Jul 17, 2013

Twentynine Palms

Many contemporary French filmmakers are undoubtedly masters of pedantically directing long, static, and soulless ‘realist’ scenes and gratuitous real-sex and controversial frog auteur Bruno Dumont (The Life of Jesus, Outside Satan) is no exception, yet unlike many of his patently pretentious and prosaic celluloid compatriots, I actually find much of his work interesting, especially his self-described “horror film” Twentynine Palms (2003), a French-German-American coproduction set in the “Beautiful Desert Oasis” of Twentynine Palms/Joshua Tree desert in southeastern California. And, indeed, with a very thin and almost nonexistent plot, Twentynine Palms relies heavily on the organic yet somewhat ominous atmosphere of its setting, or as director Dumont stated himself, “Here, it’s not so much the subject that matters as the air itself, the atmosphere, its hue. In this way, Twentynine Palms is a horror film – an extreme horror; built up innocently, dependent on a delicate plot – the natural account of a couple of tourists engaged in wild sex – that, all of sudden, is reverse, attaining the ultimate. Death.” Featuring a curiously mismatched yet sexually active romantic couple, including an arrogant American photographer and his beauteous yet mostly melancholy Russian-French subject, Twentynine Palms portrays what happens when two people, who are clearly not meant for one another, find temporary solace in loveless sex and basking nude in the arid desert sun, but, by mere chance, face the worst kind of grotesque brutality and dehumanization at the hands of two all-American redneck types who do not take kindly to bombastic bourgeois Hollywood types poking around in their dang nasty neck of the desert. Sort of like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) meets Zabriskie Point (1970) as co-directed by Robert Bresson, Gaspar Noé, and Godfrey Reggio in pseudo-Dogme 95 style, Twentynine Palms is an experimental arthouse horror-shocker that does for the deserts of Southern California what John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) did for the wilderness of Georgia, but unlike the classic Hollywood thriller, Frenchman Dumont’s work of unrelenting ‘realist horror’ does not offer the viewer any sort of closure nor comfort in the end, but merely disgust, repulsion, and, well, real human horror and not the contrived 'mask and CGI' superficially scary sort.  A rare ‘thinking man’s horror flick’ aimed at those that probably typically abhor the genre (myself not included, though I find it harder and harder to defend the genre), as well as the kind of idiosyncratic horror-arthouse hybrid that will scare the typically dedicated gorehound away due to its long and sometimes monotonous scenes of sunny and scenic artiness, Twentynine Palms, not unlike Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) and to a lesser extent Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009), is proof that auteur filmmakers of the arthouse persuasion have more to contribute to the much maligned (and deservedly so) genre than so-called ‘masters of horror’ like George A. Romero, Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, and Tobe Hooper over the past decade or so. 

 Poorly matched odd couple David (David Wissak)—an arrogant ‘cool guy’ LA photographer type—and Katia (as Katia Golubeva aka Yekaterina Golubeva)—a Russian-French model suffering from seemingly debilitating depression, not to mention random crying attacks—make their way to Twentynine Palms from Los Angeles for a mini-vacation/photograph sessions in the ungentlemanly gentleman’s conspicuously obnoxious maroon Hummer, a senseless gas-guzzler that seems to be utilized by its owner to make up for his glaring lack of masculinity and testicular fortitude. While Katia clearly has her fair share of mental problems and personal hang-ups, she does seem to genuinely love her patronizing ‘sexual partner’ (as he is ultimately nothing more) David, who only seems interested in his trophy girlfriend when horny. Anytime Katia makes an attempt to express her feelings to boyfriend by saying “I love you” and hoping to hear the same thing back, David responds with “I want you” and proceeds to vaginally penetrate her in a crude and unemotional manner with little or not foreplay involved, as if she is the typical Russian call-girl. When David checks out a homely Asian girl while the two dine out at a Chinese restaurant, Katia becomes saddened and her boyfriend essentially insinuates that she is delusional. In fact, anytime Katia attempts to ask David about his emotions or expresses her only feelings, he flips out like a bitchy queen. Katia’s introverted sensitivity becomes especially apparent in a scene where the two find a black three-legged mutt dog on the road and she comforts the canine by telling it, “you’re a real dog.” Somewhat nonsensically, Katia encourages the tripod canine to chase her in the Hummer and the dog is ultimately hit by David, who was not paying attention while driving the SUV. Unimpressed with the fact that the already crippled canine is suffering due to his negligence, David faces vehement scorn from the oversensitive Katia, who states to him, “You don’t give a damn…You have no heart,” and, indeed, she is probably right.

