What am I to make of Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003)? It consists mostly of a couple (David and Katia) based in a motel but exploring the surrounding desert in their Hummer. They argue, buy an ice-cream, swim in the pool, have rough sex, fight in the street, kiss and make up, before being attacked in the desert. David is beaten and raped and, clearly more than a little unsettled by the experience, stabs Katia to death in the motel. The last shot is of David’s corpse sprawled in the desert while a traffic cop radios for help, trying in vain to convince headquarters to give a damn.
Dumont claims that the film is an experiment in building tension through a lack of dramatic action, and that the film’s sense of escalating menace is constructed in the spectator’s mind in response to the films longeurs. This is an interesting proposition, implying that we are so conditioned to expect violence to be encountered in the barren landscapes of America(n cinema) that its absence arouses suspicion, but it is rather disingenuous. If the film aims to document the quotidian minutiae of a couple, with all of their bickering, musing and sexual grappling before smashing it all sideways with random acts of unforeseen violence, then that mission is undermined by a series of portents and correspondences that pepper the film. While it is not obviously signposted that David will end up stabbing Katia to death, in retrospect the structured build-up to this conclusion is certainly in evidence.
Katia eventually charges out of the bathroom and leaves the motel room, at which point David grabs her arm to create the illusion that it is he who is throwing her out. When the scene is mirrored at the end of the film, David emerges with murderous purpose, issuing the scream that we have heard him give throughout the film – during sex, while being rammed from behind by an SUV, and finally while slaughtering his girlfriend.
The violent denouement is also foreshadowed by David’s aggression towards Katia throughout the film. Wild, grunting sex is one thing, but we see him hit her several times, and a shot of him creeping up on Katia in the pool is clearly designed to suggest the claim he wants to stake on her body. So, I don’t think I’m being a naive prude when I feel that this is not a picture of an everyday couple going about the typical couply routines, but a deliberate sequence of narrational cues building up a suggestive picture of a man waiting for an external influence to tip him over the edge into bloody madness.
I find his films engrossing and beautifully composed (yes, that’s a cop-out piece of mitigation, thanks), but I find myself instinctively reacting against Dumont’s sensationalism, and his suggestion that I need to see a violent movie in order to demythologise the artifice of the usual movie violence. But he shares with Michael Haneke an interest in everybody’s voyeuristic fascination in depictions of graphic violence. Everybody’s, that is, except for his own. His apparent nihilism is not ours, and his attempts to force spectators to construct their own terror and then torment themselves with it ignores his own role in engineering and administering it. Compare (OK, it maybe an unfair comparison, but indulge me here) this to Christian Mungiu’s masterful generation of terrifying suspense out of bureaucratic procedures in 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days (2007), where the threat of discovery looms large but is never fully realised. Which deployment of spectatorial engagement is more productive and revealing: Mungiu’s depiction of how a repressive environment causes people to internalise systems of surveillance and police themselves, or Dumont’s cynical exercise in sex-n’-death button-pushing (with the added implication that you devised and pushed those buttons yourself)?