Director: Bruno Dumont
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans, Cora (Madeleine Stowe), the daughter of a British officer fighting the French and Indian War in the American colonies, is travelling in the wilderness with the gone-native white “Mohican” Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) as they flee an attack. She says to him, “We do not understand what is happening here. And it is not as I imagined it would be, thinking of it in Boston and London.” Hawkeye responds, “Sorry to disappoint you.” “On the contrary,” replies Cora, “It is more deeply stirring to my blood than any imagining could possibly have been.”
Wild places do things to people, and movies have been exploring this confrontation between civilized human beings and their natural roots for decades. Twentynine Palms extends this exploration with psychological and physical brutality that, nonetheless, is spellbinding to watch.
I don’t enjoy spending too much time with unpleasant characters, and David (David Wisser) and Katia (Katia Golubeva) are among the most unpleasant I’ve met in a movie. I didn’t realize this until the movie really got cranking, however, and the turnaround is one of the fascinating elements of the film. When we first meet the couple, David is driving his new red Hummer down a California desert highway, wrapping a piece of red tape around the top of its steering wheel to monitor the tank’s alignment, and listening to a CD of some twangy Japanese pop music. Katia, a porcelain beauty, is asleep in the back seat. She awakens and enthusiastically points out the window. David veers off the road, and they end up wandering in a field of windmills. David is very loving toward Katia, saying that he’s happy she came with him on the trip to Twentynine Palms, where he is doing some location scouting. I assumed he was in the movie business, though this is never made clear.
David and Katia pull up to a motel and get situated. They go for a swim in the pool. As Katia floats on her back, David looks at her intently and moves stealthily across the water. He grabs her gently but insistently from behind and then pulls her toward him and asks her if she likes his cock. They end up having sex in the pool. This is the first of many sex scenes between the couple. All appear to be real—a hallmark of the new vanguard in French film making—and they become increasingly anguished and terrifying as the couple’s relationship becomes strained.
The first rent in the fabric comes when David allows Katia to drive the Hummer offroad as they scout in the desert. She scrapes by scrub and puts a gash in the driver’s side door. Dave’s furious. When they return to town, he fixes the scratch with Turtle Wax, and all seems back on track. Katia, however, becomes increasingly moody, pouting when she perceives that he was looking at another woman.
On their next excursion into the desert, they spy a house and decide to see if anyone is home. David goes up to the house while Katia plays with two dogs in the yard. Finding the house deserted—or at least, unresponsive to their calls—the pair climbs into the Hummer, and David slowly accelerates. Katia encourages the dogs to follow, setting up the accident that follows: one of the dogs, a three-legged mongrel, is struck by the car. Katia starts screaming hysterically and demanding that David call for help. He wants to leave. Eventually, the dog recovers itself and hops away. Katia says that David is heartless.
When they return to their hotel, Katia locks herself in the bathroom. When she finally emerges, David throws her out of the room and tells her to go back to Los Angeles. She wanders in the dark, running in terror from passing cars. Eventually, David comes to fetch her, but she refuses to return. He begins slapping and beating her. Eventually, they hold each other very near, look into each other’s eyes, and return to the room.
On their final foray into the desert, a white truck swerves in front of them and stops. Presently, it peels off. Instead of turning back, Katia drives forward and ends up getting them stuck in a rut on a hillside road. David manages to free the car, and they drive in relief onward—to a horrible climax.
Dumont makes terrific use of imagery and the landscape to build a sense of dread in the viewer. For example, when Katia explores the desert for the first time, she circles a Joshua Tree, running her hand along its tough, barbed trunk and registering a charged look on her face that signals her fear and fascination with this alien-looking life form. David and Katia decide to climb some rocks in the nude. When they reach a place to stretch out, Dumont gives us an overhead shot of them, lying side by side in opposite directions, with Katia covering David’s penis with her hand to shield it from the sun. It’s a gorgeous look at two people in a most natural, but also very vulnerable, state. In retrospect, it reminds me a bit of the scene in Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969) in which the drowned lovers are found naked in the mud, draped in each other’s arms.
The flip side to this beauty is the harshness of the landscape itself, and unknown to the casual viewer of the film, that Twentynine Palms is home to a marine base. Is the savagery of training in the air? I came across this marching cadence popular during the Gulf War:
I wish all the ladies were pies on the shelf.
If I was the baker I’d eat ‘em all myself.
Left…left…left, right, left…
I wish all the ladies were bells on the tower.
If I was the hunchback I’d bang ‘em on the hour.
Singin’ hey boppa-ree-ba, he bobba row…
Wish all the ladies were holes in the road.
If I was a dump truck, I’d fill ‘em with my load.
Left…left…left, right, left.
David certainly does seem to behave as though Katia is his convenience, despite his declarations of love at the beginning of the film. Near the end of the film, after the couple has been severely traumatized, Katia tells David that she loves him. I felt instantly that this was exactly the wrong thing to say to him, and was proven right. The film has become so filled with hate and perversions of love that she might as well have said, “I’d like to kill you, David.” I’m not entirely convinced there is a Gulf War/invasion of Iraq metaphor in this film, however, because the making of war, like the making of love, is primal.
I read that Dumont wrote this film in response to a strong feeling of fear he had in a desert landscape. The film is quite like a nightmare in which the dream is trapped in the dreamer’s own head and the horrors just keep multiplying. Impressionistic, savage, instinctual, and uncivilized, Twentynine Palms has the lingering hangover of a night terror. l