Via Chicago
— Errata Movie Podcast —
2003, France
director: Bruno Dumont

In Claire Denis's Friday Night, a woman named Laure momentarily leaves a stranger in the passenger seat of her gridlocked car, and when she returns, he's behind the wheel. She climbs into the passenger seat, and for a few manic moments her car — her life — is out of her control as the man whips through alleys and side streets to circumvent the traffic jam. Laure is on the eve of moving in with her fiancé. She's reticent about the prospect, but Denis lets Laure's fear direct the camera just as it directs Laure's melancholy gaze. By catching just the right faces and turns, the camera conveys Laure's sense of possessiveness toward her car as if it's the last gasp of her vanishing freedom.

Writing about Bruno Dumont's new film Twentynine Palms in Senses of Cinema, Darren Hughes says, "when all is said and done — after the endless driving, the pain-faced orgasms, the countless miscommunications, and the brutal, brutal violence — Twentynine Palms, I think, is really a film about a red truck."

He may be right. Dumont started his filmmaking career by shooting industrial videos, and he has cited a particular shot of a candy factory — where his camera moved into a chocolate machine — as the first time he captured an emotion on video tape, an emotion triggered not by people but by twisting ribbons of dark creamy goo. It's an odd statement, but it may explain why the characters in his more recent features are so mechanical, so tactile, why their sex is so robotic, and why the red Hummer that David and Katia use for scouting photo-shoot locations in Twentynine Palms seems less like a mere conveyance and more like the outer shell of the people inside. They live at the whims of their deeply-programmed desires but are unable, or unwilling, to reconcile them where they conflict, casually stroking themselves while watching TV that they find by turns abhorrent or amazing, unable to turn away, unable to decide if ice cream tastes good or bad, unable to stop eating. But when they're in the truck, these two bundles of contradictions must move together in the same direction, and one of them needs to drive.

Like Laure's car in Friday Night, the red Hummer's trials and fortunes are inextricably tied to those of its occupants, and vice-versa. David and Katia get equal time on the screen, but Katia is so dramatically simple that the character seems to be David's exaggerated view of the woman, and perhaps all women: she can't drive, she's childishly indecisive, she breaks into tears when he glances at a passing woman, and she asks him if he could ever molest children. It seems clear to him that sharing this pool with her will somehow destroy him, but he plunges in headlong anyway. He's courting danger. As they drive across the Mars-like rubble, he stops the truck, jumps out, and urges Katia into the driver's seat as he jogs around to the other side. He's as game, as willfully careless, as Laure when she lets a stranger into her passenger seat, but he goes a step further by encouraging his partner to take the wheel, something that Laure's companion did only when she wasn't looking.

Katia veers into chaparral and scrapes the truck, of course, but this is only the beginning. The truck with the double-entendre name, whose color matches Katia's hair and whose blemishes are removed with a cream similar to Katia's, gradually slips from David's control. Even when he retakes the wheel he remains within Katia's sphere. He drives past a rural house, and she leans out of the passenger window to encourage a couple of dogs to run alongside. One of them is hit. To her, David's callous response proves that he's heartless. Dumont waves his hand and miraculously solves the problem, but David files the incident away and knows that more is coming.

More is coming. Katia attracts another pack of dogs, or so it seems, more vicious than the last, and the two lose control of their truck, but in a bizarre twist of fate, contrary to David's implicit prediction, Katia was not the catalyst of the attack, not even the target. When he realizes this, his picture of himself and his world is upended. His destruction is complete in his feminization, or rather in his reluctant acceptance of Katia's view of men as he understands it. Each of the film's awkward, harshly lit sex scenes concludes with a stylized male orgasm — a man's animal-like grunts — and as the film moves toward its inevitable conflict, Dumont gradually transfers those sounds to violence.

Twentynine Palms is another in a string of recent French movies that seem to be stretching the bounds of what's filmmable. The body is no longer sacred, no longer even a reflection of a person but rather an object, a churning, jerking, oozing machine. But unlike many of their peers, Dumont and Denis seem to be working toward human discovery. Denis uses objects and bodies as windows into her characters' jealously guarded thoughts and as carefully coordinated guides through elliptical stories. And Dumont, for all of his attempts to shoot landscapes devoid of beauty, sex scenes devoid of titilation, and conversations devoid of content, and for all of his attempts to equate humans and machines, he seems to be reducing humanity not to meaninglessness but to its few essential elements — desire, fear, companionship, love, hate, and, death — and the junctures where they conflict.

