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Culture: Inland Empire
Thursday, 05 July 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
David Lynch has always been an acquired taste as a director- more than any of the other auteurs of Hollywood- even Scorsese or Tarentino- Lynch does not merely aim past the mainstream market, he actively defies it. When your most mainstream film for years- Mulholland Drive- features a woman with a possible split personality, Lesbian sex and a mystic cowboy you know that you are not a mainstream director. Lynch's films therefore are often even for students of cinema something you like or don't like- many don't like them- a girl in front of me at the showing of Inland Empire in the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square came out complaining to her boyfriend, "I wish people didn't get away with making films without plot." Suffice it to say that I think she was wrong- but if you are a person who like your movies to be predictable and sensible, then you should probably give Lynch's latest offering a miss.

Trying to describe the plot of Inland Empire is an almost ridiculous enterprise- this viewer was left trawling other internet sites for some inspiration but came up with a total of none. There is a basic idea that a film is being made- looks like some kind of romantic drama- that it's a film which was previously made in Poland but the leads were killed, and that it's a version of a German folktale in which everything ends badly. Chuck in some Polish characters, a trio of talking enigmatic rabbits in suits and dresses, a set of prostitutes who dance the Locomotion at one point, and a Chinese girl who has a friend with a drug problem, who is a prostitute in Pimona- oh and a mystical black beggar, a mysterious man in a delapidated room, a circus with a magician at its centre, and the main character who is both Hollywood actress and jaded abused and raped whore, and you've got the whole of it, or rather everthing I can remember at this present moment.

But in truth this isn't so much a story as a symphony of images- which one after another whirl into the darkness never to return. Part film part fable, the story concentrates on the journeys of its main character, played with aplomb by Laura Dern- the film surveys the whole ground of female sexuality, playing with the motif of a whore throughout from the opening scene where a faceless man requests a faceless woman to undress in a hotel room to almost the end where Dern lies dying at the side of a road. The idea of a wife- both as a possession and as part of a stable family unit also winds like a thread through the eye of the movie- as we see wives both as abused and as sustainers- in the last moments a wife kisses her husband and son as they have returned- but Dern's battered face reminds us that her relationships have not been so productive of anything but violence in the film (some of the descriptions of gouging out the eyes of potential rapists and assaulting the genitalia of an ex husband are perhaps the most accurate portrayels of the callous life of a prostitute ever put on scene).

And yes that is one of the most masterful accomplishments of this film- never 'til this film had I seen a prostitute's life in all its tawdry terror displayed so accurately. As girls strip and compare breasts in hotel rooms- or as they stroll with their wares exposed in the cold night air of the boulevards of Los Angeles. As Dern herself falls to the floor in mortal sickness her comrades of the night abandon her shrieking or running in disgust, fading into the shadows. But Dern's face so wonderfully gets the sense of violation- as she strides the streets- she looks the image of the prostitutes who stride through Streatham Hill or around King's Cross, haggard and as though she was drained of every dream she once possessed, her face bruised and battered by violent men is like an etching drawn of a nightmare of poverty, drink, violence, drugs and endless sex.

Laura Dern and David Lynch
on the set of "Inland Empire"
(Click for larger image)
Dern's performance is so stunning that at the same time she is able to convey the breathless glamour of a movie star. In her early scenes she is both compassionate and condescending to others. She is a target for her costar in the film- a young gallant called Devon- and she is convincing as a femme fatale, distant, icy and alluring. No whore of the city street, but a modern Veronica Lake tempting Devon. Yet even in this guise she is once again a commodity, and again the restraint of male violence finds its way into the film- her husband threatens Devon with death should he ever touch his wife. This porcelaine princess we learn is herself vulnerable. Her relationship with Devon is threatened by her husband who we learn might kill her. But furthermore as she has sex with Devon, the story changes and she goes from goddess to whore in the space of a second.

