Here’s the first of our reviews of recently released or screened film and video. This one’s by Emilia Wilton-Godberfforde, whose reviews have been published in print and online in the UK and abroad.
Film: INLAND EMPIRE
Directed by David Lynch, 180 minutes, USA/Poland/France (2006), 15
INLAND EMPIRE (director David Lynch insists on the full capitalisation of the title) is disturbing and utterly compelling viewing. If you thought the double-narrative structure utilised in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive was difficult to follow, then prepare yourself for this intricate and vertiginous plot line which caves in, doubles up, triples and even quadruples itself, to much perplexing effect.
The film opens in a hotel room where a Polish-speaking prostitute, whose face is blanked out, informs her client that she does not have the key; another girl cries in a hotel room as she watches a flickering screen; human bunnies in a sitcom-like setup talk enigmatically amidst inappropriate canned laughter and applause; two men in a hazy image talk about the possibility of an ‘opening’.
The story becomes seemingly more comprehensible when it swiftly moves to California. Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), an actress, married to a controlling and wealthy Polish man (Peter J. Lucas) is eagerly awaiting to hear whether she has been cast in a new movie. A visit from a bizarre new neighbour sets the tone for strange, and uncanny happenings. In a heavily Baltic accent she asks Nikki if the new movie is about a marriage and whether it involves a brutal murder, although she seems to already know the answers. She also recounts an enigmatic folktale about a little girl who gets lost behind the market place in an alley which leads to the ‘palace’.
The next day Nikki is told she is to star in ‘On High in Blue Tomorrows’ and thus begins the film within the film. Despite rumours that the screen-play is cursed and stern threats from Nikki’s jealous husband of contact between her and her heart-throb co-star Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), they continue shooting the film. However, it suddenly dawns on Nikki that her character Susan who is having an adulterous affair with the lead male character is not a role she is playing but actually her ‘real life’. After this, Nikki (and indeed the viewer) get very lost indeed. ‘Susan’ seems eventually to be replaced with another ‘Susan’ a hardened and abused prostitute with a grim story to tell but there are also numerous sub-plots and characters lurking in the shadows. We enter nightmarish sequences of Nikki (or Susan?) seeing herself outside of herself, trapped inside another story and another life, bloody murders, hideous grimacing faces, dizzying camera movement and strange dance sequences. Theses images are rendered even more powerful through the camera work which is shot on consumer digicam (Sony PD-150). This gives it a gritty, cheap aesthetic and the brutal close-ups show that outside the glamorous world of the Hollywood studio is a real, dark and seedy landscape. The industrial roars and the heavy breathing that Lynch captures as sound effects also contribute to the disquieting quality of the work.
There are many Lynchian motifs throughout the film: short-circuiting light bulbs, darkened stairways, in-between spaces with velvet red curtains, strange hotel rooms, darkness both literal and metaphorical and characters who awake from one identity, only to slip into another. But this is not to say that Lynch is unimaginatively using old material. On the contrary, the familiar combined with this mysterious new terrain furthers the ‘unheimlich’ feel of the spectacle before us. This film’s inscrutability may be frustrating but it has a deeply hypnotic effect and begs to be seen again and again.