David Lynch/USA/2006; R4, 2-disc set
Madman, $34.95 | Reviewed by Steve Garden

DAVID LYNCH likes abstract ideas. He says he doesn’t always know what they mean, but in the course of making a film they become clearer. He also says that this understanding is strictly his, and viewers must be free to use their intuition to discover meaning for themselves. He wants them to trust their own judgment, and encourages an active (rather than passive) approach to film viewing. He never explains his films because to do so would rob the viewer of discovery and (crucially) a personal connection with the work. All he will say about his latest film Inland Empire is that it’s a mystery about a woman in trouble.

Inland Empire is a place, just as Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive are places. It’s the name locals of inland southern California give to the region, but that tells us nothing about the film or its title, except that some of the characters might live there – or a place that looks like it. Laura Dern (who plays the lead in the film) mentioned the place one afternoon and Lynch immediately knew it was the title for the film. This anecdote reveals something elemental about Lynch’s methodology: that it’s essentially (perhaps even profoundly) intuitive. It also hints at how viewers might best approach his work.

From the very beginning of Inland Empire, Lynch invites us to interpret – to make our own associations as we piece the film together. The film opens with a burst of light from a spotlight that resembles the beam from a film projector. As the beam retracts, the words INLAND EMPIRE gradually appear then dissolve. This opening reminds us that we are not just about to watch a movie, but a projection illuminated by (and emanating from) the controlling hand of David Lynch. We cut to an old gramophone playing a record that tells us we are about to listen to (watch) an episode of “Axxon N, the longest radio-play in history..." Like Dumbland, Axxon N and Rabbits were online projects that (as far as I know) weren’t fully realised. Sequences from Rabbits were used in Empire, and possibly elements from Axxon N. The gramophone might mirror the low-tech Sony PD150 digital camera used to shoot the film, and the radio-play recalls episodic film and TV serials – another possible touchstone. We then fade to a typically murky Lynchian hallway, where two characters (a man and a woman, their faces obscured) search for their room and keys. This motif of mystery and hidden information reflects the cryptic nature of Lynch’s work, and what viewers are invariably asked to do: find the right key for the right door. Lynch often utilises the ‘absent cause’, a formal device he may have gleaned from Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), a film that could have had a strong influence on him. Without causal information we only see the consequences and not the impetus of events. Empire is a large elliptical arc consisting of numerous smaller ellipsis, some resolved, but many left teasingly in limbo. There are various narrative and sub-narrative threads to weave together, but regardless of where the story and plot take us, the ultimate point of the film is up for grabs.

The couple enter the room and the woman asks, “What’s wrong with me?” The question goes unanswered, but those familiar with Lynchian dream-logic intuitively know that the question has more implicit value than the answer. It’s one of many questions that resonate throughout the film, and eventually out of the theatre into the street. The man then says, “This is the room”, as if it was a clue to a mystery yet to unfold – or not. Lynch often toys with narrative expectations in this way, and in Empire he does so with relish. The man tells the woman to undress, “You know what whores do?” he says. “Yes” she says. This exchange will be echoed later as prostitution and despair gradually come into focus, but at this end of the narrative arc it’s one of many comments we simply have to store away till later. In the next scene we see a young woman (credited as the ‘lost girl’) sitting on the end of a bed, watching TV and crying. We morph into the TV (signalling parallel realities ahead) to an excerpt from Lynch’s Rabbits, a sitcom-pastiche featuring people with rabbit heads. It’s an amusing but unsettling scene that hints at social, psychic and political stasis and collapse, which are some of the themes Empire will explore. Lynch often references and exaggerates Americanism in order to reveal an estranged and consumptive society losing its propriety, self-respect and sanity.

