Sunday, 7 October 2007

review: inland empire (david lynch, 2006)

What to say about a film that so determinedly places itself in opposition to rationalization, to logical thought, to being pinned down or reduced into any logical schema? David Lynch's Inland Empire, even by Lynch's standards, is a film that absolutely cannot be reduced to its narrative elements or summed up in a plot outline.

It is, more than any film of his career, or, indeed, than any major film of the last few years, a film of pure images and atmosphere. The transition to DV has suited Lynch well; though the glossy, hyper-real saturation of Mulholland Drive (2001) is lost, the grimy, murky look we gain, all overexposed highlights and dark, grainy shadows, suits the film perfectly - it is difficult to imagine Inland Empire shot on traditional film. Lynch isn't the first major film-maker to switch to video, but none have made the switch so comprehensively, so acutely aware of the possibilities created by the change in medium.

So what is Inland Empire? At its core, it is a labyrinthine descent into an individual and a collective subconscious, a dense, interlocking web of images and stories, a claustrophobic and frequently outright terrifying inner journey into the darker corners of everyday domestic life and the psychic imprints they leave behind.

Having said all this, there is a sort of narrative sense, though the pieces can only begin to fit together once you accept that multiple levels of consciousness and reality are being intercut, and that not every image is to be taken literally, and that the connections are more often emotional, metaphorical or psychoanalytical than logical.

The most obvious story thread is that of actress Nikki Grace (played with terrifying intensity by Laura Dern), a has-been star who is given a role that could put her career back on track. There are complications - an affair with her co-star brings down the wrath of her jealous husband, mirroring the plot of the film under production; while the cast learn that the film is based on a Polish folk tale that is said to be cursed - an earlier attempt to film the story was abandoned when the leads were murdered.

(it is probably not a good idea to read the next couple of paragraphs if you haven't seen the film, especially if you feel it's important to reach your own interpretation first)

There is much more to it than this story, however. Besides Nikki's story, the film is also that of the unnamed woman we see at the start, crying as she watches television. Just like Nikki herself as well as her character in the film, she is trapped in the "old story", the record playing over and over, of desperate marital unhappiness, in whatever form - infidelity, jealousy, abuse, violence, abandonment. The myriad interlocking and overlapping stories that surface and disappear in the swirling mass of Inland Empire orbit this theme, with the endless, hypnotic repetition of images, lines of dialogue and characters all trapped in the same endless drama.

Seeking solace in the television, she finds it (among the pop-culture detritus TV images) in the film (or possibly more than one film) Nikki took part in. Nikki, in confronting and overcoming the demons in her own subconscious, her own "inland empire", while making the film, made it possible for other women, through the stories, to do the same, such that at the end of the film, the unnamed woman is able to welcome her husband back and find happiness. The film, then, is a journey simultaneously into the collective subconscious and into that of two particular women, the actress whose delving into her own subconscious allows for the creation of the stories that are released into the collective consciousness that helps the other woman, the viewer, to overcome her own demons. It is an expansive inner epic in which Lynch explores not only the theme of female oppression - as revealed by the film's subtitle, "A Woman in Trouble" - but also the power of stories and storytelling, and the relationship between the collective and the individual consciousness.

(end "spoilers")

What Inland Empire definitely is, is Lynch unleashed, Lynch redux, Lynch freed completely and totally from any commercial pressures and allowed to go as far down his own rabbit hole as he wishes. The math is simple - if you've enjoyed or appreciated Lynch's previous descents into the subconscious, particularly the fractured psychological dreamscapes of Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001), then you will love this. If you didn't, then this might provide you with the most excruciating three hours you'll ever spend with a film. It isn't for everyone, and that isn't meant as a damning either of the film or of the people it isn't for. It is what it is.

In distilling his vision into its purest, most individual form, and painting it over his largest canvas yet, Lynch has created something that feels distinctly like his Big Statement. I am less eager to label it the apex of Lynch's career than some other critics have been, but that is a testament to the quality of his back catalogue, not in any way a denigration of this film. Inland Empire is another masterpiece, a staggering, frequently jaw-dropping work of pure cinema, an intense collection of gorgeous and terrifying images, a densely layered meditation on consciousness, gender, oppression and the relationship between the artist and their audience. It is a landmark film that offers further confirmation, if any were needed, that Lynch is a cinematic genius with very few equals.

1 comment:

theavantridiculous said...

Very nice essay. I agree. This does feel like Lynch's "Big Statement".

I write about Lynch's black hole and his "spagettification" of narrative norm.