Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Twentynine Palms

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

TWENTYNINE PALMS

6/10

France (Fr/Ger) 2003 : Bruno DUMONT : 119 mins

Oh brother … Where to begin with this one? Best to begin at the end, which is so radically unexpected/horrible Dumont must either be some kind of bonkers genius or worst kind of talentless art-house fraudster. No middle-ground possible. At memorable London Film Festival screening, restless (highbrow) audience audibly hostile during credit-roll  – barest smattering of applause. Which this reviewer joined in, if only as recognition of Dumont ’s sheer psychotic chutzpah  – revolted patron behind groaned (to himself)  “Ohh, don ’t clap … ” Some reactions even more extreme: several walk-outs; one carry-out (woman fainted, taken away on stretcher); many  ‘survivors ’ who toughed it out heard severely  ‘dissing ’ picture, Dumont and Festival programmers on way to exits.

So why the fuss? Unfair to describe deliriously extreme final reel in detail; very little  ‘warning ’ given during preceding soporific 110 minutes. These consist of mismatched romantic couple David (David Wissak) and Katia (Katia Golubeva) driving across California from Los Angeles to Twentynine Palms. Along way conduct broken-English/broken-French conversations, but never quite manage to overcome language barrier. Main mode of communication is physical: intense (surprisingly positive) sex in soulless motel rooms and pools.  ‘Plot ’ concerns remain elusive  – he ’s supposedly scouting locations for movie. She seems to be tagging along for ride.

Pair don ’t interact much with anyone else. Main drama  – before final cataclysm  – comes when they come across pair of dogs who she (irresponsibly) encourages to run alongside car, with predictably unfortunate consequences.  “I don ’t think they ’re gonna understand your French, honey! ” he scolds. Is whole film about such breakdowns in communication? Hard to tell. Alienation/inscrutability are keywords  – California just as autistic an environment as Dumont ’s Flanders-border hometown Bailleul, locus of first two (pretentious/profound) movies The Life of Jesus (1996) and Humanity (1999): as saying goes, you can take the boy out of Bailleul …

Early stretches: a James Benning road-movie. Blank landscape repeatedly contemplated. Imagine The Vanishing, except without any vanishing. Antonioni ahoy: L ’Avventura meets Zabriskie Point (hard to shake Variety ’s withering dismissal of Twentynine Palms as  ‘Zabriskie Pointless ’.) Van Sant ’s Gerry, Weir ’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Genre of back-o-beyond ominousness, the horror of a clear blue sky. With added sexathons, since it ’s a French picture.

Not entirely humourless, however. In motel room, they watch what look amusingly like shadowy out-takes from Mulholland Dr..  “An art-film, ” he numbly intones. Motel rooms identical? Or do they keep returning to same motel? Disorientation sets in early, eyelids start to sag soon after. Unappealing leads: maddeningly volatile Katia, craggy David (looks like cross between Oasis ’s Liam and Sonic Youth ’s Lee). His noisy climaxes generate (unintentional?) audience mirth. Pseudo-existentialism very easy to mock as pretentious: Grandrieux ’s La Vie Nouvelle would make soul-sapping double bill.

And yet, and yet … In retrospect, Dumont ’s USA always irrationally dangerous space: when trying to crossing road, they ’re bawled out by insanely abusive truck-driver. Funny at time, nasty portent in retrospect. Easy Rider-ish vibe has been there from the start  – and explodes into the foreground in bizarro final minutes. Dumont ’s own  “noisy climax ”: genuinely shocking and disturbing violence  – nightmarish … but gratuitous? Aftermath: extended, grimly poetic last long-shot  – audience stunned/revolted by this point. Neutrality isn ’t option. For that, and maybe only that, some smattering of applause is surely justified.

21st November, 2003
(seen 1st November : Odeon West End, London  – London Film Festival)

Director Bruno Dumont on Twentynine Palms here
Can’t wait to find out what happens at the end? Click here for spoiler-tastic fun!

click here for a full list of films covered at the 2003 London Film Festival

by Neil Young