"Do you want to see?" The question, asked deep within Inland Empire, summarizes the obsession with viewing shifting realities in David Lynch's latest hallucination, yet it also sounds like a taunt to the Lynch fan who's waited months to see this most mysterious of objects. In fact, I've waited to see it ever since Mulholland Drive tore my cerebellum a new orifice, but since chickenshit distributors refuse to touch it, the director himself has been taking it to handfuls of screenings where the film has acquired among fans something like the cult aura of Le Fin Absolute du Monde, the celluloid hellion that ate away at the souls of viewers in John Carpenter's segment of Masters of Horror. Inland Empire devours, it contaminates -- it put its disease in you, flashes from it invade thoughts, dreams, screenings of other films. It opens with a shaft of light from a film projector, the title is illuminated, then corridors, blurred faces, Polish. "You know what whores do?" "Where am I?" Where are we? A family of humanoid brown bunnies in a sitcom living-room is a sight out of the unconscious, transferred onto the screen through the most direct of means, the eyes: The tear-drenched peepers of Lost Girl (Karolina Gruszka) are the optical machine from the credits, her trembling visions are projected onto a blank TV screen, which comes to life. J. Hoberman's maxim about Lynch's direct pipeline into his mind has never been more apt, but the pipe here has exploded and the pieces of the psyche have been splattered freely, radically from ether onto film.
Papa Rabbit opens the first of many portals, the next room dissolves into a Hollywood mansion and in wanders Grace Zabriskie keyed up to Maria Ouspenskaya in The Wolf Man. She's dropping by to introduce herself to neighbor Nikki (Laura Dern), to inform the actress that a star-making role is on her way, and to teach her about the origins of evil ("an old tale... a variation"). The strangeness of the universe knocks on the heroine's door, and she ventures out into it: a phone call confirms the oracle, Nikki meets up with Kingsley (Jeremy Irons) and Devon (Justin Theroux), respectively her filmmaker and co-star in a coveted Tinseltown production, On High in Blue Tomorrows. But omens abound. The invaluable Harry Dean Stanton snatches a laugh with a hangover slouch before lending the starlet a few arcane warnings, the project is possibly cursed (it's a remake of a Polish flick unraveled by tragedy), the eminent affair between the stars is salivated on the media circuit by a gossipy witch (Diane Ladd) and glowered over by Nikki's husband Piotrek (Peter J. Lucas), who tells Devon of the consequences ("Dark they will be... and inescapable"). Earlier on, the Gypsy kook points to the couch where she sees Nikki sitting the next day, Lynch cuts to it with magical directness; "tomorrow" and "yesterday," as "up" and "down," are to quickly lose their traditional meaning as the actress increasingly confuses behind-the-scenes life with her cinematic alter-ego (dubbed "Susan Blue") and, in a key moment, literalizes the inherent splitting of the creative process. From the shadows in a bare studio, she glimpses herself getting interrupted during rehearsal, then vanishes into another room, and another world.
This is Lynch's most experimental work since Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which a bewildered Jacques Rivette exited "floating six feet above the ground." "The hopeless dream of being, not seeming," says the female doctor in Persona, whose metaphor of performance is put through Lynchian paces: the handheld camera guides the heroine through a darkling hall where her husband (or a maybe a demonic, Polish entity known as The Phantom) awaits, along with a gaggle of jack-o-lantern skanks doing "The Loco-Motion," all of it lit by the director's patented, ominous lamps. Being an actress is central to Inland Empire, being a good actress even more so -- like Naomi Watts's Dream Factory hopeful in Mulholland Drive, Nikki uses acting as an attempt to sort identity and impose order on chaos, yet emotions and the medium engulf her. How in control she is when doling out her Southern-fried lines in front of the camera, how out of control she is when groveling for her beloved or shrieking as a back-alley prostitute; a face dolled-up in starry close-up versus a face laid naked until it resembles the killer's mask in Scream, both brought together by Laura Dern's fearlessness. (A performance too great for the Academy. Lynch nevertheless personally campaigned for an Oscar nom with a cow in tow, a bit that may look like a gag but is, characteristically, profoundly heartfelt.) Acting is searching and whoring, too, like a splash of ketchup can also be a gory wound; a hole burned into a handkerchief is a camera obscura, into which one leaps and becomes a battered monologist to a silent, bespectacled suit who could be a netherworld Mock Turtle or a producer hearing the director's pitch.
That's merely a fraction of it. I haven't even mentioned the Baltic circus performers crashing the backyard barbecue, Julia Ormond with a bloody screwdriver sticking out of her stomach, the specter emerging out of the scratchy phonograph, Beck's "Black Tambourine" turned ecstatically sinister, all the motifs and repetitions echoing throughout this phantasmagoric playland. To force meaning onto the movie is to reduce it, for Lynch's images exist and burn independently of interpretation -- they are churning shards that come together (or not) in our mind, projected into personal epiphany. The heroine is broken (or united) into two or three selves, she dies bleeding while hearing of Heaven only to be resurrected as the lenses pull away: It doesn't matter whether that's what really happens, you've already seen the moment (and, given Lynch's knack for visceral immersion, you've experienced it as well). Digital video has long been my enemy, yet Inland Empire, with foregrounded low-def grain and mud, is unspeakably beautiful, just as, tawdry and lurid as its three astonishing hours are, it is unmistakably full of hope, with a finale filled not with silencio but with the noisy, radiant elation of a Fellini or Jonathan Demme curtain call. Nikki and Sue are ultimately inseparable, as are beauty and horror, or damnation and transcendence, or audience and film -- it's a strange world, all right, so Lynch's camera takes us through it, one dangerous image at a time. Amid such dark sweetness, the biggest shock is remembering you're in a theater when the lights come back up.
Light and darkness bleed into each other in Lynch's world, but in the real world people are more comfortable with tidy separation -- vide the either/or criticism now proliferating in reviews of Philippe Garrel's Regular Lovers mainly as a way to knock down Bertolucci's similarly-themed The Dreamers. The aborted new French revolution of May '68 provides the setting and theme of both films, with Bertolucci providing the ardent high of its possibilities and Garrel the monochromatic hangover of ensuing reality: Each offers a contrasting attitude toward times experienced first-hand by the filmmakers, and both are great films. That Garrel's son Louis appears in both hardly positions one against the other, for neither film approaches the upheavals with the kind of simplistic glow that can make nostalgia such a problematic sentiment. Molotov cocktails are hurled during the Night of the Barricades, though the potential rebels promptly find themselves impotently awaiting adulthood as their moment for change passes by, vanquished. A cut from the dozing poet to a discarded axe-pick is enough to illustrate the dissipating flame of rebellion, yet Garrel's picture, far from cynically defeatist, endures as a tribute to the youthful characters' manifesto, to say nothing of his own aesthetic as a perpetually undiscovered film master: "Enough repetition. Move forward."
Reviewed January 25, 2007.