BY LISA A. FLOWERS
While working in the desert on one of his films, French auteur Bruno Dumont (much, perhaps, like Liv Ullman in Ingmar Bergman's Persona) “suddenly became afraid, and stayed that way.” According to the director, the abrupt manifestation of this existential horror was the impetus for 2003's Twentynine Palms, a riveting, allegorical, terrifyingly unclassifiable foray into the Mojave, and into the sun-drenched, pitch-black center of Yeats’ The Second Coming.
Ostensibly, Palms is the story of an American photographer, David (David Wissak) and his European girlfriend, Katia (Yekaterina Golubeva of Leos Carax’s Pola X) on assignment in the Joshua Tree desert. The real star of the show is George Lechaptois's mesmerizing cinematography, and his camera follows the couple as they move through the landscape, driving in contemplative (or tense) silence together, hiking naked into the wilderness, and copulating on ancient flat rocks.
Language begins to presents an increasingly sinister (and babelishly primitive) barrier as the film moves ever deeper into the heart of oppressively Biblical, and symbolic, isolation. The Russian Katia's English isn't great, and neither, to a far more confusing extent, is David's personality. Katia is serene, sensitive, melancholy, and tragically resigned (to what, we cannot know), while David is childish, truculent, and possessed of a barely subdued hysteria. Already doomed are the words that come to mind as the movie progresses … and they come to mind with a terrible, encroaching kind of psychic imprint, or formlessness.
Eventually, the couple begins to develop a rapidly disintegrating co-dependence that neither wants, like a lethal species of acute cabin fever without the cabin, or a kind of ancient claustrophobia that's malevolently, deliberately masquerading as agoraphobia. Occasionally, the camera will pan to Katia and she'll suddenly, jarringly look like a corpse in the passenger seat … but not like a corpse as we know it. One of the most brilliant achievements of the movie is the way her countenance keep fluctuating from dead to alive, without any perceptible changes (whatsoever) in makeup, lighting, or angles.
As pure, visual, road-going beauty (with or without context), Palms is up there with the best of them. The cinematography that makes American-landscape oriented films like Easy Rider, Natural Born Killers, Paris, Texas, and Days of Heaven so gorgeously insatiable to look at is on full display here. However, the film is much closer in spirit to brilliant “nature-horror” films like Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (or his much darker The Last Wave, for that matter).
Horror aside, Palms is beautiful enough to occasionally seduce us out of dread. It has long pockets of drifting, expansive dreaminess that are almost freeing in their perfectly unchecked carelessness; it's as if the camera itself has stopped watching, and the movie has wandered away from “existential obligation” into a naturally blissful existence of sun, blue skies, and soaring, singing birds. But the sense that we're moving closer to something apocalyptic in every frame always comes back.
Ultimately, Palms is a film not about people, but about energy … and the timeless despair that accompanies the absence of energy. In Dumont's vision, that energy is all tied up in sex, which is then swallowed up by and appropriated by nature. And, for all we know, nature may, in fact, be where the power of sex goes when it “dies out “of mortality. Einstein, after all, teaches us that energy can only be transferred, never destroyed.
This may be too high-handed of a theory, for one is still moved to question Dumont's use of the symbolism of sex in the same way one is moved to question Gaspar Noe’s interpretation of "male sexuality" in Irreversible (a film to which Palms has been frequently, and in some ways appropriately, compared). But Dumont’s sense of restraint is a complete departure from Noe’s fascination with cruelty and sadism cloaked in frantic & flashy concept art, and his (however ingenious) adolescent appropriation of philosophies too sophisticated for him. Instead, Twentynine Palms presents us with the problem of evil accompanied by a sense of profound and deep sorrow, a mourning for a fate that may or may not be implied as inexorable, playing out under the unchanging beauty of land and sky.
Lisa A. Flowers is a poet, critic, cinephile, ailurophile, the founding editor of Vulgar Marsala Press, and the Reviews Editor for Tarpaulin Sky Press. She is the author of diatomhero: religious poems, and her work has appeared in various magazines and online journals. Raised in Los Angeles and Portland, OR, she now resides in Colorado. Visit her here.