Maybe Bruno Dumont had Antonioni's Zabriskie Point in mind when choosing Arizona for the English language Twentynine Palms: there's the same search for a primal aspect, and where better to find it than in the desert?
But first and foremost this is a film about violating territories, both in terms of place and of the body. Here we have an American photojournalist travelling from L.A. with a woman several times displaced. Katia (Katia Golubeva) speaks barely any English and only passable French - her first language is Russian. At one stage David (David Wissak) says to her - after she locks herself in the bathroom - he should have left her in L.A. But there is no sense that L.A. is home. She is a woman homeless almost in the Heideggarian sense: she lacks a place to dwell, a place to be. Is this why she seems so incredibly possessive of David - that he's the centre she has allowed herself? At one moment David glances at a girl going out of a cafe and Katia says, whilst close to tears, he can follow her if he likes. Later, when David seems to reject her touch whilst they drive through the desert, she goes silent and then looks as though she'll start crying. But maybe more problematic is the sex, chiefly organised around David's desire. It seems to give Katia pleasure also (especially in one scene where Katia positions herself on top) but generally appears to violate her sense of self, whatever immediate satisfaction it offers.
Thus the violating territories of the body; but what about those of place? In one scene David and Katia cross the road while a guy in a pick-up yells at them to get off the street. Also David and Katia screw in what looks like a fairly public motel swimming pool, looked on by the camera but also, we might later believe, by some of the locals. So what Dumont sets up is the violation of Katia's body, based perhaps on her own feelings of relative homelessness, and then also adds to this violation of Katia based on her homelessness the locals whose sense of place is violated by David. Now we could be in danger of over-ingeniousness here, or crediting Dumont with an ingeniousness that is essentially symbolic rather than real, and symbolic to the detriment of reality.
But he achieves a quality that is in between the symbolic and the real. He's not quite literal enough a filmmaker to come down on one side or the other. What do we mean by this? Well what we mean is that Dumont suggests the rednecks who strip Katia naked near the end of the film and force her to watch her boyfriend's rape, aren't working through some would-be-feminism by violating David instead of Katia. Sure they seem keen to teach David a lesson, but that lesson concerns surely, we may surmise, more a violation of their territory than David's violation of Katia. However, by violating David over Katia, David is in the position to learn a double lesson - a lesson about violating a body and violating a place. We needn't of course credit this double violation to the locals, but we can as viewers see that the rape of David allows us to make sense of the notion of violating bodies and places at work.
So what Dumont wants to offer is indeterminate motivation, where characterisation isn't eschewed but motivation is nevertheless withheld, to allow for the second register of a more abstract, but never overly symbolised meaning to come through. How he achieves this combination of characterisation offered yet motivation eschewed for a wider meaning lies partly in the way he removes back story from the leading characters, and reaction shots from the perspective of the local people. Thus we never really know where Katia's from, and have almost no information on why David's in the desert. We don't even know how well-acquainted the couple happen to be. We have to read motivation in the immediate gesture rather than as accumulated psychology. It's why many of Katia's gestures might seem inexplicable. But this inexplicability allows us to read her two ways: on the one hand we could say she's just capricious - David's idea of her 'princess behaviour' when she locks herself in the bathroom - or we could see that within the inexplicability there's an inexpressibility, an inability to express certain thoughts and feelings, and that David can only reach her through sex, maybe only wants to reach her through sex.
So we notice that while the characters are ever present, their motives remain, through the absence of back story, difficult to pinpoint. With the locals it is their very absence that makes us wonder about their purpose in anally raping David whilst leaving Katia untouched. By refusing reaction shots to David and Katia's actions, we're not quite sure why several locals in the last quarter of the film come out of nowhere and take 'revenge', if revenge it is. In mainstream cinema both back story and reaction shots are useful motivational devices, as they place characters' actions within a coherent world, but Dumont's a great filmmaker of what we could call 'incoherent worlds'. He makes films where the world is out of joint and we have to join the filmmaker in arriving at a hypothetical sense based on the variables offered. In La vie de Jesus how conscious is Freddy of his behaviour when he falls off his bike at the end of the film: is it an accident or a need to harm himself in recognition of the harm he has done to others? What about Pharaon's investigation into a paedophile crime in L'humanite: is he responsible for the crime himself, responsible in some way for his partner and child's death in the past, or possesses his own idiosyncratic approach to detective work?
This is again the Antonioni side to Dumont. It goes back to Antonioni's oft-quoted comment about what would happen to neo-realism and Bicycle Thieves if you remove the bicycle: what are the hidden aspects that the filmmaker sets out to reveal? This isn't a game - Dumont doesn't actually know what he's getting at in any categorical sense. Thus when people would ask what the ending of L'humanite meant he was in no better a position to answer the question than a critic. Indeed he would have to return to his own work as if a critic to make sense of the variables at work.
