Few months ago I heard of this motion flick goes by the name of Twentynine Palms, French number about a couple driving round the Joshua Tree desert in L.A, seems to be a fairly intense affair, all filthing and murder, an “experimental horror film” according to director Bruno Dumont, fella behind 1997’s La Vie de Jésus and 99’s L’Humanité.
I hear tell of heavy atmospherics and heavier skull-bashery, hear critics tearing chunks out each others eye-holes;
“It’s a fucking masterpiece!”
“It’s an abomination! It bored me out my prostate!”
“It’s about The War!”
“It’s about 110 Minutes Too Long!”
These sortsa hollers cross the broadsheets.
And The Duke knee-deep in Crisis. Where the hell can I see this damn thing, anyhow?
Maybe at the Queens Film Theater in Belfast, is what I pondered, but holy shit, it’d have to be a damn work of unsurpassed wonder for to justify that kinda excursion, for to run the risk of being trapped among a buncha Buckfast-soaked students from picture’s end till the train sets off at dawn.
But still the niggling, on account of I really fucking wanted to see it, and why, a whole hosta reasons, but primarily something about how The French know a thing or two about the horror flicks these days.
On account of folks like Gasper Noé and Marina de Van and Catherine Breillat stalking the screens, hell-bent on tearing guts out the yaps with the kinda brutality and unblinking fascination with Human Torment ain’t nobody seen since back in 1983 when, insiders say, Marlon Brando allegedly went all kindsa demented in downtown Venice, a torture spree lasting ninety-two hours straight, and all because of something involving The Russians.
So the point of it all is that I didn’t get to see it in the cinema-theater, but who needs to worry about anything of the sort, since it’s now available on DVD, and so yeah, sitting down with this picture concerning the town of Twentynine Palms, this meditative, contradictory flick all about the savagery a man’s capable of, given the right series a shoves.
The kinda shoves that led Dustin Hoffman to blow the fuck out feet left and right in Straw Dogs, aye. The kinda shoves that had Burt Reynolds and friends getting all revengeful of the senses back in Deliverance. The kinda shoves that got Vincent Cassel and pal crushing skulls with a fire extinguisher in Irreversible. The kinda shoves, I say, that led to Camille Keaton slicing a man’s filth-limb from his flesh in I Spit On Your Grave.
And all those shoves, they all reek of sexual violation, and so too the shoves in Twentynine Palms, but this is a different sorta hell-broth entirely.
What it concerns, see, is David, a photographer fella looks a bit like Trent Reznor, if Reznor spent more time reading Kerouac and listening to The Flaming Lips, and also David’s girlfriend, a French woman by the name of Katia. They’re driving round the desert looking for locations for some photographs or some such that David’s planning on snapping one a these days, both a them edgy for reasons never really explained, Katia especially, seems fresh out some kinda horrible mental torment, or heading directly towards it, one of the two.
They drive around, they sit in a motel room watching art flicks and Jerry Springer, they argue sometimes, they filth, they do a lot of filthing, sometimes in swimming pools, sometimes in the desert, sometimes even in bed. Always, the filthing exists in that bizarre otherworld somewhere between hilarious and deeply disturbing, but for sure, never less than intense, this much is obvious. David squeals and hollers and grunts about “I’m cumming!”, kinda roars a man expects to hear from humping buffalo, maybe, but not from the yap of a fella looks a bit like him from out Ministry or whatever.
It’s animalistic sorta ruttery, yes, not making love exactly, manic fucking if anything.
I dunno if it’s genuine filth or not, although one scene in particular seems fairly close to unsimulated. Who knows in this day and age, when it’s all the rage, the old in-out in the legitimate feature flicks. Who expects anything less than a sloppy close-up of a hoo-hah getting tickled by a photographer’s filth-gland?
Nobody, is who, and so we get to focus on more pressing concerns, like why the hell am I so uncomfortable with all a this, why do those mumbled conversations in broken English and battered French get the unease slinkin cross the Brow De Duke?
Why is this a horror film?
Best to grab some sorta statistical back-up, few graphs and the like, and what they say is that here’s why;
Atmosphere – Discomfort, dread, these sortsa things. Dumont has yacked about how he wants to instil the kinda fear he himself felt when travelling round these desert roads, an illogical fear perhaps, but a fear nonetheless. All that space every which way, the earth rising up in front of a man and saying look sonny, here’s just how insignificant you are, case you were getting all sortsa uppity about how God never parted the oceans for a deer. Here’s how tiny and inconsequential. So tiny that even when these two actors are walking round full-frontal you hardly even notice them on account of the geological tapestries round about.
