Tuesday, December 19, 2006

You dyin', lady.

Inland Empire is David Lynch's most dreamlike film. Having seen it four days ago at the Brattle, I find that my memories of it are very fuzzy. This is not to say that the film is forgettable - as with all of Lynch's best work, it contains countless moments that burrow their way deep into the mind's eye. Rather, the sequence of narrative events is blurry; as with a dream, time and space are malleable and unpredictable, shifting between continents, decades and stories without warning (and that's to say nothing of the talking rabbits). Lynch, who has long toyed with the breakdown of classical narrative in ways both overt (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive) and subtle (The Straight Story), has finally succeeded in shattering the Hollywood model of storytelling into a million pieces, and the result is nothing less than a creative rebirth.

The film presents itself as a "long-lost radio play," and is apparently being viewed by a weeping Polish prostitute; it begins as a sitcom starring the aforementioned rabbits before eventually settling into the story of Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), an actress whose fame has slightly dimmed. Nikki is visited by a new neighbor (Grace Zabriskie) who talks like Bela Lugosi and surely comes from the same place ("hard to see from the road") as The Man From Another Place, the Lady in the Radiator, the Mystery Man and all of the other messengers from other realities that populate Lynch's world. The neighbor tells Nikki two versions of a fable that seem to foreshadow the film's story (though they explain nothing); suddenly, it is the next day, and Nikki has been cast in a Southern melodrama called On High in Blue Tomorrows. In a scene reminiscent of The Shining (allusions to Kubrick's film are all over the place), director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) warns his leads that the film is supposedly cursed; an earlier version of the film, made in Poland, was left unfinished when its two stars were brutally murdered. Nikki flirts with the idea of an extramarital romance with her costar, Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) which, they are warned, will indirectly threaten the fabric of their reality. Before long, the film makes an almost imperceptable shift into the uncanny, casting Nikki adrift on a fragmented journey through various realities, cinematic and otherwise. If Mulholland Drive concluded with a trip down the rabbit hole, Inland Empire is a freefall; it makes the previous film look downright accessible.

Lynch filmed Inland Empire on standard-definition digital video, which both allowed for an atypical shooting process (the film was assembled one scene at a time over the course of several years) and opened the director up to a new realm of visual possibilities. At first it seems that Lynch's painterly compositions are rendered inert by DV's static nature. But as the film progresses, it takes on a disjointed beauty; the fragmented images contribute to the hallucinatory atmosphere, and they also liberate Lynch to do his most experimental work since Eraserhead. While Inland Empire is filled with nods to Lynch's earlier films, it feels less self-referential than reflective, placing his recurrent themes and images in a startling new context. In many ways, Inland Empire brings closure to the cycle of psychic violence at the center of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive while also announcing the start of a new chapter in Lynch's ongoing narrative. It's a reflection on the very act of storytelling embodied by an actress whose ability to live others' lives is the source of both her nightmares and her strength. And so Inland Empire's success is largely thanks to Dern, who disappears completely into the role. Her fearlessness, and the thrill of a new medium, have an invigorating effect on Lynch; when a languid gang of prostitutes suddenly launches into a full-blown musical number set to "The Locomotion," it's a perfectly bizarre moment that crystallizes the film's themes as profoundly as Dean Stockwell's lip-synch in Blue Velvet and the Club Silencio sequence in Mulholland Drive. There's genuine audacity on display here, and while Inland Empire at points requires phenomenal patience, it's worth it to see Lynch push the boundaries of cinema and his own imagination into uncharted territory.

There's so much that remains to be discovered about Inland Empire; Lynch makes films that demand to be revisited and reexamined, and this is no exception. In a few years, when we've finally begun to absorb the meaning of this long-lost radio play, the real discussion can begin. I can't claim to understand all of Inland Empire, but the great thing about Lynch is that understanding seems beside the point; he wants us to experience his films. And Inland Empire is an astounding experience; it's the kind of film you can get lost in, wandering through its many rooms and disappearing into its ever-present shadows. You will either love Inland Empire or hate it. You won't forget it.

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