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TWENTYNINE PALMS (director/writer: Bruno Dumont; cinematographer: Georges Lechaptois; editor: Dominique Petrot; cast: Katia Golubeva (Katia), David Wissak (David); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jean Bréhat/Rachid Bouchareb; Wellspring; 2003-France-in French, with English subtitles)
“The talented filmmaker laid an egg with this one.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Philosopher turned filmmaker Bruno Dumont’s (“The Life of Jesus”/”L’humanite”) existential studied look at America in the California desert from the perspective of a touristy foreigner, disappointed more than it enlightened me. The Frenchman’s road film portends to uncover the dirty little secrets about American consumerism and its penchant for the same kind of violence Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 Zabriskie Point uncovered, but the Italian did it in a masterful and soulful way that Dumont wasn’t able to duplicate. Dumont’s film suffers from an inadequate script, uninteresting leads, and a minimalist story that gets stuck in meaningless sexual encounters and idle conversations. The talented filmmaker laid an egg with this one, not able to make his anthropological observations translate to a real feeling for a human relationship. I was more interested in the location landscape shots of the desert than I was in the characterizations or the base observations about America, and when the film turned ugly with incomprehensible violence to finally get at what Dumont was driving at–I just became turned off rather than pleased with the pat conclusions that America is such an alien country.

David is a yuppie American photographer from Los Angeles who speaks only English and his sexy Russian, free-spirited girlfriend model Katia speaks only French (somehow she understands him when he speaks). They search out location sites for a magazine photo shoot in David’s gas-guzzling red Hummer, traveling to Twentynine Palms, California, and the neighboring Joshua Tree National Park, engaging in trivial conversations and many animalistic sexual encounters along the way. The couple acts bored in the eerily isolated area, get on each other’s nerves, have sex in their motel, eat Chinese food, screw in the pool, take in the splendors of the majestic desert, have a mild spat over the ice cream being good, and Dave accidentally hits a stray dog that Katia encouraged to run alongside their vehicle — causing it to have one leg maimed. The latter incident puts a damper on their relationship, as Katia accuses him of not caring and he can’t understand where she’s coming from. But this is only the beginning of the couple’s plunge into darkness, as local toughs in their car run the couple’s SUV off the road and then attack them. The shell-shocked couple returns to their motel, unable to get their bearings, and this leads to an incomprehensible scene of psychotic violence.

This is the first time Dumont ventured away from his native city of Bailleul, and he seems lost in the desert and never able to find his way out of there. He called his film an experimental horror film, be that as it may, one that in a not too subtle way reinforces the notion that all mankind is capable of cruelty and violence–which can be unleashed at any time the nerves are touched. It was hard to buy into this concept about human nature from this unpleasant, contrived scenario, that seemed more reflective of Dumont’s beliefs than a reasonable tenet about the human condition.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”