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Bruno Dumont's Twenty-nine Palms centers on a couple, David and Katia, as they explore the home of Joshua Trees and a Marine Corps base. Many may view the film as uninteresting and pointless, for the film seems to have no real plot. Their days seem very mundane and predictable with exploring the desert, swimming, having sex and then fighting. Nevertheless, this very reason should provoke the audience to look beyond what is simply presented. Because the film as an entirety appears unimportant, scenes become a symbol or an allusion. American culture has always been controversial; yet it is clear that Bruno Dumont, with his uncensored approach, is criticizing certain American values.
Under Dumont's direction, David is reduced to his basic instinct of masculinity, which is a valorized identity in America. The first instance of this is when he allows Katia to drive through the desert. By doing so, he relinquishes his authority but she ends up scratching the side of the red Hummer. To further wound his pride, she laughs at his anger. David's waxing of the Hummer can only be viewed as an endeavor to restore his masculine supremacy. An additional example is at the Chinese restaurant. By wanting to prove that he is capable and not helpless, David searches through the menu for what the other table ordered. He refuses to simply ask or even allow Katia to ask. David represents an "Old West" masculinity of being superior to the "savages," who today could be those who are not as well off. Yet, he still has his moments of insecurity. David's vulnerability is best demonstrated when he is eating ice cream with Katia. He notices Katia admiring the Marine and jokingly asks, "You wouldn't want me to shave my head like them?" She laughs, and then admits to finding Marines "really handsome" but she still would not want him to cut his hair. He scowls and mutters about how he has no idea what she is trying to communicate at times.
Dumont once again scrutinizes American culture with the contrasts of David and the Marine. America's political identity revolves around the concept of national unity and violence for the self-preservation of society. David is thin, wears wrinkled t-shirts and has long messy hair. The Marine, on the other hand, has short hair and a uniform that is in immaculate condition. However, that perfect exterior of proud men of the US Marines hides the reality of war, in that war is chaotic and it dehumanizes its troops. Dumont emphasizes the realization that America's troops have made violence and death a reason to be proud. A marine embodies all that is masculine, which can translate into a repression of the feminine, for he has removed all adornment and with it, his ability to empathize.
David is not the only one to follow certain gender stereotypes of America. Katia portrays the "typical female" as she paints her toenails and blow dries her hair. In the beginning she sleeps in the back of the hummer, which gives her an air of innocence. Scene after scene, we see the characteristics of femininity. She walks around barefoot, complains about being hungry and in a fit of anger, locks herself in the bathroom. She experiences a whirlwind of emotion from bursting into tears, to sitting happily, to suddenly sulking with jealousy. In one scene, David is watching The Jerry Springer Show and the episode features a father confessing to his wife about sexually abusing their daughter. Katia immediately asks David whether he would treat his own daughter this way; he responds with disgust. She feels more sympathetic toward the mother rather than the daughter because she harbors an insecurity that, over time, David's eyes may wander elsewhere. This idea of female insecurity was also present at the Chinese restaurant for Katia disapproved of David glancing at the woman who walked by as she left the restaurant. Nonetheless, Katia always seems to be following David's lead and constantly tries to please him. He's the one who teaches her to drive, to hold her hand as they walk toward the store, and order ice cream for her. In the first pool scene, she wears a red bathing suit and is calmly floating in the water until David initiates sex.
Continuing with Dumont's cynical view of America, the minimalism of the desert, with its rocks and dirt, greatly parallels the severity of the American colonial frontier. Richard Slotin, author of Regeneration through violence: the mythology of the American frontier, 1600-1860, states that America's "founding fathers" were not the proper gentlemen of Philadelphia but "the rogues, adventurers, Indian fighters, explorers, and hunters" who killed and tried to take dominance over the wilderness (Slotin 4). Myths are the building blocks of society and so it created the foundation of American history with the idea of the American dream and the possibility of going from rags to riches. The pride and rewards that come from conquering are what forced men to believe that one must have a violent and almost animalistic nature. The settlers were so focused on their desire for land that their violence seemed justified but the way they treated the Native Americans is still immoral. Likewise, Dumont depicts David as someone who is morally ambiguous. Throughout the film, he treats Katia with little respect. However, in the scene with the three-legged dog, he clearly empathizes with the animal and warns Katia numerous times that he cannot see the dog in his rearview mirror. When he does hit the dog, David is distressed but there really was nothing he could do.
Dumont's vision parallels the ideas in Richard F. Kuisel's book, Seducing the French: the dilemma of Americanization, in which Kuisel states that America is a materialistic society and he further proclaims that "money is unable to provide a durable basis for human society" (Kuisel 111). David and Katia are seen constantly driving in a shiny red Hummer and watching the desert scenery go by. David stops at a local gas station, which really does reflect America, especially Los Angeles, a city the French believe is "a caricature of America" (Kuisel 112). This Hummer represents stability, whether it be physical protection or monetary. It is also in this way that David and Katia can be viewed as spoiled and sheltered from the reality of the outside world. They surround themselves in the pristine, plush interior of the Hummer, which includes a sound system, GPS navigation, and leather seats. They are oblivious to potential dangers. The Hummer serves as material evidence of the effect of consumerism. David and Katia's lives seem carefree and predictable, that is until the reality between the interior and exterior collide and we see David's dead body lying next to the Hummer. Dumont hints at the destined destruction by capturing the Hummer getting scratched and covered with sand.
