Inland Empire: Directed by David Lynch

“Inland Empire,” David Lynch’s first movie in five years, premiered at the Venice Film Fest in September, then played at the New York Film Fest in October. The movie divided film critics (including Lynch’s fans) in both cities, and failed to get a theatrical distributor.
It’s now self-distributed by Lynch and will travel to major cities, after engagements in New York and Los Angeles. I suspect that more people will see it on DVD than in theaters.

Made after an artistic highlight in Lynch’s career, “Mulholland Drive” (2001), which did find audiences and won Lynch a Director Oscar nomination from the Academy and recognition from critics groups, “Inland Empire” inevitably suffers in the comparison.

At three hours, the new movie is long, indulgent, and repetitious, but it’s also creepy, bizarre, haunting, darker than night and splendidly acted by Laura Dern in a very demanding role; I can’t imagine the picture without Dern, and I suspect it was conceived for her.

As such, “Inland Empire” is a must-see Lynch, a personal film that despite problems continues to explore thematic concerns that have preoccupied (you could say obsessively) Lynch from his very first feature, “Eraserhead,” which was released exactly three decades ago (See Film Comment).

The work is personal but not in the sense of reflecting biographical elements from Lynch’s life and career. Rather, Lynch has put his stamp over each and every frame of the film, serving as producer, writer, director, sound designer and even editor (with some help in the technical departments from Mary Sweeney, his frequent collaborator (and former wife).

In the press notes, “Inland Empire” is described in four short sentences: “A story of a mystery…A mystery inside worlds within worlds…Unfolding around a woman…
A woman in love and in trouble.” On the other hand, every single cameo and bit actor is enlisted generously with full credit.

The above description is accurate, but it could apply to most of Lynch’s movies and doesn’t help to assess the specific artistic merits of “Inland Empire.” It’s easier to start the analysis by saying what the movie is not. “Inland Empire is not a conventional narrative, though it does have a text with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and a resolution (sort of).

Though the film defies mainstream codes about what a screen character is, as far as psychological motivation, arch, and evolution are concerned, “Inland Empire” does have half a dozen characters, headed by Laura Dern, who plays two parts, Nikki Grace and Susan Blue.

Several segments of the story take place in Poland with Polish talent, and CameraImage is credited as one of the film’s producers. The movie begins with an extremely powerful scene, in which a polish prostitute is hired, mentally tormented, and physically brutalized by a Polish master/pimp, who leaves the abused woman watching TV with a blank screen that later begins to project signals and images.

Cut to a quieter, seemingly idyllic setting, interrupted by a strange woman (the eccentric Grace Zabriskie, billed as guest #1), who introduces herself to a young blonde actress, Nikki Grace (Dern) in the latter’s opulent home. The scene assumes the shape of a fairy tale, a fable, in which Zabriskie is cast as a witch (a recurrent character in Lynch’s work, particularly “Wild at Heart”). Whether she’s a good or bad witch is unclearor rather depends on what part of her monologue you base your argument. Zabriskie basically tells the story of the film, setting its dark, unsettling tone, one whose creepiness occasionally becomes humorous.

Speaking in a heavy Romanian (or maybe another Eastern European), Zabriskie the outsider is at first polite, “I hear you have a new role,” before becoming more curious and inquisitive, “Is your husband related to it” Nikki claims that she had auditioned for the role but it is not hers yet. We know that it would become Nikki’s and that it would leave indelible impact on her life.

Zabriskie proceeds with relating the same fable twice, along gender lines. When a boy goes out into the world to play, evil is born and follows him. In contrast, when a girl goes out to play, she is lost in the marketplace.

Clearly, just like “Mulholland Drive,” “Inland Empire” serves as a cautionary tale about the fate and career of actresses in Hollywood. And like the 2001 film, the new movie is about the two facets of Hollywood, as the factory of dreams but also the creator of nightmares. The film’s last section takes place on Hollywood Boulevrad and Vine (at night, of course), with Dern among hookers and homeless, an assorted group of minorities (black, Asian). In this and other respects, “Inland Empire” deconstructs Hollywood as a storytelling machine (emphasis on both words).

Most of the tale though is about a film within a film, but it’s not always clear what’s real and what’s surreal, what’s being acted in front of the cameras and what takes place off screen. Space, both physical and narrative, is expectedly treated in a mysteriously intriguing way. Lynch blurs the lines deliberately and consciously, and his touch is so assured that at times we are so convinced that we are watching Dern as the real-life actress only to be shaken up, when at the end of a emotional scene, the camera pulls back and we hear the director’s mythic words, “Cut and print.”