After a Kubrick-esque transition featuring a man we will later come to know as ‘the phantom’, we meet the main protagonist of the film. Nikki Grace is an out-of-work Hollywood actress anxiously waiting to hear if she got a role in a film (shades of Lynch-favourite Sunset Boulevard, and a reminder of his last film Mulholland Drive). At this point we’re barely a few minutes into this three-hour film, but already there has been plenty to alert us to the fact that this densely layered work will demand our full attention – and then some. In this first scene with Nikki, a rather menacing stranger (wonderfully played by Grace Zabriskie) who claims to be a neighbour pays her a visit. She speaks in a vaguely European accent and talks cryptically about the emergence of evil and impending chaos (shades of Transylvanian horror). She says, “If today was tomorrow, you wouldn’t even remember that you owed on an unpaid bill. Actions do have consequences.” When asked to leave she murmurs, “They never like to hear the truth.” References to ‘unpaid bills’ and ‘actions having consequences’ are returned to throughout the film, hinting at a potential subtext. We sense even more subtext as characters talk about being hypnotised into murder, enact ‘cursed scripts’, lose their bearings, and fail to distinguish between fact, fiction, reality and fantasy. As a portrait of post-Iraq Invasion America, this is an appropriately disorientating and deeply felt (one might even say angry) meditation on misinformation and wilful deception.

From here we follow Nikki as she starts work on the film within the film, a remake of an old German movie that was never finished because the leads were murdered (the original folk tale apparently had a curse on it). We meet her possessive and threatening husband, Piotrek Król (Peter J. Lucas); her co-star with a reputation for womanising, Devon Berk (Justin Theroux); her director, Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons); and his assistant, Freddie Howard (Harry Dean Stanton). Characters in Lynch’s work are often manifestations of societal dysfunction: fear, guilt, greed, etc. Nikki is the emotional and psychological heart of Empire. She is under-siege from all directions, from the hollow presidential rhetoric of the not-so talented ‘director’ and his Rumsfeld-like assistant to her indifferent husband and self-serving co-star/lover/trick. But the biggest threat to Nikki is her increasingly tenuous hold on reality.

Inland Empire is a typical Lynch puzzle-piece. The narrative obfuscation and highly aestheticised low-tech imagery will appeal to those with a taste for bizarre and sometimes subversive cinematic pleasure. The descent into hell will come as no surprise for Lynch-fans, but the real-world implications are more pointed than ever. The guilt, denial, self-destruction, self-loathing and psychological fragility depicted throughout the film inform the implicit anger behind the sub-text of a nation traumatised and deceived, and the notion that moral certainty and order is questionable, if not increasingly meaningless. Empire virtually haunts itself. Passing dialogue such as, “You know what whores do?” resonate with greater specificity by the end of the film, and even the innocuous and amusing heaven-bound imagery suggested in title of the film within the film, On High in Blue Tomorrows, vibrates with disturbingly fundamentalist overtones. Likewise, Dern’s superb monologue about a potential rapist who “gets to reap what he’s been a-sowin’” literally drips with subtext, although one may not twig to it at first given the compelling intensity of her extraordinary performance.

Inland Empire is certainly challenging. Everything about the film – from its fractured narrative to being shot on digital video – demands a response or an adjustment from the viewer. One cannot merely sit and wait to be passively entertained by it, which is not to say that it isn’t entertaining for those prepared to engage with what is arguably Lynch’s most ambitious and ambiguous work to date. Whether it’s a masterpiece or not is hard to say, but it does at least realise the poetic aspirations Carl Dreyer had for the medium when he made Vampyr, and if Lynch follows through on his claim that he intends to continue in this vain, a masterpiece is certainly imminent – if it isn’t here already.

WITH a second disc of extras cribbed from the UK edition of the film, the Australasian market receives a considerably different package to the Region 1 release. Supplements there include over an hour of intriguing deleted scenes, behind the scenes footage, and a Lynchian instructional on how to prepare a quinoa dish. The Region 4 Directors Suite offers five altogether indistinguishable conversations with Lynch, some conducted in French (with intermittent translation), some of more enigmatic variety (like Mike Figgis’ probing of the director in a dimly lit corridor). All, somewhat tediously, cover the same bases: Poland, transcendental meditation, Laura Dern, moving paintings, and the sprawling, liberating potential of digital video. Throughout these interviews, Lynch holds his right hand upwards and wiggles his fingers, like a bewildered evangelist channelling his next cryptic masterwork.