Off-Road Two-Lane Blacktop
Largely critically roasted Twentynine Palms resonated with some too young to know about the Joshua Tree-Gram Parsons connection or, for that matter, who that Byrd/Flying Burrito Brother even was. Or to have heard of Deliverance so as to note its echo here. Those mostly under-thirty enthusiasts were enthralled by the daring inanity of the David-Katia (David Wissak, Yekaterina Golubeva) “conversations,” the full frontals and back views of him and her, and the chilling eruptive climax.
The story perhaps found some of its inspiration in Parsons’ acrimonious relationship with estranged aspiring actress wife Gretchen Burrell as well as in the longtime clinical depression of twice-divorced Russian mother of three Golubeva, then live-in girlfriend of Léos Carax and soon to die of undisclosed causes at forty-four.
Director-writer Bruno Dumont is known for, if anything, depictions of sex and very unprettified violence. The former runs throughout the minute-less-than-two-hours, in cheap motel rooms and pools, on scrub sands and uncomfortable boulders, and is merely interrupted elsewhere. People in the film have outsized noisy orgasms, but she is the only one of three who says, and repeatedly, “I love you,” as opposed to “I want you.”
He is a freelance L.A. photographer in search of a shoot location in Southern California’s forbidding or beautiful Joshua Tree National Park né Monument. Claiming in anger to regret the decision, he invited this girlfriend to come along in the red Hummer H2 SUV. She hardly knows how to drive it and has a poor command of English. He does not speak Russian. So the two talk to or at one another in limited French, their lack of fluency in which contributes to misunderstandings and petulant routine disagreements. The dialogue thus is incomplete and forgettable. The couple argue frequently, stop traveling often, kiss and make up and communicate by copulating.
She more than he ---though he, too -- inadvertently reveals herself as emotionally and psychologically unstable, exhibiting at times unmotivated, and always wild, swings between submissiveness and refusenik surliness. Most viewers will see this as an excruciating picture of paint drying in the desert, while fans find in it the slow uneventful process of lived life as opposed to the unrealistic expectations of Hollywoodean action.
Mutterings and short clipped dialogues in ellipses may convey reality but are hard on a movie audience. Not indicative of much meaning here, words are moreover subservient to the unending whine of vehicles and wind whether David and Katia are driving or loving, eating or watching TV. Until final frames, other people are backdrop, sometimes not appearing at all as at a house guarded by two friendly dogs or else unwelcoming like a Chinese waitress or hostile like pickup truck townies prowling the main drag in Twentynine Palms town.
In this deliberately colorless atmosphere, tension intensifies against the nothingness of mundanity. Possibly an indictment of an empty California or America or, what may be the same thing, of modern civilization at large, Twentynine Palms is the penultimate showing in “J’Adore Violence: Cinema of the New French Extremity,” the New York Museum of Arts and Design/MAD’s series of films that have not been, and by no stretch of the imagination will be, at your local multiplex.
(Released by Wellspring; not rated by MPAA.)