In recent years, cinema has moved further and further away from the realm of art and into mindless, thoughtless entertainment. That’s what French filmmaker Bruno Dumont believes, and he’s ready for a revolution. The desolate, frequently tedious “Twentynine Palms” is his battle cry (albeit a muted one). Dumont’s third film is experimental in every possible sense — he flauts tradition by requiring his actors to use minimal dialogue; he mixes frank sex scenes with panoramic views of the California desert; he plays up mankind’s more primal drives with an ending that’s thoroughly senseless and deeply upsetting.
Whether or not the experiment pays off depends upon individual viewers (particularly American ones) and their ability to accept that entertainment and art can exist separately. Those with little patience for the tedium of everyday life funneled into film form need not apply, either. In “Twentynine Palms,” Dumont’s flirtation with American horror films, there is little to enjoy and much to endure for the sake of artistry. The film opens unremarkably in the midst of a road trip to Twentynine Palms, a desert California town that immediately sets the mood thermostat to “little do they expect.” (Cheerful movies almost never happen in a desert.) David (David Wissak) is scouting locations for a magazine shoot; his French girlfriend, Katia (Yekaterina Golubeva), appears to be along for the ride. Healthy as their collective sex drive is, it’s obvious something’s not right with these lovers. His French is as minimal as her English, so their conversations are simple at best, dumb at worst. Katia has strange emotional outbursts that come on like tornadoes, decimate everything and then evaporate. We gather that these two have had trouble, bad trouble, at some point, but our instincts are all we have to go on. There’s no history, no back story, barely a smidgen of emotional connection or tenderness. David or Katia are strangers to us; Dumont, it’s clear, wouldn’t have it any other way.
With so little context, then, the characters do not supply adequate motivation for us to ride out the banality in “Twentynine Palms.” Why keep going? Again, this depends on each viewer’s level of patience and willingness to trust in Dumont’s vision (though he’d likely balk at that term). Almost nothing happens in the film for a solid 90 minutes but arguments followed by sex followed by eating followed by driving … this cycle continues as if on some interminable loop. Underneath these commonplace events, there’s a pervasive sense that Katia and David’s relationship is slowly unspooling. The cinematography, all the slow, roving shots of the California desert, lend “Twentynine Palms” a nearly perceptible air of doom. Dumont’s camera lingers almost lovingly on the Joshua trees, the rocky paths and dusty air, so much so that the arid desert becomes a character far more expressive than David or Katia, who come off as dull, anonymous. This air of doom, however, is but a faint whiff of things to come; it does nothing to prepare us for the unrelenting, almost cartoonish final minutes, so distressing that, 24 hours after seeing this finale, I simply cannot discuss it … except to say that it rendered this reviewer a quivering bundle of frayed nerves and confusion. Somehow endings like this, that blindside us almost casually, are most often the ones that rock us to the core.
And it’s the ending, unhinging as it is, that raises some questions about “Twentynine Palms” that Dumont is loathe to answer. We want to shout: “Why did this happen? Why end the movie this way? Why this couple? What does all this MEAN?” Much as the Coen brothers did in the recent “A Serious Man,” Dumont causes us to confront our perceptions about how we believe films should operate and our own sense of entitlement as viewers. So many films play out like large-scale games of hide-and-seek, with the answers hiding and us finding them, or (more often than not) the director finding them for us and presenting them like little gifts. “Twentynine Palms” is not like that. Bruno Dumont is not like that. He’s unconcerned with what we want or expect. This director is out to make art, not entertainment, and he has done exactly that.