July 5, 2012
Walk through doors, never to return
What was it David Lynch said about the words “lost highway” – they made you dream? Three films on, the words Inland Empire did the same kind of thing: the title, with its sense of things secret and hidden, can seem like an analogy for dreaming, or the imagination, for interior worlds, and it fits this most interior of Lynch movies, a film that sticks more closely to its protagonist than any other, closer even than Eraserhead (Jack Nance’s sad, soft face never loomed in close-up like Laura Dern’s does here, or as often, with waves of terror, shock, disbelief and occasional lust registered almost microscopically). Inland Empire as the world inside: by the end of its two hours, 52 minutes (it is the longest Lynch film by miles, longer even than Dune), it has come to seem labyrinthine; you are deep inside the consciousness, dreams and fears of one woman, or possibly three women, played by Laura Dern. So far inside that there is no way back. Can you even remember where or how this all started? The close-ups of faces, the limited sets (the whole world as a few adjoining rooms) and the grainy digital video (actually a flaw in other ways) combine to create this sense of a world that you can’t find your way in. Time has collapsed, and space has too.
The conventional wisdom around Inland Empire is that this was a perplexing disappointment after The Straight Story and Mulholland Drive had restored Lynch’s reputation with movie-goers (time looped: it was a replay of the way that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was taken as a perplexing disappointment after …). It seems to have been the Lynch film (excluding Dune, an impersonal one) that regular moviegoers like the least, if we can take IMDB voting scores as an indication. Its IMDB score is 6.9 out of 10 – The Elephant Man is at 8.3, The Straight Story and Mulholland Drive are at 8.0, Blue Velvet at 7.8, Lost Highway at 7.6, Eraserhead at 7.3, Wild at Heart at 7.2 and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me at 7.0, with Dune behind Inland Empire at 6.5. The scores almost work as a guide to accessibility.
Inland Empire is hard to watch, no question. Literally: the digital video means that the film lacks the sumptuousness and dream textures of other Lynch films, but at a couple of moments, it is an advantage. A scene with a stabbed, paranoid Dern on Hollywood and Vine at night is a rare example of Lynch using a recognisable location as the place it purports to be, and the digital video lends it a documentary-like feel, especially in a truly remarkable bit in which the dying Dern lies amongst homeless people and the Japanese girl billed only as “a street person” delivers a monologue about her friend in Pomona, a junkie and a prostitute. Inland Empire seems at this point to be close to filmed reality, a street documentary grabbed surreptitiously, until Lynch pulls back and reveals the scene as the climax of the film that Dern’s Nikki, an actress, has been shooting. Maybe it’s not surprising that the most “real” seeming of any Lynch scene should be shown as artificial – even more than Mulholland Drive, this movie is a hate letter to Hollywood, with its false dreams, its producers who double as pimps and gangsters, its would-be starlets driven to addiction, prostitution and suicide, where the mere making of a film is seen as somehow sinister and dangerous, with acting able to alter reality, and usually not for the best. The film within the film is a remake of a cursed Polish movie. A key line on film’s ability to destroy: “She looks very good in her blonde wig, like a movie star,” says the homeless Japanese girl about her doomed friend.
Digital video meant that Lynch was free to improvise, and the use of monologues is new (Dern has several). There is also a sense of salvage or creative re-use: the sitcom rabbits came from a short film series and Poland is both a source of funding and production resources, and, in the story, a terrifying alternate dimension, akin to Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge (we have Sarah Palmer herself, Grace Zabriskie, as the Polish crone). The doubling plots of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive are pushed further, so that we have even less sense of where the “normal” world is, and just where the story deviates from it. As Cahiers du Cinema critic Stephane Delorme put it, “It is the literal history of a collapse, just as in the second halves of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, except here the film trembles from end to end.” Trembles is a good choice of word: the feeling of doom is constant, from the very start – a couple of scenes with the Locomotion girls may break the tension a little but they don’t lift a sense of sadness, if you see the girls as versions of the Twin Peaks teenagers lured across the border into the brothel/casino One Eyed Jacks, or the porn stars and wannabe actresses of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive (there are so many ways in which it is like this Lynch movie or that Lynch movie, including Blue Velvet and Eraserhead, that it’s almost a recapitulation). Lynch subtitled this “A woman in trouble”, which could have been the subtitle of Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive especially, even Lost Highway, where Patricia Arquette’s femme fatale is really just another of the abused, exploited women. Two things make this woman in trouble story different, though: the incredible, unsettling range of Dern’s acting, and the unusual joy of the closing credit sequence. Dern and the other girls, now including Mulholland Drive’s Laura Elena Harring, brought back to the Lynch world for just this sequence, dance as one of the girls lip-synchs to a Nina Simone song. Usually lip-synching is something to be afraid of in a Lynch film, as it implies a supernatural rupture – Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet, Rebekah Del Rio in Mulholland Drive – but this sequence overturns everything and gives you exuberance and release. Even for the girl in the blonde wig who looks like a movie star.