Bruno Dumont’s Lust in the Dust; Talking About “Twentynine Palms”
by Liza Bear
Bruno Dumont, a former philosophy professor, has made quite a name for himself with only two films: “La Vie de Jesus” (1997), about the life of an unemployed youth, and “Humanite” (1999), about a self-questioning police officer who may or may not have killed a child. Shot in Dumont’s unassuming, overcast home town of Bailleul in Northern France, both are powerful, stark, compassionate fables using nonprofessional actors in the tradition of Bresson and De Sica. “Humanite” made waves at Cannes when it walked off not only with the grand jury prize but also with awards for best actor and best actress.
Dumont’s new film “Twentynine Palms” is set in the blazing heat of California’s Joshua Tree National Park. A couple in the throes of a torrid love affair (David Wissiak and Katia Golubeva), driving a dark red Hummer, fuck and fight their way through motels, swimming pools, parking lots and some of the wildest, most bizarre landscapes of the Mojave Desert, in search of locations. There, another end greets them.
The absolutist phrase “good and evil” has gotten a bad rap through its misuse by fundamentalists of all persuasions. “Twentynine Palms” is even more of an allegorical fable than Dumont’s earlier work, and his concerns are genuinely philosophical rather than pseudo-moral. But I’ll let him spell them out. The following is an excerpt from our discussion, conducted in French during Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, where the film had its U.S. premiere. Wellspring opens the film in New York and Los Angeles today.
indieWIRE: This wasn’t your first trip to the U.S., was it?
Bruno Dumont: No. I’d been here several times as a student and for the screening of “La Vie de Jesus” and “Humanite.” But in 2000 my producers took me out to the West Coast for the first time. I wanted to make a film called “The End.” It was a meditation on Hollywood cinema, which takes on its characteristics but then self-destructs. It’s a bit naïve as a project, but I like the idea of challenging Hollywood on its own turf. It’s important to do that.
iW: Sort of like culture-jamming.
Dumont: Exactly. You go into something and adopt its format, its look, key elements like the star system but your objective is entirely different.
iW: Do you think you did that in “Twentynine Palms”?
Dumont: No. “Twentynine Palms” was made as an experimental film while we were location scouting. I realized it would take ages to get “The End” off the ground and I wanted to shoot right away.
iW: You really liked this particular desert.
Dumont: Yes, much more than Death Valley, which did nothing for me. What I liked especially was that the trees gave a vertical element to a flat horizontal landscape. That’s quite rare.
iW: They’re also a weird shape.
Dumont: Yes, contorted, twisted.
iW: And the boulders look anthropomorphic and antediluvian at the same time.
Dumont: Absolutely. And they suddenly appear out of nowhere… Amazing.
iW: Yet the two lovers stark naked on the rocks are totally engrossed with each other, seemingly oblivious of their surroundings. You might say that their very lack of awareness or vigilance puts them in harm’s way. It doesn’t occur to them that others might be aroused by this overt sexuality or envy their freedom.
Dumont: Exactly. Good and evil are polar concepts — one can’t exist without the other. If there was no evil… The couple is in the primordial human condition of sexual bliss, but with this threat of disaster that can spring from any quarter without reason and without cause.
iW: And for which the narrative offers no clues.
Dumont: No. My thinking was that today’s spectator is so well-versed in film language that all theories about suspense, as argued by Dreyer and Hitchcock, on what makes you scared in cinema, can be ditched. It’s the spectator, finally, who’s going to construct the menace and the fear. In “Twentynine Palms,” because supposedly nothing is happening, it’s impossible, something has to happen. What I discovered during the editing was that a dramatic tension emerged [between the scenes] that hadn’t been there during the shooting.
iW: Yes, but that’s partly the result of your very precise mise-en-scene.
Dumont: Maybe, but the more elaborate your narrative, the more the spectator shuts up and listens obediently. And if the filmmaker keeps quiet, the spectator will himself project his own assumptions and sentiments onto the screen.
iW: Had you wanted to make a horror film before you went out west?
Dumont: No. I decided to because of what I felt when I got there. I’d never been to a desert before and I had this profoundly metaphysical experience of fear.
iW: Not even the Sahara?
iW: Were you there at night?
Dumont: No, just in the daytime. But I knew I was in the USA where anything can happen.
iW: Well, in Europe too.
Dumont: Yes, but… no no no no no. There’s a longstanding myth about the United States that is still very prevalent in Europe [despite recent developments]. Historically the “America” of this myth is an incredible human adventure and an experiment in political democracy. But at the same time, or so we’re told, it’s the land of extremes where the worst can happen.
iW: Yeah, but… What led to the casting of unknown actor David Wissak and the Russian Katia Gulebova?
Dumont: Mainly budget. My first choice was to work with only English-speaking American actors, but the financial partners in the film wanted 50 percent of the dialogue to be in French. I’d met Katia Golubeva in Los Angeles. She spoke very bad French. That she was Russian was incidental to the story — I had absolutely no geopolitical intentions. So, interestingly, the two of them could barely communicate.
iW: Except physically.
Dumont: Yes, which was great.
iW: To go back to this very erotic rapport in such a harsh location that’s so exposed to the elements, sun, cold — was this in counterpoint?
Dumont: Well, I saw it as harmony rather than contrast. I saw the desert as a savage, even regressive place, where the human body is at one with nature — naked rocks, naked bodies. The couple are regressing precisely in their lack of awareness, of verbal language, everything that we think of as human and civilized — to try to revert to some instinctual state. You can’t go further than being naked. And they’re recharging their… they’re taking the sun.
iW: The sex in this film is very much like the sex in your first film, “La Vie de Jesus.”
Dumont: Yes, raw, primal. Sex becomes violent when you eliminate all the sentiments… voila, it gets crude. I wrote the script in two weeks flat.
iW: So the little narrative incidents, the lovers’ fight, the dog with three legs — did those come up during the shoot?
Dumont: What’s experimental about the film is that it stays clear of all the normal romantic conventions. It’s about the banality of the couple. About boredom, anticipation, anger, reconciliation. All the so-called trivia, the details of a relationship, I made those the focus. I wanted to reduce the importance of the subject matter and change the figure-ground relationship. Have two tiny little figures against a vast backdrop. The best parallel I can think of is the transition from figurative to abstract painting.
iW: So with this very, very radical ending, do you think some people might not understand what you’re up to?
Dumont: Perhaps the end of the film is too definitive and authoritarian, too violent even, by comparison with the first three quarters of the film, where the viewer is quite free to wander around in his imagination. But I knew I wanted to end up with total carnage.
iW: You knew that from the start?
Dumont: Of course. I wanted to show how one can arrive at that point. But I did ask myself a lot of questions about it.
iW: And you also left a lot of questions for the viewer.
Dumont: That too.
iW: How do you see “Twentynine Palms” in relation to your first two films?
Dumont: I see it as moving closer to formal art. My dream is that this film would be shown in museums, not in movie theatres. And that people should see it as individuals and not as a collective audience.
iW: Will your next film be shot here or in Europe?
Dumont: In Europe because it’s less expensive. So I’m preparing something that I’ll shoot in France when I get back… But the United States is such a potent political, cultural, and economic model in the evocation of the contemporary world, that to come here, select some elements from the prototype and rearrange them, that’s really interesting artistically.