INLAND EMPIRE Review
With his last film, Mulholland Drive, David Lynch achieved a definitive second high water mark in his career, bringing to maturity a process of reinventing film at the basic DNA level in a way that truly paralleled the modernist and postmodernist innovations in other art forms, such as painting and the novel. By introducing quantum reverse timelining, identity-swapping and an equivocal blending of reality levels into a noir plotline, he built a narrative highway that turned out to be a Möbius strip but still remained faithful to his quirky storytelling vision and was more than satisfying as a movie-going experience. Mulholland Drive was a rare art success and the quest to understand and decode its enigmatic structure became one the major movie obsessions of our times. But for Lynch, it created a difficulty - how do you move on from the work that everyone is calling your masterpiece?
The answer is two-fold, lying firstly in a further push into the hinterlands of narrative cut-up, contortion and multi-level self-referentiality, and secondly in a return to basics and the spirit of his debut Eraserhead, employing the freedom of the lightweight Sony PD150 DV camera to transcend the industrial disciplines of regular feature film production and follow the much more unfettered, off-the-cuff path of the film artist. The results are startling, perplexing and as you'd expect from Lynch, utterly unique.
INLAND EMPIRE begins with a classic Lynchian montage. A closeup of a record cutting needle, hovering over a rotating disc. A sinister low budget subtitled Polish film concerning a prostitute and her client, with their faces blurred-out. A Lost Girl (Karolina Gruszka) in tears watching images on a TV screen, which takes us into a sitcom involving a family in rabbit costume, speaking impenetrable dialogue with an inappropriate canned laughter track (originally shot as a series of shorts for Lynch's website). These images will recur throughout the film, gathering weight of meaning as more of the surrounding story is revealed.
The main body of the film then unfolds, starting with an encounter between actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) and her new neighbour (Grace Zabriskie). Behaving strangely and going off at peculiar tangents, the neighbour mixes up the tenses of her recollections, not sure if the things she describes happened yesterday, today or tomorrow. Prophetically, she says that Nikki will most certainly get the role she is hoping for and that the film will involve 'bloody murder', contrary to Nikki's understanding of the script. Nikki does land the part and pre-production works begins under the auspices of director Kingsley (Jeremy Irons) and his sidekick Freddie (Harry Dean Stanton). The film, On High In Blue Tomorrows, concerns an adulterous liason between Nikki's character Susan and Billy, who will be played by the actor Devon Berk (Justin Theroux). Devon has a reputation as a lady's man and the expectation amongst the production staff and indeed Nikki's possesive husband, Piotrek (Peter J. Lucas), is that he'll make a play for Nikki, so immediately real life begins to mirror the plot of the film.
Things get more involved when Freddie and Kingsley uncover some secret information about the film and impart it to Nikki and Devon. On High In Blue Tomorrows is in fact a remake of a Polish film that was never finished, apparently due to a gypsy curse that resulted in the two leads being murdered. Naturally the cast and crew start to get jumpy as shooting commences and Nikki feels particularly threatened, no doubt because of a genuine attraction to Devon. At first it's clear whether we are watching filmed scenes from On High In Blue Tomorrows or the off-camera life of the protagonists, but then the two blur and cross over and the entire narrative goes off-kilter. There is a key scene when Nikki/Susan has a wormhole experience, entering a certain room at the back of the set and coming up on the flipside of what we now know to be a parallel reality moment, the former side having been seen earlier. This is the equivalent of the blue box scene in Mulholland Drive and from now on everything we see is a reflection of a reflection in a looking-glass world.
