Dir. Bruno Dumont. France/Germany, 2003. 119mins.
It's The Brown Bunny syndrome all over again. This time, two people driving in a car instead of one, covering only a small part of Southern California instead of the entire continent. And granted, there is a lot more sex, not particularly attractive but quite explicit; certainly no need to wait for the last quarter of an hour, it goes on all through. But once again, there is precious little dialogue, a hunted, obsessive look on the face of the two characters and the rest of the world intrudes only at the very end. Expect a small part of the audience to vociferously hail it as the latest gospel, the rest to damn it as tedious, pretentious and incredibly self-indulgent. It is a readymade scandal, fierce pro and con arguments will be flying all over the place, which is always good PR for the picture. But once the first wave of excitement is over, and all the festivals will have shown it, as they surely will, this companion piece to La Vie De Jesus and Humanity, the two films that have firmly established Bruno Dumont as one of the originals of the new French cinema, will have a hard time at the box office. It is, objectively speaking, a difficult, quasi-experimental film demanding far more than a normal average audience is ever willing to invest in a film and offering far less than they expect to get. It premiered in competition at Venice.
A photographer looking for locations around a small town named Twentynine Palms takes his new girl friend along for the ride. On the way, they frequently copulate, registering the loudest orgasms in the history of cinema, drive around - he lets her take the wheel once in a while and even scratch his new SVU - and take long walks through the desert, sometimes in the nude. They then return to the motel for more sex, twice in the pool, have a fight, then another. She almost leaves, he almost kicks her out and then comes the gruesome shock ending which critics have kindly been asked not to reveal. It is a trick that may function for the first week or so but no longer, once word of mouth has spread.
There are any number of interpretations that could fit this bare-boned, and yes, bare-assed skeleton of an encounter between two persons, the desert and a vague threat that hovers above their heads from the very beginning until it violently explodes at the end. Since there is no real background information delivered about either one of the characters throughout the film it could be the schematic tale of any couple and the devastating intrusion of the world in their relationship. It could be the confrontation of two cultures, the man being American, the woman Russian, at its most visceral level, or possibly a political parable about the collision between them, once the dogs of war are unleashed to drag them out of their splendid isolation. It could also be a modern take on the Adam and Eve myth with religious undertones about the communion of man and nature and the loss of natural innocence once the vandals invade the Garden of Eden. More interpretations are welcome, and there is plenty of time, during the two long hours it takes Dumont to wrap it all up, to come up with them.
Even slower and more demanding than his two previous films, Dumont's new one hermetically refuses to provide any signs of a normal plot. There are no social nor psychological commentaries here and the moods and disposition of the characters are clearly manipulated by a wilful director, whose camera was guided in his previous films by the conduct of his creations. Here he keeps interfering with them to the point where both actors seem to be keeping an eye on him for their exact instructions, even in the most intimate scenes. Indeed Golubeva, who wears a tormented expression from the very beginning, and Wissak, who depending on camera angles can look quite sinister, seem at a loss to identify the roles they play at all times.
While most the editing is done inside the camera, some of the images are absolutely striking. The desert offers a spectacular backdrop for the two characters, immense and empty, with the audience often having to search carefully the empty screen to find them moving in it. And at least in one instance, the two naked bodies and the huge, similarly curved rocks around them create a visual composition of Biblical grandeur. But only very determined film buffs will have the inclination and patience to stay with the couple and Dumont for the duration.
Prod co: 3B Productions
Prods: Jean Brehat, Rachid Bouchareb
Int'l sales: Flach Pyramide International
Scr: Bruno Dumont
Cinematography: Geroges Lechaptois
Ed: Dominique Petrot
Main cast: Katia Golubeva, David Wissak