David Lynch’s last feature film (to date) begins in typically Lynchian fashion; a scratchy record plays, subtitled Polish is heard. Figures are seen in a hotel room, their faces blurred; one of them, a woman (a prostitute), is then seen crying as she watches a peculiar “sitcom” involving the domestic lives of characters with rabbit heads. The music on the soundtrack suggests the kind of melancholy Julee Cruise evoked in decades past, while the eerie sound effects are the director’s calling card.
Even more than the most obscure of the filmmaker’s previous pictures, there appears to be an almost wilful attempt this time to elude any grasp of what is going on. This is most evident in the rejection of a tangible narrative line. For the first third or so, there appears to be an identifiable theme. Laura Dern’s Hollywood star is visited by a gypsy woman (Grace Zabriskie) who proves to be typically unnerving and semi-threatening. There are strange shifts in perspective and time. Zabriskie informs Dern that she has the part she wants, before this is announced to Dern, and Dern sees “herself” talking with friends on a sofa across the room.
As scenes unfold, Lynch makes it unclear whether what we are experiencing relates to Dern or the role she is playing in director Jeremy Irons’ film. In addition, we learn that the film is a remake of a Polish film (47), based on an old folk tale, which went unfinished when the leads were murdered. Entering into the storyline is Dern’s jealous and threatening husband and Justin Theroux’s lothario male lead.
Many of the early scenes have a sense of the surreal fracturing perspective and reality that are signature Lynch; one memorable moment has Dern walk in on the other side of the stage, only to realise that she represents the noise and intrusion that caused a disturbance some days earlier. One can’t help but think of The Shining in the references to urban myths, significant numbers and confusing architectural geography. But the problem this time is that Lynch’s choices become increasingly random. Not in a pleasurable way, but in one that causes the film itself to lose overall cohesion. And, at three hours, it just goes on… and on… and on…
Dern is outstanding, an actress who, possibly due to insubstantial roles, I had never paid much attention to before. And Justin Theroux, in his second film with Lynch, brings some much-needed charisma to the screen (tellingly, he is absent for most of the second half). Harry Dean Stanton makes a brief impression but the rest of the known actors are in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances (Diane Ladd, William H Macy, Julia Ormond, Mary Steenburgen).
There’s clearly an extent to which this is a meditation on the beast that is Hollywood and the fakery and artifice of its function; the blurring of lines between playing a role and becoming it, to the point that no one is sure what the truth is (so picking up from Mulholland Dr.). At around the halfway mark events appear to veer off into a succession of abstracted encounters concerning Polish types and prostitutes and Polish prostitutes. And then Lynch brings it back round to his main theme. Eventually.
But there’s no sense of discipline here, something that could be found in even his most oblique earlier work (Lost Highway). It’s almost as if he didn’t have a finished script (he didn’t). There’s a point where a disturbing scene or image or sound no longer has any impact because you are no longer engaged.
There’s little doubt that the restrictions of finance frequently add to the unsettling nature of what we are seeing. There is a raw quality resulting from the choice of hi-def photography that creates immediacy and a verité sense. But it also results in an absence of the beautiful and seductive qualities that vied with the darkness and distortion in his previous works.
It’s almost as the freedom of a micro-budget (filmed on hi-def) caused Lynch to think, “Fuck it!” (I’m sure he would have been much politer) and decide to be as inscrutable and unyielding as possible. Apparently, Lynch is has referred audiences to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad with the following quote:
We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe.
Which is all very well as a guiding principle behind a piece of work, but a lofty idea doesn’t automatically translate successfully.
There can be a tendency for those who don’t speak glowingly of a celebrated work or auteur to be dismissed with, “You just don’t get it”. And maybe that’s so in this case. I don’t know; perhaps I will revisit this one in time and do an about turn. The director’s work is particularly ripe for re-evaluations and fresh perspectives. But, right now, Inland Empire is a bit of a chore. One with flashes of the genius that made Lynch so invigorating but without the guiding principles that made him compelling.