Seemingly the film under construction takes on an autonomous life and in a series of dreamlike, evanescent sequences, 'Susan' is propelled into a parallel Polish life where she and 'real life' husband Piotrek act out events connected with the Polish version of the doomed production. Gradually other pieces of the narrative jigsaw fall into place. We see how the 'husband' got involved with the gypsy circus troupe and the backstory of the mysterious character, glimpsed previously, know only as the Phantom (Krzysztof Majchrzak) and his involvement in the curse and the murders. But there is nothing straightforward about any of this storytelling, for we are constanly crossing back to the action of On High In Blue Tomorrows, the Hollywood of the 'real' 'Nikki' and the others, the Lost Girl from the opening sequence and the rabbit sitcom, ever hovering - the joker in the narrative pack. The effect is accurately dreamlike, as the various levels of 'reality' and 'fiction' bleed into one another to create some unquantifiable otherness.
INLAND EMPIRE doesn't quite achieve the multiple orgasm of pure cinematic astonishment of Mulholland Drive, or the delirious gothic fever dream pitch of Lost Highway, but it does create some excellent effects by playing tireless riffs on the film-within-a-film scenario. In one example, a group of Polish men rearrange themselves prior to morphing into the rabbits in the sitcom. In another, 'Nikki' enters a cinema to find the screen is showing her, in the present, so if she looks to one side her screen image does the same. When she meets the Lost Girl, there is a TV in the room showing the meeting, which in turn shows the TV, and so on and so on, in a metafilmic reductio ad infinitum.
Here Lynch is aiming for a total sense-saturating experience that transcends linearity and instead attempts to make cognitive connections by all manner of other means. How well he succeeds is very much a subjective matter and the beauty of the work - or lack of it - lies in the eye of the beholder. Contrary to what's been said, INLAND EMPIRE does have a thread and also achieves a final resolution in its own highly specialized terms. But it is deeply uncompromising in its experimentation and is definitely a piece for connoisseurs and sophisticates of weird cinema - more so than any of Lynch's previous work. However, for those prepared to meet Lynch on his terms, it provides a dazzling and mesmeric filmic trip, the nearest film has got to replicating the effect of modern jazz or providing an exposition of quantum theory. Lynch has found a space somewhere between the narrative film and the way artists employ film as a device within installations to achieve resonance beyond the frame - he definitely breaks new ground.
That breakthrough is as much technical as artistic, and as the interviews in the extras make clear, Lynch relishes the freedom of the lightweight DV camera, which he sees as a means to make his vision much more 'hands on', operating himself in some scenes and taking on the roles of director of photography and editor. The camera lends itself well to grotesque wide-angle close-ups of faces and sinuous hand-held POVs through grungy crepuscular interiors and mean nighttime cityscapes. Many of the scenes are deliberately over or under lit for effect, using the camera's tolerance to difficult conditions and bringing about a new kind of low-res grainy vérité. The visuals counterpoint a truly terrific soundtrack, taking a score involving much original Polish music and merging it with all manner of effects to amplify the shocks, thrills and shivers in the furtherance of Lynch's goal of nightmare mimicry.
But still there is a bedrock of traditional filmmaking know-how underlying all this innovation. The fruits of Lynch's long working relationship with Laura Dern are well in evidence here and INLAND EMPIRE is as much 'about' Dern as an actor and her ability to play roles-within-roles-within-roles as anything else. She is the axis about which everything rotates and her own experience of the shifting tides of her reality is the true thread that we follow. A now more mature ungirlish Dern does an excellent job and much of the drama is played out as reaction shots on her face, where she goes through a fantastic repertoire of variations on shocked and appalled, gutted and gobsmacked, poleaxed and nonplussed as each new reality-bending horror comes out of the woodwork.
Other Lynch old-timers add spice, such as Harry Dean Stanton, who carries his own local surreality, telling hard luck stories in order to cadge money, odd behaviour for a Hollywood employee. Jeremy Irons is good as the oleaginous director and his presence irresistibly conjures up memories of another film about making a film, The French Lieutenant's Woman, as indeed the general air of mishap recalls Day for Night. There is a notable music sequence where a group of hookers do a routine to 'The Loco-Motion', which feels like self-parody, perhaps deliberately. And the end credits roll over a similar routine, this time to 'Sinnerman' where Laura Harring pops up, as does Nastassja Kinski. Harring also does one of the bunny voices, along with Naomi Watts. All this provides yet another delightful metafilmic layer, a Möbius journey around Lynch's own oeuvre. If Mulholland Drive was his Ulysses then surely INLAND EMPIRE must be his Finnegans Wake.
