A pleasure-seeking young couple, David and Katia, journey their way across the California landscape with apparent abandon. Officially, David is meant to be there scouting locations for his latest film project, taking in the picturesque stretches of desert and trees in the Joshua Tree National Park. However, long drives seem to lose focus and aim quickly, and sexual urges take over, the couple ravaging each other in a host of locations (‘ravaging’ seems the most appropriate verb, given the ambiguity of their passion). When their sojourn falls into a detached routine, an invasion from the outside world seems poised either to threaten their intimate relationship, or rescue them from the frustration of their sexual encounters.
While director-writer Bruno Dumont might have it in his mind that Twentynine Palms is an ‘experimental road-trip horror’ masterpiece, it actually achieves little more than slight provocation. Shots linger meditatively on the pair’s naked or near-naked bodies, savouring their vulnerability. While the framing of these shots usually says something about the roles they play in their sexual journey, only a really generous and patient viewer would claim that Dumont’s film means anything more. Having said that, his appropriation of the American setting and sordid treatment of the “road movie” genre often feels like a deliberate dig at Hollywood’s mawkish mile-a-minute storytelling. Additionally, the film employs elements from other films – À Bout De Souffle comes to mind, with the lead couple juggling two cultures and languages – but is definitely less than the sum of its influences.