to go. In the case of Katia, there is seemingly nothing to know. The film does not even present her with an occupation or a goal; she simply is his lover.
He, meanwhile, is simply a penis with a torso and appendages. He is reserved and likes to mope about, and then springs himself on Katia at random and often seemingly inopportune times. He goes so far as to dunk her head into a pool in an attempt to receive fellatio from her. Seemingly he is a complicated character because he struggles with his mood and urges as it pertains to his love for her.
And the only character complication she gets is the moment when she breaks down crying or when she gets defensive over David looking at another woman or when she’s hungry but never actually eats much of anything. Oh 2003, how naive and young you were. You were a less-nuanced time.
David’s sexual aggression eclipses in a close up shot of Katia performing fellatio on him. It is an inherently violent shot by how it is framed, but this is only enhanced by David’s sexual excitement in the moment. And yet, the scene ends in a tender embrace, as if we as an audience are meant to feel the affection that these two have with one another.
If this were a statement on the animalism of sex, it would be not only adequate but ingeniously framed. Humanity is constantly fighting at the border between civilized and mammalian, and this scene is the struggle on the line, where sex is an aggressive, animal act that is directly associated with the tender, human emotion of love.
However, this scene is followed by one where David throws Katia out for acting “like a princess,” so it kind of misses that cogent point about humanity.
Then, of course, there is the infamy of the film’s final 20 minutes. It is the 20 minutes that gave James Quandt such an acerbic taste in his mouth as to dub a new “movement” of transgressive French cinema the “New French Extremity,” a perverse realm where art house meets exploitation film.
Twentynine Palms is not the first film to engage with this movement’s tropes, but it was the one that pushed Quandt over the edge. Most likely it is because the scene in question comes out of nowhere with no motivation and no narrative necessity.
Regardless of its extremity, Twentynine Palms is, at its core, a vacant film featuring two irrational characters with little backstory and no depth who engage in a fraught examination of self while traveling through Southern California. Any attempts to delve into the psychology of isolation or affection are squandered by this superficiality, this incredible lack of substance.
This absence of thematic or even narrative weight is more shocking than the shock cinema that is on display at the end of the film. What results is sheer lacking, a perfect example of what people cite when they disparage art house cinema.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)