Wednesday, 8 August 2007

classic image: wild at heart (david lynch, 1990)

It might seem strange that what strikes me as one of the cinema's most honest and perversely beautiful affirmations of love comes from David Lynch, a director more associated with disturbing dreamscapes and nightmarish journeys into the dark underbelly of small-town life. And yet Wild at Heart is precisely that: an oddball, offbeat, deeply troubled but ultimately joyful celebration of passionate love, and of the fragile yet powerful private sphere lovers inhabit.

Much of the film's success can be attributed to Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern, both delivering memorable performances at the manic intensity the film demands. The story of their characters, Sailor and Lula, is reminiscent of countless other outlaw-couple stories, from Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973) and Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) all the way back, of course, to Romeo & Juliet, and probably to much earlier than even that. When I watched the film with Lara a few days ago, we talked about the parallels between the film and Shakespeare's play - though there are no warring families in Wild at Heart, there is the same sense of a rotten, corrupt and violent adult world that constantly intrudes upon and threatens to shatter the lovers' idyllic dream. The only way the couple can keep their dream alive is by running, constantly travelling down seemingly endless highways with California as an almost mythical, unreachable final destination. The adult world repeatedly ensnares Sailor into committing acts of violence, in much the same way as it does Romeo, and the forces and structures of the law, family and society form barriers which seem to trap Sailor and Lula and prevent them from achieving the happiness they find in each other.

One of Wild at Heart's strengths is that it belongs to the category of films (that also includes, for instance, Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994)) that externalize the private, shared universe created and inhabited by its lover protagonists - the deeply personal dream-world in which they attempt to claim a space untouched by the corrupting, hypocritical influence of the adult establishment. Thus, the film's world is an endearingly, surreally kitsch pop-culture world of Elvis songs, jazz, snakeskin jackets, Good and Wicked Witches, convertibles and endless highways - a world composed of Sailor and Lula's psyches writ large. Theirs is a passionate, burning love expressed through numerous dancing scenes, rock songs, and especially through the energetically lustful yet tender hotel room sex scenes, expressing a bond that is unashamedly, delightedly carnal yet emotionally strong. This is in contrast to the adult world, which is depicted not as chaste and repressed (as is typical in many young vs. old narratives), but as sexual in a perverse and emotionless manner - as in the images of a mob boss constantly surrounded by naked, immobile sex slaves.

Lynch, however, does not shy away from depicting the dark side of the protagonists' story. The deliriously overblown fire imagery, repeatedly associated with the protagonists' lovemaking, recalls the death of Lula's father in a suspicious fire as well as the deaths of Sailor's parents through smoking-related illnesses, and invokes not only the ever-present spectre of death but also the realization that the fragile existence Sailor and Lula have carved out for themselves is ephemeral and cannot last.

This impression is reinforced by the haunting scene of carnage they encounter in the wreckage of a car accident that has claimed the lives of what seem to be kindred youthful spirits. As the girl they try to help dies in front of their eyes, a sense of mortality settles on the couple, shattering their previous confident hedonism. It is in this mood that they end up, penniless, in the dead-end desert town of Big Tuna, Texas, where the aura of decay and death is intensified as the first clue we get to the arrival of new life is a close-up of flies buzzing around a pool of vomit - perhaps the most stereotypically "Lynchian" image in a film which, for the most part, foregrounds his latent wacky sense of humour. Here, reality catches up with Sailor and Lula; they are forced to face the consequences of their hedonistic elopement and to realize that what they have been living is a dream that must reach an end.

At the end of the film, however, we have a hopeful - even joyously hopeful - note. Sailor and Lula have come to accept that life and love cannot be perfect, that they might have lost something along the way and that the pressures of the world might have damaged their impossible dream; but they have decided that is no reason to give up the dream. The finale is at once hilariously kitsch and, in a weird way, movingly romantic, and it affirms the possibility of the the existence and survival of love, even at the cost of a Sisyphean struggle with the outside world.

Wild at Heart is in no way whatsoever a subtle film, but it operates at precisely the right pitch to capture the love story of its characters - in much the same way that, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love (2001) exists at the subdued, quiet level the character of its protagonists demands. It is ultimately, for all its filmmaking and technical brilliance and postmodern invention, a simple, uplifting, life-affirming love story, and one of the best films by one of the greatest of film-makers.

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