Disc 1 contains the trailer and the film, without chapter stops or commentary according to Lynch's preferences. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, it was originally shot on standard definition DV and then transferred to 35mm for theatrical release. Taking into consideration that parts of the footage are deliberately soft and shot in low lighting conditions where depth of field issues affect quality, the transfer is most satisfactory and one is persuaded that the divergent textures and moods of the various scenes are coming across just as Lynch intended. The well lit more reality-grounded scenes are surprisingly sharp and detailed considering their DV origins, whilst the more frenetic and dreamlike ones have a suitable low res fuzziness and murk. The audio is very crisp and strident, taking Lynch's legendary sound designing into new places. Sometimes dialogue is kept low, muffled by the score, but key shock effects are incredibly loud, jolting you out of your skin. All in all a highly impressive wall of rapture and menace.
Disc 2 contains the extras, consisting of five different interviews or encounters with the man himself.
Guardian interview at the NFT with David Lynch (17:23mins). This is conducted by Mark Kermode in a friendly, chatty manner and covers Lynch's interest in transcendental meditation and coffee as well as film. Lynch talks about how INLAND EMPIRE originated in conversations with Laura Dern and DV shorts for his website. As it developed into a feature, he retained the DV camera, and he enthuses over its new freedoms, saying he'll never return to film.
A Short Interview in London (6:02mins). A series of snippets, including an account of Lynch's campaign to get Laura Dern nominated for an Oscar and how he finds cinema the ideal medium for communicating 'dream logic'.
'A Conversation with David Lynch' by Mike Figgis (19:02mins). Conducted by the light of a single bare bulb, in a corridor of the eerie hotel in Lodz where many of the film's weirder moments occurred, this is an insightful dialogue, with Lynch describing his methods and techniques of working and how he sees film as an extension of painting.
A Masterclass with David Lynch (26:14mins). Taking place in Paris, a lot of the running time of this featurette consists of translations from English to French and vice versa, which perhaps could have been edited out. After the last three interviews, many of the themes under discussion are now familiar, but the piece gives an interesting view of the strength of Lynch's fandom in France.
Interview at the Cartier Foundation (14:59mins). Author Michel Chion has written about David Lynch but never met him, and he muses on how the reality might differ from what he imagines. The two men get on famously and tour an exhibition of Lynch's art works, which come in for some deep analysis. Again the theme of how film relates to painting emerges and Lynch waxes lyrical, ever waving his hands and wiggling his fingers to amplify his points.
Taken individually, each of these short pieces holds a particular interest for the Lynch aficionado; however collectively as an extras package they are somewhat repetitious in what they say and feel like a meal consisting of plenty of meat but lacking in veg and fruit. We don't hear from anyone else on INLAND EMPIRE, such as the actors - an interview with Laura Dern would have been welcome - and there are no behind-the-scenes glimpses or deleted scenes. When we consider that the Region 1 release does contain these very elements, it comes across as something of a disappointment.
Perhaps DVD is the natural place for a movie like INLAND EMPIRE, where home viewing makes its lower resolution less of an issue, and it can be watched repeatedly and poured over, the better to probe its deeper meanings. One can sympathise with bemused one-time cinema goers, failing to get to grips with its labyrinthine complexity and so dismissing it as incoherent. It certainly yields more with subsequent viewings, where one is not so torn between trying to puzzle it out and simply experiencing it as a film. A quick look at its IMDB entry confirms that there are as many theories and interpretations abounding as they were about Mulholland Drive. As Lynch himself said, all of them are valid.