Lynch's use of colour and music is astounding in the film- he really gets the way that the head of a rabbit- an obvious homage to Donnie Darko- framed in light can become an arresting image amongst his tableau. Instead of reflecting on the plot, its worth reflecting on themes which find their way to being illustrated within the tapestry of the film- again and again an image resurfaces with Dern normally but not always in the principal role. To take an example, the vaguely threatening conversations between the rabbits again harp on the theme of bourgeouis sexuality and the way it confines. The Polish sections stray to the same theme- with men waiting in narrow doorways for their possible ex-girlfriends to come along and holding again threatening conversations with them. Violence is as prominent a feature as sex- murder is mentioned and acted upon several times and the two seem tied together in some unseemly whole.

Vengeance is a motif that runs through the film as well and binds together the violence and the sex- at the beggining a Polish prophetess tells Dern's character that she will suffer consequences- her words are repeated by Dern's husband to her potential lover and the concept of vengeance whether enacted with a screwdriver or indeed with a gun is repeated again and again. Lynch seems to be saying something about the nature of the bonds that sexuality creates- that they are so exclusive that they only resolve themselves outwardly through violence, through vengeance. Swirling in the cycles of violence may be a critique of the possessiveness of human love- but it's one idea-

Jeremy Irons in "Inland Empire"
(Click for larger image)
And as well as describing the very nature of love and emotion through the rising chords of symphonic movements- the film is also about filmmaking itself- about the act of description. From start to finish characters want to describe and memorise- as the viewer asks what is going on so significantly to all the characters and their memories are often projections forward not recollections aimed backwards in terms of the way that we see the film. Scenes repeat themselves, especially scenes involving description and time itself seems invarient- everyone seems either at a quarter to nine or after midnight with very little sequence between them. Lynch is both offering us narrative verificationalism in the sense that he offers us themes and resolutions to those themes- and dashing them away again by implying through his fluid structure that the very structures of time and recollection upon which we all depend to organise our experience are themselves relative. He offers us new laws of human interraction before shattering the objective universe before our eyes, and he does this through a wall of sound and action- reiteration like the spins of a dice or the cycles of a mind spirals through the film leaving the viewer gasping for breath in the conception of infinity.

And infinity is a worthwhile motif- at points in the film Dern's character steps outside or through the film. There are points where she watches herself- even watches herself watching herself watching herself. She joins the weird world of Lynchania by walking through a film set into the world of the film or a world half way between film and stardom. Furthermore as the film finishes- cameras come on set leaving us in doubt as to how much of what we have seen is film and how much reality- Dern's psychosis remains though. Indeed at other points other characters seem to make transitions too- the rabbits can hear her coming though don't see her arriving in their room, Polish characters reappear in her life as well as in their own parrallel stories, faces flash before our eyes and characters confess that, though they know the future, they don't know the past, but they don't think about tommorrow, and think about yesterday. Again and again the light falls and the particles of sense scatter- Lynch wants us to remember that all the world is, as Shakespeare said, a stage- he wants us to sense our own objectification and also the fact that whether we are the objects of our stories or the subjects of them can never be resolved to our satisfaction.

Its difficult to offer more comment than this- every viewer will take away their own sequence of images as to what the film means- I can't councel you that mine is the sequence of images that you should take away- I can suggest that you will find this movie interesting if you are at all alert to cinema as something that can illustrate through symphonic movement rather than through narrative structure. That form is not to everyone's taste I realise and definitely in films I have seen I have felt it went too far- Holy Mountain for instance- but in Inland Empire the tapestry works and in some strange sense you emerge with a sense of wonder at the cinematic craft, horror at the life of the prostitute, and some vague questions about dark continents within the soul- of desire, truth and perception- continents whose baleful power has haunted the imagination of the West- over which the ignorant armies of human perception clash by night!

Incidentally for anyone going to see this film- there is a sequence about two thirds of the way through of extreme flashing imagery- this could be distressing to anyone who is epileptic or finds flashing images hard to deal with- I am surprised that I saw no warning about it in the cinema I went to see the film in but if you do have problems in those directions, it might be worth waiting for this on video rather than seeing it in the cinema.