Another scene that clearly depicts Dumont's cynical view of American consumerism is the grocery store. Upon entering, we can clearly see stacks upon stacks of chips and beverages. Within the actual aisle, we see even more rows of products. Not only are there numerous choices but each item appears to be colorful, which is a major marketing strategy since market researchers have proved that certain colors provoke shopping. David is crouching near the bottom shelves and there are products in red labels to his left, above him and to his right. This scene also contains the issue of vanity. Katia leaves David alone to take a look at the beauty products. Beautification of oneself is not a new concept. Women in society are always put on a scale and must maintain a certain image and reputation. Men are no different. Besides maintaining an aura of strength, men are put on a scale based on the car they drive. This societal pressure causes Katia to purchase face cream and David to debate over which wax is best for his red Hummer. As David continues to look at the ingredients label, he comments that his car wax probably has the same ingredients as Katia's face cream but they call it something else. When we as Americans walk into a store, we know for a fact that there will be more than one similar product. Like David's remark, in the end, we have to choose between purchasing a brand name product or a generic product that provides the same benefits.
By portraying David and Katia as belonging to the upper class, Dumont is critiquing the American class structure. The distinctions were once black and white, but it has now become harder to categorize people by "the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the votes they cast, the god they worship, the color of their skin" (Scott 1). NY Times' article, "Shadowy Lines That Still Divide," states that the "contours of class" have not blurred for health differences and lifespan continue to widen (Scott 1). Also, education is playing a much larger role in today's society. The scene that best exemplifies this evidence is when David and Katia are strolling down the street. As they cross, an old red truck drives by and a man yells at them to get off the street. David and Katia do not struggle with financial problems but considering that the other men drive such an old truck suggests that they live in poverty. He almost has a bitterness to his voice that may stem from how hard his life is and the noticeable difference between his own appearance and David's. Also, David's bow - to the other men - is patronizing. David's appearance with a nice dress shirt may be an eye opener for the man because as the NY Times article suggests, sometimes people do not notice class structure or that they are poor. As stated before, education is becoming more and more important since it can cause "mobility" (Scott 1). It is the chance to climb the social ladder and go from poor to rich. Based on the man's language, one can assume that he did not receive quality education. David, on the other hand, can speak French, which hints that he was given many educational opportunities.
Though the war in Iraq is not directly present, it does permeate itself throughout the film. The red Hummer itself represents the ideals of war since its sheer size is based on a military vehicle. Also emblematic is the Marine dressed in desert camouflage eating ice cream. Dumont slowly hints at the horrors of war while using the final violence as punctuation. As they enjoy their drive through the desert, David and Katia are suddenly assaulted by three men who drag them from their truck, strike at David with a bat, and sodomize him. They are inattentive to their surroundings until the white truck rear-ends them. The camera captures David's face as he looks over his shoulder and screams. Next, is a shot of the two trucks stopping. At such an angle, the white truck looks menacing and massive against the red Hummer, conveying that Katia and David are helpless in preventing what is to happen. The last image is of David's bloodied face. Those moments portray American violence and represent the sociopolitical allegory of the Iraq War. David's Hummer might symbolize America as a world power while the white truck could represent the plane that attacked the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11. America believed that it was all-powerful and unconquerable, so this sudden attack brought a spectacle of humiliation. The immediate reaction is to retaliate and so the War on Terror began. David, analogous to American military forces, was ashamed and in order to recooperate his masculinity, he shaves his head, in reference to the Marine, and stabs Katia repeatedly.
The cinematography of the final scene best exemplifies all the aspects of American values that Bruno Dumont conveyed throughout the film. Dumont bluntly exposes America's valorization of superficial cosmopolitanism, consumerism, and class structure. The last scene depicts David's naked, dead body lying facedown in the sand next to his red Hummer. The police officer that is present tries to get help and contain the situation; however, he soon discovers that a "DUI takes precedence". All we hear is the wind blowing, which emphasizes the landscape on the screen. The vastness of the desert creates hopelessness and as the officer walks around the shrubbery, Dumont imparts his own pessimistic view of the bleakness in America's future. Visually, the scene depicts nothing but open space that seems impossible to patrol, but the police officer continues to request for back up. This creates a sense of hope for the police officer truly cares. Change begins with one person and if other officers learn to prioritize and effectively communicate, America can better embody its ambition of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Kuisel, Richard F. Seducing the French: the dilemma of Americanization. University of California Press, 1997. Print.
Scott, Janny, and David Leonhardt. "Class Matters: Shadowy Lines that Still Divide." The New York Times. 15 May 2005. Web. 13 Nov. 2010.
Slotin, Richard. Regeneration through violence: the mythology of the American frontier, 1600-1860. University of Oklahoma, 2000. Print.
Twenty-nine Palms. Dir. Bruno Dumont. Prod. Rachid Bouchareb. 3B Productions, 2003. DVD.