Now this is a completely different problem of aporia to that on show in Memento, for example, where the filmmaker, Christopher Nolan, admits that for the observant viewer the meaning of the film will eventually become clear: Nolan is interested in ellipticalfilmmaking where the gaps can be filled objectively. Dumont is interested in aporiacfilmmaking where the gap can only be filled in subjectively. Nolan removes certain aspects to tease the viewer; Dumont removes aspects to inquire into the nature of reality. Again Antonioni comes to mind when talking about removing the bicycle, the key narrative aspect. "...It is important to see what there is in the spirit and heart of this man whose bicycle has been stolen, how he has adapted, what has stayed with him out of all his past experiences of the war, the post-war and everything that happened in our country."(Cinema II: The Time-Image) Here Antonioni could almost be talking about Katia, as we may wonder what displacements have taken place so that she arrives in the desert with a man who barely understands her even on a linguistic level, and yet uses her body for perhaps too easy pleasure. Thus where Nolan creates narrative ellipses, Dumont's more interested in ontological aporias, in gaps of being.
This is also where the desert comes in useful, because it is a place that lends itself well to a sort of non-meaning. It almost removes from people the possibility of revealing a backstory, because there aren't enough social encounters that would reveal who somebody is. There are too few social interactions that would illuminate one's moods, temperaments, social values etc. When David Locke hits the point of identity crisis in The Passenger it happens in the desert, and in cinema (in The Sheltering Sky, La Captive du Desert, Walkabout) the desert carries a confrontative aspect, a sense that man can be stripped bare by its silence - as if any back story revealed will expose not so much the accumulated social layers, but a more fundamental self. But what that fundamental self is, nobody can readily know. Dumont mentions Matisse. 'Matisse used to say that the most important thing in a painting is not the subject itself but the disposition/layout of the objects between them. I think it is also the case for a film. Nothing should emerge/stick-out if we want to receive a certain harmony. Neutralising/making the film more neutral, had become a necessity.' Any hint of knowingness must be removed.
And is it not in the revealing of this fundamental self that the film's second nightmarish sequence hinges? If for most of the film Katia doesn't seem to know who she is, for most of the film of course David clearly thinks he does. But when layers of his masculinity are removed by the swift rear-entry penetration by a local, David has no self left to offer. It is this that seems to draw Katia to him more than at any other time in the film as he sits up in bed, weeping, his face battered and bruised and resembling a Francis Bacon portrait. As she goes over to the bed and consoles him, it looks like she has found David's soul, has found a moment where he is forced to live as close to the core of the self as she has lived so close to hers throughout the film. It is a moment of potential profound intimacy.
But David doesn't want to reach so far down, he doesn't want to reveal to anybody his own no-man's land and so shortly afterwards rushes out of the bathroom he has locked himself into, and stabs Katia to death. At the moment when Katia feels David could understand her own sense of invasion, and her own general loss of self, David instead appears to see in her a subjectivity greater than he's credited her with throughout the rest of the film. When earlier she locks herself into the bathroom this is 'princess' behaviour that he doesn't see hinting at a chasmic self, but at caprice. So when he locks himself in the bathroom this could have been the chance to share a sense of understanding with Katia, but instead of seeing that she's possessed of a soul, David credits her with a social being. He credits her not with a comprehension of his ontological pain, it seems, but her presence as a shaming subject. It's as though she has peered into his being and comprehends what she finds, but all David sees is someone who witnesses his shame.
In the context of the Matisse quote Dumont says he's not interested in having an opinion, but what seems to fascinate him is the creation of a world in which some fundamental aspect can be revealed. Thus by stripping away narrative convention (back story), technical expectation (the reaction shot), and genre demands (the way he reconfigurates the revenge drama) he arrives at a sort of cinematic black hole, the aporia that reveals 'the Being of beings' as Heidegger would put it. What Dumont searches out is the incoherent world that reveals a deeper coherency, a coherency hinted at by Heidegger's existential predecessor Kierkegaard in his comment on the 'eternally firm', or 'realising the universal'.
It is in this sense that Dumont reveals Katia to be the stronger person though she seems ostensibly weak. And she is strong because she can understand another's weakness; she understands David's collapsed self and wants to reach out to it. But David's sense of self has no eternally firm aspect, nothing underpinning the social being, so that when that's violated he must destroy the witness to that violation. Now of course if he'd have understood Katia more, had he tried to make sense of her 'princess' behaviour, he might then have been in a better position to comprehend his own loss of self and shared a deeper, ontological love to put alongside the physical passion he's already had with Katia.
By the end of the film if we 'understand' the leading characters it isn't because of the piece-meal back story a filmmaker usually reveals to us, but a retrospective sense we have to piece together to comprehend how Dumont has, without conventional manipulation, revealed to us an aspect of being far greater than the social selves narrative cinema generally offers. This is also obviously a cinema that one meets half-way, but it's also a form of filmmaking that demands on both filmmaker and viewer's part tentativeness; with the viewer revealing his own weaknesses and strengths, his own subjectivity, in trying to make sense of a work half-finished and yet, on other levels, decidedly complete.
© Tony McKibbin