“Were you, in fact, seeing another man?”
– A Rabbit
Nature may abhor a vacuum, but David Lynch certainly does not. At the ontological boundary between two bodies, two worlds and two minds, reality warps and fragments are scattered, falling where they may. And in Lynch’s oeuvre, this boundary is a vacuum, because the pieces fall without friction and land in bizarre formations. This is particularly true of his 2006 magnum opus Inland Empire – shot on digital video, with scripts reworked frequently, an amalgam of 4 decades of Lynchian symbolism, the arrangement of elements is nothing short of disconcerting. It is to the auteur and his diligent audience to make sense of the tea leaves, to know the pieces as they’ve fallen, and to wonder at their origins.
Lynch compatriot Laura Dern is the film’s foundation, inhabiting multiple roles, each a refraction of the other. As actress Nikki Grace she is a serene, soft-spoken cipher of a woman, eager to inhabit the role of middle-class adulteress Susan Blue in the film “On High in Blue Tomorrows”. As she clothes herself in the role, playing off of Justin Theroux’s confident Devon, even venturing an off-screen affair with him, the narrative fractures – Dern is flung between sets and roles, spaces and times, each fragment of her circling themes of jealousy, marriage, sexuality and revenge.
Against the Oscar-bait romance of “Blue Tomorrows”, her tenure as Susan Blue is pained and bitter, dwelling on her infidelity to her husband (Peter J Lucas, as Nikki Grace’s Piotrek and Susan Blue’s Smithy). As the film’s psychosis deepens, aspects of the film “Vier, Sieben” (of which “Blue Tomorrows” is a remake) are interspersed – its romantic leads (Julia Ormond and a moustachioed Peter J Lucas) are murdered. Other, ostensibly unrelated passages appear, including prolonged instances of foulmouthed psychoanalytic confessions by Dern, and open-air set pieces in the California’s Inland Empire region (yes, it’s a place).
Now, this is all supposedly stems from a curse, embedded in the gypsy folk tale to which “Vier, Sieben” and “Blue Tomorrows” are beholden. But the pacing of the film, in which the narrative break occurs at the instant of infidelity, might suggest that this ‘curse’, this ‘something inside the story’ is some kind of trauma, perhaps common to all romances of this type. To suggest that all love stories are born of, and remain in proximity to, a nightmarish kernel of desperation and fear is perhaps not a total stretch to those who have lived them. Nikki Grace’s breakdown of identity, and therefore of embodiment and sexuality, is a fractious, multifaceted exploration of this desperation. “The world’s longest running radio play” is, perhaps reductively, love and betrayal.
This is, of course, classic David Lynch territory. Romantic obsession and violent jealousy haunt his entire filmic output, from Isabella Rossellini’s manic depressive turn as Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet, to Naomi Watts’ sublimely broken Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Drive. Even Lost Highway’s Bill Pullman couldn’t escape his obsession, and he spent half the film as Balthazar fucking Getty. This is Lynch’s vacuum – prostitutes lit by torchlight, telling you everything you’ve done wrong before doing the Locomotion (to the sound of distorted train whistles, of course).
This harem of prostitutes is a relatively tame figure in Inland Empire. The film is a primer of Lynchian symbolism – red curtains, transitional blue light, shorting lamps, doubling upon doubling, deformed jump-scare faces and groovy furniture, among others. Its most notable addition to the corpus is, of course, those darned rabbits – three figures (voiced by Naomi Watts, Laura Harring and Scott Coffey, all three featured in Mulholland Drive) that inhabit a (green) “red room” where time and language are out of joint. And in this film, that’s saying something. At least one of these rabbits plays a decisive role in Laura Dern’s path of self-discovery, wearing the aspect of her analyst. Elsewhere, the film is populated by your typical sideways-talking, nominally pointless, possibly prophetic Lynchian characters, and the austere Lost Girl (Karolina Gruszka), whose relation the proceedings is both impossibly obscure and undeniably crucial.
It seems that, in Lynch’s world, Laura Dern always gets her happy ending. With the possible exception of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, it would appear that the only means by which a Lynch film ends well is the harmonising presence of Sandy Williams or Lula Fortune. Dern in Inland Empire is both these women and their neo-realistic undersides, gazing at herself through the miracle of creative editing, facing up to the Phantom that stalks her three-hour nightmare (Krzysztof Majchrzak who, in his final appearance will haunt your nightmares too) and wringing an impossible, uncannily happy ending.