Dumont's third feature is not an enjoyable movie. I'm not even sure it's a worthwhile experiment. And despite a picaresque locale that screams for such treatment, no single shot in Twentynine Palms comes close to the long shot in Humanité of a man walking briskly along a ridge, nor the shot of his car disappearing into the distance down a country road. But at the very least Dumont is interested in more than just clever games, which positions him leagues away from the likes of Gaspar Noé. In talking about his shot of the chocolate machine, that pivotal point early in his career, Dumont surmised that people are drawn to the turning gears because the machine mirrors their own thought processes. Thus, his films don't so much mechanize humans as humanize machines. He searches for people within their creations, be they trucks or relationships.

Posted by davis | Link
Reader Comments
July 17, 2004, 07:22 PM

By the way, my interest in Twentynine Palms was piqued by a discussion at filmjourney. Acquarello of Strictly Film School attended a screening and had one reaction after seeing the film and another after hearing Dumont's comments about his approach to filmmaking. (Follow the discussion above and also see a more distilled reaction at Strictly Film School.)

I haven't yet reconciled those comments with my own isolated viewing experience.

July 18, 2004, 08:06 AM

Nice piece, Robert. I've gone back and forth on the question of whether "it's a worthwhile experiment," and I think I've finally pitched my tent in the "yes" camp. But, especially after writing about the film, I've decided that it only works as a political allegory. Its observations about human relationships, buried as they are under so much Psych 101 noodling, are banal, at best. But I love the idea of sticking these two characters in a Hummer (pseudo-army truck), dropping them into the middle of Twentynine Palms (home to a massive Marine installation), and making a film about American violence. That's what I tried to write about in my Senses article, at least. Hopefully the new issue will be online soon.

Oh, and thanks for the link to that discussion at Film Journey. I had missed it. I'm still trying to talk Doug into seeing L'Humanite and The Life of Jesus. Did you like either of those?

July 18, 2004, 10:17 PM

I know what you mean. I had fun thinking about the movie and coming up with a roadmap through it, but I'm not sure life is better as a result. I hadn't even thought of the Hummer's military connection -- how weird is that? They've become so commonplace. I'm keeping an eye on Senses for your piece.

I haven't seen The Life of Jésus, but I did recently see L'Humanité and mostly enjoyed it. I think the characters -- odd and distinct, weirdly tactile -- and the easy pace of the investigation went a long way for me, even if I'm not really sure what it all adds up to. I love Pharaon and his strange connection with his world, somehow intimate and distanced at the same time. I'll have to see it again. In the interview with Dumont on the DVD (which is where I got the chocolate machine tidbits), he came across as a real trouble-maker. I'm not at all surprised to hear how confrontational he's been at screenings of Twentynine Palms.

Anyway, I'm working through his movies in reverse. I'll catch up with The Life of Jésus soon, I hope.

July 18, 2004, 10:43 PM

Incidentally, when I first read your comments on the bits of militarism in the movie, I immediately flashed back to Rosenbaum's inspired take on Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (unfortunately not collected in a single essay, as far as I can tell). It's actually kind of a blend of our ideas about Twentynine Palms: a military/political critique plus a depiction of the violent consequences of a system that seeks to press masculine and feminine traits into tight, simple packages.

He also cites an idea of Gilles Deleuze, an idea later expanded on by Bill Krohn, that sees a recurring pattern in Kubrick's films: an intricate brain or nerve center that goes haywire. I like to think of Twentynine Palms the same way. David snaps, but why he snaps seems to have a lot to do with male-female roles, and the way he snaps is a grotesque parody of male actions.

Of course Dumont may not have Kubrick's grand designs in mind and might be going for something a lot simpler, especially given the current global climate. A violated American lashes out hideously, at a French girl no less. I dunno....

Here are a few clips:

1. Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader talks about Full Metal Jacket "as a radical statement about what conditioning does to intelligence and personality, as a meditation about what the denial of femininity does to masculine definitions of civilization, as a deeply disturbing experiment in sprung and unsprung narrative, and perhaps as other things as well."

2. In another piece he writes, "Virtually all of Kubrick's features concentrate on elaborate, ingenious control systems that ultimately spin wildly out of control. (After the opening section in Full Metal Jacket, it's the narrative itself that goes haywire, though most critics — with the rare exception of Bill Krohn in Cahiers du Cinema — saw this as a failing rather than as a radical, meaningful artistic strategy.)"