No-one likes to know how small they really are. (Mental note – phone K, tell her how much I appreciated the whole “really, it’s grand” speech.)
So there’s always that.
Then, the tone-shifts that have The Duke constantly wondering what kinda relationship these two are in the grip of, anyhow? One minute she’s breaking down for no real reason, the next they’re sat in a Chinese restaurant joking and laughing and glowin in the light from one another’s smiles.
And yeah, the performances from these two, David Wissak and Yekaterina Golubeva, they’re searing, incredible. Minimalist, aye, kinda thing reeks a unendurable wankery if attempted under the influence of hard liquor or Joel Schumacher, but perfected right here. So we go along with these jarring about-turns, on account of the performances, on account of it works, on account of we believe these are real folks, and that’s what real folks do. One minute they’re cuddling and laughing and hollering about “I’m cumming!”, the next it’s awkward silences and frustration about how we can’t make out a word the other is saying.
These leaps in The Feel Of It All. The tranquil and the chaotic. The charming and the repellant. The tender and the brutal.
So we can never get comfortable. So we can never relax, since even if we do get locked into the logic of it all, five minutes later there’s a gleefully graphic bout a filthing means a man’s stretching himself cross the screen in case someone looks in the window, assumes some kinda godless hollerin porn orgy’s goin on in Mondo Towers of a Sunday evening.
And then there’s the violence, and it ticks all the boxes about what horror flick violence should do.
It arises from nowhere, no discernible motive behind it, least not for the folks involved at the time. Maybe later things start falling into place, after the credits have rolled and theories get discussed, maybe then, but for the two lovers suddenly stopped on a desert road by folks they never laid eyes for more than a half-second ever before, folks with erections and baseball bats fried on hatred, for those people it’s all far too random.
For those folks who walked into the world trade centre that morning. For those folks stood in streets in Iraq.
The day to day carries on unhindered and unnoticed and under-appreciated, and then all a sudden it’s disrupted, brutally horribly so, and whatever goes on afterwards is gonna be light bounding off a that terrible prism.
And Dumont, he knows this, so he plays with it.
So we get shots that go on forever, where all we see is the Round About, and after a while you adjust, and you appreciate those hues, those nuances. We get talk about nothing in particular that neither speaker totally understands, but they understand the important stuff, the “I hate you” or the “I love you”, or, indeed, the “Do you love my cock?”, because these things are easy to get the head around, as is, it would appear, the sex-limb in question.
At times it brings to mind nothing less than the opening of Godard’s Weekend, that tracking shot going on for an age, and then, eventually, we see that carnage on the roadside, and it flings the whole thing into perspective.
So Dumont has us crawling long that road, and then the carnage, and then the horrors make sense.
Flicking through the note-book, what I come to realize is that yeah, I fucking loved Twentynine Palms. I noted that it takes a lot of patience, that it feels a bit like Gus Van Sant’s recent dalliances with the contemplative moods and what not.
Like Elephant, especially. The sloth-like pace granted heartbreaking resonance in light of the horror at the end.
Is Elephant a horror film? Probably not, it’s a drama that has a buncha horrible things going on.
Twentynine Palms, though, is designed to unsettle, to quietly unease before loudly horrifying, and Dumont readily admits that the atmosphere is what’s important, not the characterization or the script or much of anything else.
And it’s impeccable, aye, the cinematography is spellbinding, even if those spells turn out to be the sort resulting in a toad for a head and an arsefull a hellfire. The sound design is incredible, it’s the sounds as they happened, and so sometimes even the hum of the equipment is audible, but fuck it, it helps stir that ol’ bubblin in the belly.
And talking to a lass in a White Stripes t-shirt, I’m saying about yeah, I think this is something incredibly special, this Twentynine Palms tomfoolery, I’m thinking I woulda put up with those drunken students if i hada known the reward was something like this.
And she says but you wouldn’t have known, and anyway, you seen it now so no sense thinking anything of the sort.
Yeah. Still. I mighta got lucky with a lady with strong opinions on The War.
Twentynine Palms is available on PAL DVD via Tartan Video.
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