Editor’s note: See another review of Inland Empire here.
We all maybe think we see the same world, but they say that we don’t. They say that the thing is, the world is as you are. A lot of people are really, like, say, political. And they’ll see films in terms of politics. Other people are into something else, and they’ll see any film in terms of that, but it really means in terms of themselves. Their interpretation comes from that.
— David Lynch, Salon (7 December 2006)
Not many of us think we see the same world as David Lynch. And yet his work retains an almost magnetic pull, so strange and disturbing, so gorgeous and perverse. His new film, Inland Empire is like that, and has solicited the usual range of responses, as viewers conjure their own meanings, deciphering its bits and pieces, its illogic and resistance to interpretation.
On one level, it delineates a complex, shifting relationship between art and audience. Consider the film’s closing credits sequence, a mesmerizing lip-synched performance of Nina Simone’s “Sinner Man,” danced by women of color. They’re observed and much appreciated by the film’s white women characters, including Laura Dern (who plays Nikki Grace, who plays Susan Blue), and Nastassja Kinski and Laura Harring, who only show up for this last moment. Sitting on divans and smiling warmly, they seem background mirror images of you, watching them watch.
Behind the black women and in front of the stars sway a set of white girls who play Nikki and Susan’s friends and fellow prostitutes, outfitted in shorts and miniskirts with too much mascara and bra straps showing under their tank tops. They’re vaguely sultry and pale, their slow, awkward moves distinct from the more vigorous rhythms of the foreground, dark-skinned dancers.
The scene is striking for any number of reasons, not least because Lynch’s films so rarely include black figures. Like most everything in Inland Empire, this scene can mean variously: a typically masculine movie lusting after the “exotic” (or at least, the energetic), a layering of desires and desired objects, or maybe an oblique critique of class and race disparities. This last indirectly answers a devastating scene toward the end of the movie, when Nikki/Susan lies wounded on a sidewalk, framed by “street people” (Helena Chase, Nae Yuuki, Terry Crews), whose discussion of a drug addict with a blond wig only seems irrelevant to the woman collapsed and bleeding next to them. No matter how you’re inclined to read the film’s final dancers, the scene offers a Lynchian Rorschach test. What you see tells you something about you.
That said, Inland Empire — self-distributed, Lynch’s first movie shot in DV — looks personal (in fact, it looks grubby, owing to his use of a Sony PD-150). Like other Lynch movies, it is confusing and confused about its women characters, simultaneously exquisite and anguished. Here, as in Mulholland Drive, women are doubled and surreally performative, elusive and tenaciously curious. Nikki is an L.A.-based actress, directed in a film called On High in Blue Tomorrows by the bullhorn-wielding Kingsley (Jeremy Irons). Her experience in character appears to bleed into her life at home; it’s an old story, as her relationship with her leading man, Devon playing Billy (Justin Theroux) turns rather inside out. His reputation as a ladykiller precedes him, but she’s married to Piotrek Krol (Peter J. Lucas), eerily possessive. His threat to Devon (“My wife is not a free agent”) is so intimate as to seem erotic: “I’m going to put my arm around you, I’m going to hold you close. You don’t mind, do you?”
Shades of Frank Booth. The difference here is the focus on women’s desires, despite and because of masculine tyrannies. Where Blue Velvet‘s Frank (Dennis Hopper) memorably instructed his victim, “Don’t you fucking look at me,” Nikki and her selves/associates insist on looking and being looked at. On one level, this has to do with a “folktale” relayed by Nikki’s unnamed, heavily accented neighbor (Grace Zabriskie), just before she plummets into her journey: “A leetle girl went out to play and was lost in the marketplace, as if half-born.” (This opposed to the boy in the tale’s initial version, who is followed by “evil.”) Nikki’s several incessant half-births in Inland Empire resonate with one another, all having to do with abusive men and her rebellion, usually violent.
This theme is reintroduced in Blue Tomorrows. Spooked by an apparent interloper on the set (another version of Nikki/Sue, perhaps alternately dimensioned), Kingsley confesses that the film is a “remake” of a movie never completed. “A Polish gypsy story,” it stopped production when, he says, “They discovered something inside the story… The two leads were murdered.” This fatal mystery “inside the story” is standard Lynch, of course, and as Nikki explores it, her face repeatedly twists up into a mask of distress, recalling Dern’s Sandy in Blue Velvet (appalled more than once by her boyfriend Jeffrey’s dark doings). Nikki’s discoveries are repeatedly layered with the experiences of other women performers (those cheesy, Hollywood Boulevardy whores) and audience members, for instance, the “Lost Girl” (Karolina Gruszka) who appears intermittently, watching a TV in a hotel room. In between bouts of static, she sees here a series of “shows,” including Rabbits (three rabbit-suited figures in a sitcom-seeming living room, waiting) and apparent melodramas focused on abusive men and frightened, insubordinate women.
Nikki’s soapy story fits in here somewhere, slipping in and out of roles as she pursues a creative “process,” an immersion in her character and the many characters like her (including those in Lynch’s movies). In one scene that repeats, she ascends a set of dark stairs to meet with a man in a dingy, windowless office. “Guess I’ll just tell you the thing,” she says, the camera close on her bruised face. The thing, it turns out, in a couple of variations, is a story of cruelty: “There was this man I once knew… Doesn’t matter what his name was.” But if such stories are common in movies (and elsewhere), this version makes you acutely aware of its repetition. “A lot of guys change,” she continues, “They don’t change but they reveal. In time they reveal what they really are, you know what I mean? It’s an old story.”
Such repetition is emphasized by the familiar spaces Nikki inhabits, or better, discovers and hides in, or tries desperately to escape. They’re all indicative of her internal state and, presumably, the observant filmwatcher’s. The dank office here, with its bespectacled listener behind a desk, indicates her desperation, Nikki’s ornate home in L.A. is oppressive with expensive accoutrements, a too-bright backyard complete with barbeque and redneck gatecrashers, and a probable stage set features pink adobe walls and an Eraserhead-ish radiator (when Mary Steenburgen shows up here with a message (“I came about an unpaid bill that needs payin'”), the film seems nearly illegible. But again, you’re inclined to press on, unable to imagine what happens next.
“I don’t know what went before or after,” says the bruised-face Nikki/Sue. “I don’t know what happened first. It’s kind of laid a mindfuck on me.” Indeed, it’s hard to know what happens when in Lynch’s movies (and internet activities). Whether they deploy archetypal-seeming imagery or completely garish and unnerving surprises, they don’t often follow predictable paths. Nikki’s story takes her deep inside herself or deep inside the movie industry (which might be a metaphor for deep inside you). Her “process” takes her eventually to a movie theater and that hotel room where the Lost Girl is watching her on TV: in each instance, Nikki sees herself on screen, and then her space, without her.
Whether her space needs her (or you) as a viewer or performer may be Inland Empire‘s central question. “I guess after my son died,” she says a couple of times, “I went into a bad time.” (Wait: she had a son?) “I was watching everything around me while I stood in the middle, watching like I was in a dark theater before they bring the lights up.” Seduced by “blue tomorrows,” entranced by dancers, you’re watching too. What you’re seeing is about you.