3. And in a third piece he writes:

This dialectic between control and lack of control eventually became not only Kubrick's method but part of his subject. As Gilles Deleuze noted in Cinema 2: The Time-Image, "In Kubrick, the world itself is a brain, there is an identity of brain and world"; Deleuze singles out such central images as the war room in Dr. Strangelove, the computer housing HAL's circuits in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the Overlook Hotel in The Shining as examples of what he meant, to which I might add the racetrack in The Killing and the training camp in Full Metal Jacket. Moreover, Deleuze writes, the monolith in 2001 "presides over both cosmic states and cerebral stages: it is the soul of the three bodies, earth, sun, and moon, but also the seed of the three brains, animal, human, machine." And in each film the brain, the world, and the system connecting the two start to break down from internal and external causes, resulting in some form of dissolution (The Killing), annihilation (of the world in Dr. Strangelove and HAL's brain in 2001), mutilation (of the brain in A Clockwork Orange and the body in Barry Lyndon), or madness (The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, which also chart respectively the dissolution of a family and a fighting unit).

Building on Deleuze's insight, critic Bill Krohn has proposed, in the only plausible account I've read of the structure of Full Metal Jacket, that "the little world of the training portrayed as a brain made up of human cells thinking and feeling as one, until its functioning is wrecked first from within, when a single cell, Pyle, begins ruthlessly carrying out the directives of the death instinct that programs the organ as a whole, and then from without by the Tet Offensive, the external representation of the same force." As a result, in the second part of the film "the narrative itself begins to malfunction" along with the group mind, exploding "the conventional notion of character" and drifting off in several different directions.
July 19, 2004, 08:09 AM

Great stuff. I mention Kubrick in a footnote of my Senses piece, actually, though I hadn't thought it through to that extent. Most critics have compared Twentynine Palms to Zabriskie Point, Deliverance, and Psycho, but the film that I kept thinking of was 2001 -- and specifically the Dawn of Man sequence, which I believe was filmed in the same desert. There are several shots of David hunched down in an ape-like pose, and the final murder is shot from a low-angle just like Moonwatcher's discovery of the bone-as-weapon.

July 19, 2004, 09:19 AM

Wow, you're right. The same arm motions, too.

July 27, 2004, 08:22 AM

Senses posted my article a few days ago. Curious to hear what you think about it.

July 27, 2004, 10:36 AM

Darren, you beat me to the punch.

Excellent article. You noticed some things that barely registered with me, but they seem to bolster the same themes that had been running through my brain, e.g. I noticed the stylization of the various climaxes mostly in sound design — grunts — and you saw the same thing in recurring low-angle shots; I read the simplistic view of Katia as David's condescension through which we look, and you saw a military-ish glow around the entire movie, two versions of a propped-up masculinity.

I like how you pursue the military angle, no pun intended, through images of the American West: "they are characters trapped at the nexus of conflicted American types, old and new: rugged individuals and conspicuous consumers, democratic liberals and unilateral militarists, Western gunslingers and West Coast hipster."

My ambivalence toward the movie has a lot to do with how much I think Dumont is commenting on types vs. psychoanalyzing people. I think he's doing a fair amount of the latter, which is interesting but, as you say, banal, and there are moments when he's about as subtle as a brick through a window, like when David is buying car wax while Katia is buying skin cream. It made me hesitant to compare the film to anything by Denis, even that one scene, because I consider her a master of subtlety.

But if his concerns are Western icons, as projected through movies and geo-politics — and I think you make a good case — then it's more interesting to me, maybe because it's more subtle (it "consigns many of its targets to spaces just beyond the edge of the screen," as you say).

You're right that either way, David and Katia have quite a bit heaped onto them as character-like elements, especially compared to Pharaon and Domino in L'Humanité who wear their personal histories in their faces and shoulders and whose actions are somehow a view into that history, not just parts of a rebus for us to glue together.

I think there's some middle ground that I'm also comfortable with, the psychoanalysis of a country, the realization that American policies are a reflection of a skewed and damaged view of itself as a powerful force. That reading is still heavily allegorical (it doesn't matter much, but I mistook Katia to be French), but it has something to do with my life and country, so it's something I can grab onto.

October 3, 2005, 08:36 PM
Dan Stefik

Wow. Nice to read an ongoing dialogue centered on a film which was hardly seen by any public. And you guys are doing a great job.

But I just finished reading Jeff Reichert's piece in Reverse Shot online and it holds up as well.

Will this film ever be appreciated, let alone seen?