The mid-section is problematic and I am willing to bet that even Lynch’s aficionados and connoisseurs have hard time deciphering some chapters and images. Most prominent among those are huge talking rabbits, sitting in an artificially looking room and engaging in banal dialogue that’s played out to a laughing track, but it could also be a live performance.

You could say that Laura Dern embodies a modern version of Alice in Wonderland, since for most of the picture she opens closed doors, plunges into holes inside holes, and walks in endlessly long, darkly lit corridors.

The film that’s being shot is relatively simple to decode. With a preposterous title, “On High in Blue Tomorrows,” it’s a noirish illicit affair between Dern, now as the married Susan, and her co-star, the married Billy Side (Justin Theroux, who was so scarily good as the director in “Mulholland Drive). The film is being directed by Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons), and it’s reassuring to see on the set Harry Dean Stanton, who gets to deliver some of the text’s weirdest and funniest lines.

Soon, it becomes clear that not only the filmic Susan and Billy have a steamy affair, but also the actual actors who play the roles, Nikki and Devon Berk (Theorux). The film within film ends disastrously, with physical abuse by Susan’s husband, a ruthless man, shocked to realize that his wife is pregnant since he himself is sterile. Equally jealous and brutal is Billy’s wife Doris (played by an almost unrecognizable Julia Ormond).

As noted earlier, Susan is surrounded by a group of Polish and later American women who act and dress as prostitutes. Serving as sort of a Greek chorus, they comment on Susan’s actions, sometimes breaking into song-and dance, like lip-synching “The Loco-Motion,” in the midst of the darkest sequence.

If memory serves, the key line in the film is “Do you recognize me Have you seen me before” which Susan/Nikki keeps asking her entourage. Lynch may be commenting n the fragile notion of postmodern identity, particularly of Hollywood actresses who, due to personality and circumstances, often can’t distinguish between their roles onscreen and off (This theme also featured prominent in “Mulholand Drive”).

The movie is tough to watch, and not just due to its running time. Nonetheless, as bizarre and surreal as the above proceedings may sound, “Inland Empire” is seldom boring. Shooting for the first time on DVD enables Lynch greater flexibility in conveying the specific texture, moodand lightingof each setting, from those shot in Poland (outdoors and indoors) to those filmed in Hollywood.

At one point, Nikki watches herself as Susan in an empty movie theater that looks very much like the Chinese Mann. You’ll recognize visual motifs in Lynch’s work, a blinding, often buzzing electric light, red velvety curtains, long corridors that are half-lit, but there are also new images and settings, such as an opulent house that looks like an old European palace, in which Nikki resides (or perhaps is caged against her will).

“Inland Empire” seems to contain a more explicit feminist streak than Lynch’s former pictures. It may be a matter of interpretation, but Nikki succeeds in liberating a prostitute/sex slave from her master/pimp, and most of the violence in the film is targeted at men, which emphasizes even more the revenge motif. At the end, holding a gun, a deglamorized Nikki/Susan comes close to looking like Abel Ferrara’s protagonist in the semi-feminist vengeance saga, “Ms. 45.”

Like most of Lynch’s films, it’s hard to classify “Inland Empire” in terms of the usual dichotomies of art/entertainment, highbrow/middlebrow, A-level/B-level production. The film within film is a pseudo romantic melodrama, and the names of Dern’s characters, Nikki Grace and Susan Blue, have the ring of a porn-star in exploitation flick (like Nola Darling in Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It”).

Rendering an impressively intense, multi-nuanced performance, Laura Dern is nothing short of brilliant. Lynch uses her expressive, not conventionally attractive, face as a map on which he builds a gamut of emotions, from nave curiosity to seductive allure, shock, fear, contempt, disgust, revolt, and revenge. Credited as co-producer here, Dern is the closest Lynch has had as a favorite-prevalent actress, having appeared in two of his best features: “Blue Velvet” and “Wild at Heart.”
It’s too bad that we have not cultivated a tradition of cinema that allows gifted directors like Lynch to explore and experiment. It’s sad to conclude this essay by commenting that 20 years ago Lynch was the hottest, most inventive director in America (“Blue Velvet” was followed by the TV hit, “Twin Peak”), whereas now, he’s relegated to the margins, unable to secure even a small indie distributor.

End note

I was intrigued by the fact that most of the actresses from Lynch’s previous films have cameo roles in “Inland Empire”: Diane Ladd (Laura Dern’s real-life mother, who was in “Wild at Heart”) plays a weird TV talk show host here, Naomi Watts and Laura Harding from “Mulholland Drive,” Nastassja Kinski, and others.