Sex Among the Succulents

DAVID (David Wissak), a photographer scouting desert locations for a magazine shoot, is a wiry, restless young man, dark and unkempt with an imposing curved nose and a helmet of shiny brown hair that flops into his excitable eyes. His tag-along girlfriend, Katia (Katia Golubeva), a pale, Russo-French blond of the Michelle Pfeiffer school, is as quiet and supple as a cat, and comes burdened with no more useful occupation than to gaze into her lover’s eyes and murmur “Je t’aime” at regular intervals. Basing themselves in a bare-bones motel down the road from the pricier Twentynine Palms Inn, they trawl the Joshua Tree area in a red Hummer, pausing to wander naked through the cruelly beautiful terrain and engage in varieties of softcore sex, filmed in something approaching real time by writer-director Bruno Dumont, after which they lie like two contented lizards on the hot rocks. They gaze, awestruck, at armies of yucca trees and churning white windmills. They have some more explicit sex, in the motel pool and in their room, and then, over ice cream cones at the local Foster’s Freeze, they start quarreling in earnest. He worships, he sulks, he hits. She giggles, she pouts, she offers up a string of non sequiturs with a faraway look in her eyes. Then, more sex, and more fighting.

Over and over in Twentynine Palms, Dumont rubs our noses in every detail of this tumultuous, yet oddly inconsequential, relationship. (“Someday I want to see you pee,” David tells Katia. She balks, but Dumont turns us into voyeurs instead.) This is not a new strategy for Dumont, whose other two films, The Life of Jesus and L’Humanité, both used obsessive repetition to probe the potential for extremity in the cumulative banalities and thwarted desires of a stunted psyche. But he’s explored this to much better advantage in his wonderfully elliptical The Life of Jesus, the story of a cramped and meaningless life that finally explodes into a shocking act of racism.

Shot in gorgeous CinemaScope, Twentynine Palms has at least the virtue of savage beauty. Dumont has a wonderful feel for spatial contrast — he sets the tawdry amenities and constriction of the motel against the magisterial, unspoiled openness of the desert, which properly dwarfs the two lovers — and he’s a master at creating a slow burn of premonitory terror. Willfully, microscopically descriptive, Twentynine Palms demands to be understood on its own terms, and like Dumont’s other work, it flatly refuses to make those terms clear until the end of the movie. Fair enough, but in the meantime we have to put up with the most annoying pair of movie lovebirds since Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman fucked and fought their way through Eyes Wide Shut.

Dumont clearly means to explore the roller-coaster ups and downs of the intense love affair, very likely one he’s had himself. At a stretch, he may even intend us to find David and Katia, or at least David’s orgasmic moans, funny. In truth, like most lovers who see nothing beyond themselves and each other, they’re a terrible bore to spend time with. They’re all Promethean instinct, but their state of nature is more ridiculous than grand. Perhaps because he senses this himself, Dumont unloads on us a B-movie climax of studied and perverse depravity, capped by another that looks like something swept up from the cutting-room floor of Psycho. There’s something pinched and moralistic in Dumont’s stance toward his pathetic characters, not to say sadistic — an orgy of punishment for the crime of being a couple of airheads chasing pleasure. And in the final scenes, Dumont treats himself to some glib anti-Americanism (in the production notes, the director calls his characters “protagonists of the imperious culture,” which only a charitable view would put down to lousy translation) to rival the ending of Lars von Trier’s smug Dogville. I won’t deny we have it coming, but by way of putdowns, we deserve better.

TWENTYNINE PALMS| Written and directed by BRUNO DUMONT | Produced by JEAN BRÉHAT and RACHID BOUCHAREB | Released by Wellspring | At the Nuart

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