October 19, 2003

Twentynine Palms

Starring Yekaterina Golubeva and David Wissak

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Some have described Twentynine Palms as an existential horror film.


The real horror of the film is how outrageously pretentious and pointless it is behind its fancy art-film facade. If necessary, viewers who have seen this film can probably struggle to conjure up some deeper meanings that the film may or may not attempt to convey. Still, these efforts are not likely to reveal any message that is remotely profound or even interesting.

Twentynine Palms is essentially the same movie as Gus Van Sant’s Gerry. Two people venture into the wild. Some petty and inane arguments, lots of wandering, and a random but climactic murder ensue. Both films are filled with beautiful yet meaningless imagery. The only major difference between the two is that Palms unintentionally comes off as a pornographic parody of Gerry.

The story involves an American photographer named David (David Wissak) and a French-speaking woman named Katia (Yekaterina Golubeva), who are en route to Joshua Tree National Park from Los Angeles. The two barely communicate because of the language barrier, and they spend most of their time driving, fighting, having sex and running around in the nude. They stop at a gas station here and a motel there, until a fast and suspicious car that appears out of nowhere begins stalking them.

Nature – environmental and human – seems to be the film’s dominant theme. With the California desert as the backdrop, David and Katia passionlessly act out their raw animalistic instincts. Violence – sexual or otherwise – is an irrepressible force that increasingly threatens the couple. But Palms does not really explore this phenomenon, nor does it develop its central theme in a serious way. Much like Gerry, the film is a vacuous expose that ultimately tries to justify its own existence with a random finale that is high on shock value.

As the film progresses and the tumbleweeds roll, the viewers will find themselves bored, frustrated, agitated and finally angry. Maybe testing the audience is the sole purpose here. Director Bruno Dumont certainly has provoked the audience before with L’Humanité, but that film’s ponderous subject matter and heavy-handed ambience truly worked to compel its audience. In contrast, the detached storytelling and the deliberate pace make Palms seem slight and unworthy of further analysis. When its harrowing finale is suddenly bestowed upon the viewers to reveal what the ludicrous foreshadowing has been leading up to, the film confirms what the audience has been suspecting all along – that it is a total waste of time.

© 2003 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.