Bruno Dumont started his filmmaking career by shooting industrial videos. He has cited a particular shot of a candy factory—his camera inside a chocolate machine—as the first time he captured an emotion on video, an emotion triggered not by people but by twisting ribbons of dark creamy goo. It’s an odd statement, but it may explain why the characters in his more recent features are so mechanical, so tactile, why their sex is so robotic and why the red Hummer David and Katia use for scouting photo-shoot locations in Twentynine Palms seems less like a mere conveyance and more like the outer shell of the people inside. They live at the whims of their deeply programmed desires but are unable, or unwilling, to reconcile them. But when they’re in the truck, these two bundles of contradictions must move together in the same direction. And one of them needs to drive.
Like Laure’s car in Claire Denis’ Vendredi Soir, the red Hummer’s trials and fortunes are inextricably tied to those of its occupants and vice-versa. David and Katia get equal time on screen, but Katia is so dramatically simple that the character seems like David’s exaggerated view of the woman, and perhaps all women: she can’t drive, she’s childishly indecisive, she breaks into tears when he glances at a passing woman, and she asks him if he could ever molest children. It seems clear to him that sharing this pool with her will somehow destroy him, but he plunges in headlong anyway. He’s courting danger. As they drive across the Mars-like rubble, he stops the truck, jumps out and urges Katia into the driver’s seat as he jogs around to the other side. He’s as game—as willfully careless—as Laure when she lets a stranger into her passenger seat, but he goes a step further by encouraging his partner to take the wheel, something Laure’s companion did only when she wasn’t looking.
Twentynine Palms is another in a string of recent French movies that are stretching the bounds of what’s filmable. The body is no longer sacred, no longer even a reflection of a person, but rather an object—a churning, jerking, oozing machine. But unlike many of their peers, Dumont and Denis seem to be working toward human discovery. Denis uses objects and bodies as windows into her characters’ jealously guarded thoughts, and as carefully coordinated guides through elliptical stories. Dumont, for all his attempts to shoot landscapes devoid of beauty, sex scenes devoid of titilation and conversations devoid of content, and for all his attempts to equate humans and machines, he reduces humanity not to meaninglessness but to its few essential elements—desire, fear, companionship, love, hate and death—and the junctures where they conflict.
Dumont’s third feature is not an enjoyable movie. I’m not even sure it’s a worthwhile experiment. And despite a picaresque locale that screams for such treatment, no single shot in Twentynine Palms comes close to the long shot of a man walking briskly along a ridge, nor the shot of his car disappearing into the distance down a country road, in his 1999 film Humanité. But at the very least Dumont is interested in more than just clever games, which positions him leagues away from filmmakers like Irreversible’s Gaspar Noé. In talking about his shot of the chocolate machine, that pivotal point early in his career, Dumont surmised that people are drawn to the turning gears because the machine mirrors their own thought process. Thus, his films don’t so much mechanize humans as humanize machines. He searches for people within their creations, be they trucks or relationships.