 Not long after the incident with the mysterious black dog, the two have a verbal fight in their motel room and David tells Katia he would never brought her on trip if he knew she would “act like a fucking princess,” so the little lady leaves and hides around various buildings outside. After some time, David finally gets off his lazy ass and goes looking for Katia and when he actually finds her, he accuses of her of “not being well,” which inspires her to run away again, but her bastard boyfriend tackles her, smacks her around, tells her “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you” and proceeds to play fight with her as if nothing he did was wrong, thus demonstrating his seemingly sociopathic mentality. The next day, the unloving couple go for a drive in the desert and spot two men in a stereotypical silver redneck diesel driving recklessly, which inspires David to state “They’re crazy” in what will prove to be his famous last words. Not long later, the men in the silver struck start ramming the back of the Hummer and drive it off of the road. David and Katia are nonsensically pulled out of their SUV by two rather wimpy looking rednecks, who rip the Slavic French girl’s clothes and brutally beat her boyfriend, who does little to protect his girlfriend except say “don’t touch her,” as if such a feeble attempt at self-defense would stop these two clearly deranged and equally determined desert hillbillies. Clearly a less than ballsy bitch, David is forced to kneel down, bend over, drop his pants and is ultimately anally raped by a shaved head hick about half his size. Completely and utterly emasculated due to being beaten and forcibly sodomized without putting up even the slightest sign of a fight, David seems to enter a quasi-catatonic state when he goes back to the motel room with Katia, who tries to comfort her totally broken man. After temporarily leaving for a couple moments, Katia comes back to the hotel room and notices that David has locked himself in the bathroom and he refuses to reply to her requests. Out of nowhere, David, who has shaved his head and looks like the deformed Jason Vorhees as a boy from the dream sequences near the conclusion of Friday the 13th (1980), maniacally lunges at Katia and stabs her a number of times with a butcher knife in a Michael Myers-esque manner while on top of her in the same position in which they had sex only a couple days before, albeit with the roles symbolically reversed. 

 Indeed, when director Bruno Dumont described Twentynine Palms as a “story of regression” and a “savage love story,” he was not joking as the film has to be one of the most dreary and brutal depictions of an ostensibly ‘romantic’ relationship ever captured on celluloid in its portrayal of a dubious dude whose sexual desire for his lover seems to be largely born out of hate and not love, hence the climax of the film when he finally kills her in a seemingly psychosexual manner, but using a butcher knife instead of his penis to enter her body in what will be their last moment with one another. Interestingly, both David and the redneck rapist cry in the same unsettling manner upon reaching sexual orgasms, thus associating the victim’s innate similarities with his victimizer; the difference being that the pretentious LA photographer is less honest and repressed with his emotions, while the horny hick is a bit more matter-of-fact and ‘in tune’ with his emotions. The scenic desert setting of the film is an intrinsic and arguably the most important ingredient of the film as it sets the foreboding naturalistic pace for what will be two audience-traumatizing scenes of unadulterated human savagery unleashed on two cosmopolitan types who are used to the abstract hustle and bustle of the big city and have been unexposed to the naturally visceral and violent side of both man and nature. Even director Bruno Dumont stated that Twentynine Pines is a film from the gut, writing, “Envisage this film only in relation to the means employed; and so only work from instinct.” Interestingly yet tragically enough, actress Yekaterina Golubeva would commit suicide in 2011 after a long but unsuccessful battle with depression. I also would not be surprised if actor David Wissak was rather embarrassed by his guy-that-gets-raped role as he has only acted a couple times more since the release of Twentynine Palms and director Dumont was undoubtedly not doing either of the two lead actors any favors by forcing them to use their real names in the film, but what seems like totally unsimulated sex between the two makes for a raw and ruthless realist work that takes no prisoners, which is more than I can say about most contemporary horror flicks.  Many individuals seem to respond to Twentynine Palms with a special outrage and disgust and I think that was Bruno Dumont's intent as he makes the viewer 'work' for their sex and violence by portraying them in an uniquely unflattering and barbarous light and not the spoon-fed and superlatively superficial and stylized manner that boobs, deaths, and dead bodies are depicted in the typical Hollywood film.

-Ty E

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