Yesterday evening I watched Inland Empire, David Lynch’s latest masterpiece of the weird, with a friend. It was a film I wanted to see with a companion, because it struck me that we’d have plenty to discuss afterwards. That was not the case, because I stumbled out of the theatre, my head stuffed with images of disquiet, shell-shocked and inspired. There wasn’t much to say, because the film resists dissection, especially immediately after you’ve seen it.
It requires time to ponder.
While watching the film I was struck at how Lynch has mastered “dream narratives”. He has captured the haphazard stories of the unconscious and put them on the big screen.
There are multiple narrative threads during the film and Lynch has a habit of turning from one, and picking up another, without completing the first. He continues to do this throughout the film. What this underlines is our desperate desire for stories. As much as we want closure, our voracious hunger for new narratives will usurp the need for an ending if the subsequent story is compelling. And Lynch has an incredible knack of tantalising the audience with new stories. Throughout we sense there is a deeper meaning, and we struggle to figure out its shape in the blizzard of stories.
Laura Dern is outstanding in the film. She plays a variety of characters with sympathy and vital force. It’s quite shocking that she was not nominated for this role. Sure, the film is challenging, but Dern put in a tremendous performance.
At times the film is dark, grainy, and often has the rough-handled feeling of an amateur cameraman, but all of it is deliberate. Inland Empire is about the film industry, its illusions and deceptions, and most of all (it seems to me) it is about the multiple personas that actors must inhabit when playing characters in a film – which is symbolic of the daily mask-swapping most people engage in on a daily basis.
My take on the film (and do not read further if you don’t want to spoil the film) is that the actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) takes on the role of Susan Blue in a film. The film is not an original screenplay as thought. The previous version had been attempted before in Eastern Europe, but was abandoned when the lead actors were murdered. Nikki’s opposite lead, Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), plays the role of Billy Side in the film. In the film Billy, a married man, has an affair with Susan. Nikki is married to a jealous husband, who warns Devon from dallying with Nikki – which of course they do.
What happens is there is a complete narrative intermingling about halfway through the film. Nikki and Susan become intertwined, along with the original actress who played the role of Susan. The film shifts between the character, and the actress, with disregard for indicating to the audience what is “real” and “unreal”. All of this is played out on the theatre of the unconscious, which indicates the fractured personalities underlying Nikki’s façade that allow Nikki to play a demanding role like Susan. How much of an actress is in the role? How much of the role becomes the actress?
The last ten minutes of the film are particularly compelling. At a point when most directors would end the film, Lynch instead emphasises his point about the insubstantiality of our notions of real and unreal. The camera pulls back from Susan’s death scene, and Nikki staggers up, shocked and still immersed in the character. She stumbles out of the set, and into a theatre. On the screen the events happening to her are played out. Nikki goes up a stairs and eventually into a room. The audience sees an image on a TV screen, and a woman on the bed, crying, watching a TV screen of those events. There is an unending reflection of images. Nikki embraces and kisses the woman, and then disappears. For me, it was the actress releasing the role, which continues on to have its own future life, independent of the actress.
The credit sequence is extraordinary. I can’t remember ever being so engrossed in the action as the credits roll. Nikki sits in her house, surrounded by narrative fragments in the form of people, who sing and dance to Nina Simone’s rendition of “Sinner Man”. It energises the ending, bringing it to another level.
Lynch constantly keeps the audience on edge in the film. He does this by having characters break social conventions in small but uncomfortable ways. His aural landscape is incredible, sometimes complimenting the action, or disturbing it on purpose by conflicting with the tone. His choice of actors is astonishing. They are odd, maniacal, and fit their roles perfectly. So often their cryptic lines are laced with menace: “actions have consequences”, seems to be the recurrent theme.
Inland Empire is an aggressive film because it engages with the audience – it harasses them, wrong-foots them, disturbs and shocks them. If you want a passive experience this is not the film for you. This will take your expectations, ball them up, and kick them through your eyes.
In some ways I think the film could have been shorter, but equally it didn’t feel like I was in the theatre for three hours and ten minutes.
It’s a difficult film to watch at times, but I’m happy I made the effort to see it. It’s a needed alternative to the plethora of pap that populates our screens most of the time. Thank goodness for David Lynch and his dream narratives. At least someone is telling it slant. It won’t win him any popularity contests, however.