Twentynine Palms

A "Zabriskie Pointless" for the new millennium, Bruno Dumont's third feature, "Twentynine Palms," is a narcolepsy-inducing road movie in which an American guy and a French-speaking babe get in a red Hummer and drive toward the titular California desert destination.

A “Zabriskie Pointless” for the new millennium, Bruno Dumont’s third feature, “Twentynine Palms,” is a narcolepsy-inducing road movie in which an American guy and a French-speaking babe get in a red Hummer and drive toward the titular California desert destination. Pic fails to captivate or intrigue at the most basic level. Dumont’s track record (“The Life of Jesus,” “Humanity”) and juicy-looking publicity stills misleadingly implying a vein of sexy adventure will create some initial buzz. However, broader commercial prospects for this Franco-German co-production look parched. Pic preems in competition in Venice prior to Sept. 17 release in Gaul.

It’s now obvious why this mostly English-lingo two-hander from the singular talent behind “Jesus” (1997) and 1999’s Cannes triple prizewinner “Humanity” was passed over for this year’s Croisette: Tonal similarities with Vincent Gallo’s much-derided “Brown Bunny” are substantial. But “Bunny” sports the narrative complexity of “War and Peace” compared with “Twentynine Palms.”

David (David Wissak) and Katia (Katia Golubeva, the Russian thesp who played the feral interloper in “Pola X”) drive a lot, stop in motels and have athletic bouts of sex. The sex scenes — staged outdoors in a pool, against a sun-bleached rock formation or indoors in bed, with full-frontal nudity by both participants — are jaw-clenchingly strenuous.

His French is as minimal as her English, so dialogue is mostly on the level of a “Speed Racer” cartoon or an unimaginative porn film. David climaxes with prolonged guttural howls, and Katia throws seemingly irrational fits. Breathing is so cranked up in places it sounds as if thesps have microphones shoved up their nostrils.

But mostly, the pair just drive.

And in the final reel, something happens — the kind of something press kits politely implore scribes not to reveal. Those Euro crix for whom the pic’s existential idiocy may register as exotic will no doubt attempt to imbue the late-arriving events with deeper meaning.

“Humanity” achieved an undeniable grace in its attenuated insistence on taking its time. However, despite some exquisitely composed widescreen compositions, this two-hour exercise is as barren as great stretches of the scrubby terrain around the featured location of Joshua Tree. Dumont fails to coax much redeeming power from the landscape.

Leads are attractive but charisma-free, a state of affairs Dumont apparently aimed for. A rare sliver of comic relief emerges when, while watching a pretentious pic unfold on a laptop, Katia asks, “What is this?” David replies, “I think it’s an art film.”

Though Gallo’s “Bunny” is mired in lost love and “Palms” awash in current romance, both are road movies that believe the act of covering territory in a motor vehicle is the suspenseful modern equivalent of a heroic quest. For all but the most patient — or catatonic — viewers, that assumption is wrong.

Twentynine Palms

France - Germany

  • Production: A Tadrart Films release (in France) of a 3B Prods., Tadrart Films presentation of a 3B Prods., Tadrart Films (France)/Thoke Moebius FilmCo., TVT Postproduction (Germany) production, in association with the 7th Floor, with participation of Wellspring and Canal Plus. (International sales: Flach Pyramide Intl., Paris.) Produced by Jean Brehat, Rachid Bouchareb. Executive producer, Muriel Merlin. Co-producers, Christoph Thoke, Axel Moebius, Christel Brunn. Directed, written by Bruno Dumont.
  • Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Georges Lechaptois; editor, Dominique Petrot; music, Takashi Hirayasu, Bob Brozman, J.S. Bach; costume designer, Yasmine Abraham; sound (Dolby), Philippe Lecoeur, Michael Kranz, Harald Guhn; associate producers, Allen Bain, Jesse Scolaro, Darren Goldberg; assistant directors, Yann Sobezynski, Claude Debonnet; casting, Liz Jereski. Reviewed at Club de l'Etoile screening room, Paris, July 31, 2003. (In Venice Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 119 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Katia Golubeva, David Wissak. (English, French dialogue)
  • Music By: