Some years ago, a commercial hustling some slop of a beer or another disposable part of our world lodged deep in my memory banks. The ad featured a couple of ordinary Joes who, while cruising a video store, had been stopped dead in their tracks by a foreign-language film. Mouths agape, the pair were focused on a monitor on which a third, less-ordinary guy in a clown suit and white greasepaint played what I believe was called the sad clown of life. Why, intoned the voice-over, do foreign films have to be so foreign?
A while later, Martin Scorsese wrote a letter to the editors of the New York Times on a related matter and, along the way, attacked this very commercial, denouncing it for promoting dangerous cultural myopia. Scorsese was right.
Every cinephile worth her sel de mer knows that many of the greatest films in cinema have been and continue to be produced abroad. And, of course, more often than not, the sad clown of life pops up at closer range, say, when another tear slides down Jennifer Connelly's face in "House of Sand and Fog." I promised to stop laughing at the commercial, but by then it had disappeared off the airwaves; unfortunately, the sad clown of life has proved more difficult to dislodge.
Which brings me to "Twentynine Palms," a supremely foreign foreign-language film, albeit one in which almost all the dialogue is in English. Written and directed by French filmmaker Bruno Dumont, the movie concerns what happens to an attractive young couple, David (David Wissak) and Katia (Katia Golubeva), after they leave Los Angeles for a sojourn in the desert town of Twentynine Palms. After they set up temporary house in a motel, the couple spend much of the subsequent two hours of story time alternately fighting and fornicating. When they're not under or atop the covers (or in the pool), alternately pouting and panting, they do their part for the environment by driving through the desert in their Hummer. Sometimes they get out of the Hummer; one time they go rock scrambling, naked.
The great pulp novelist Jim Thompson once said "there is only one plot -- things are not as they seem." And so it is in "Twentynine Palms," which -- until something very, very bad happens close to the end of the film -- motors along pleasantly, if unremarkably. Wissak, who recalls a less grubby Vincent Gallo, and the sloe-eyed Golubeva, who played the title character in Leos Carax's "Pola X," are off-kilter attractive and eminently watchable. It can be undeniably pleasant to watch two such nice-looking people roll around vigorously in an R-rated sort of way. Dumont, who's directed two previous features, the quite good "La Vie de Jesus" and the quite bad "Humanite," has an excellent sense of composition, and he and cinematographer Georges Lechaptois fill the wide, wide CinemaScope screen beautifully.
But to what point? In the main, "Twentynine Palms" is a strikingly shot film about the bright desert light, wide open spaces, having sex, having more sex, and how easy it is to slip into solipsism when your sightlines begin and end at the curve of your lover's hip. Embedded between all the sex and sunlight are some woefully underdeveloped ideas about American militarism and masculinity. Dumont doesn't bother to develop these ideas, principally because he seems to think it's enough to arrange his characters like puppets and tear off their heads. But nihilism is a crude instrument, even for those with talent, and it can be especially hazardous for those who believe, as Dumont apparently does, that the sum total of existence is "sex, love and evil." The sad clown of life could not have said it better.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Adult language, nudity, sex, graphic rape, bloody murder
Co-financed by Le Fresnoy, Studio National des arts contemporains with the participation of Wellspring (USA) and Canal+ in association with GIMAGE 5 and Centre National de Cinematographie, released by Wellspring. Writer-director Bruno Dumont. Producers Jean Brehat, Rachid Bouchareb. Director of photography Georges Lechaptois. Sound mixer Philippe Lecoeur. Editor Dominque Petrot. Sound editor Patrice Grisolet. Casting director Liz Jereski. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. In English and French with English subtitles.
Exclusively at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 281-8223.