Disclaimer: The following article could possibly be construed as containing "spoilers", although it seems difficult to spoil a largely plotless film, except by perhaps implanting interpretive ideas into your head that may affect the way you watch the film. Arguably, it may be best read after seeing the film, but the decision is of course yours.
Inland Empire may be the Lynchiest David Lynch film to date, and as such it is likely to be spurned by both his detractors and his only casual sympathizers. At first it comes across as a digitized, revised and revisited Mulholland Dr. redux, but midway transforms into one of the most bewildering and demanding films that commercial American cinema has ever produced.
Laura Dern plays Nikki, an actress playing a character named Sue, in a movie called On High in Blue Tomorrows. The fictional script had been attempted to be filmed once before, but was left unfinished when the two leads were murdered. The story is thought to be cursed, to have something "inside" of it. Nikki, or Sue, may or may not be having an affair with her co-star Devon, playing a character named Billy, and played by Justin Theroux; at one point she is warning him about her dangerous husband when she laughs and declares, “this sounds like a line from our movie!” The film's director, Kingsley (Jeremy Irons), shouts, “Cut!” and Dern looks as taken aback as we are. Wait, where are we? What’s going on?
After that, it’s difficult (not that it was easy before) to say what’s going on, if anything is going on at all. It would be easy to write the film off, as Richard Brody did in The New Yorker, as a “pretentious puzzle” and “self-parody”. Lynch, in a rare move for any artist, has allowed the audience unrestricted and unfiltered access into his subconscious; it is projected up on the screen, entirely unadulterated, for us to examine, ponder, and experience. All I can say is, yikes!
Lynch has said much of film was improvised and unfortunately, at times in its first half, the lack of a script shows -- luckily, by the end of the film it is nearly forgotten. Improv is tricky business in the movies, and needs to be cleaned up a bit in the editing room. Otherwise, the pacing is thrown off, and scenes go on longer than they should – think of Scorsese’s New York, New York as the quintessential example.
Anyway, like Mulholland Dr., clues as to the film’s “meaning” are copiously scattered throughout. (How to use those clues, or whether they can actually be used at all, is a matter of debate.) Many of the keys to deciphering the picture lie within a cryptic scene early in the film between Dern and her new neighbor, hilariously played by Grace Zabriskie. One thing Zabriskie mentions is a story about a boy who went out of his house, and into the world, to play; he caused a reflection and, as the story goes, evil was born. This underlies the several dichotomies that figure in the film: actor and character, life and art/film, married woman and whore – what essentially boils down to, to oversimplify, good vs. evil. Lynch, as he did in Mulholland Dr., seems to once again have Bergman's Persona on his mind. The struggle between the dualities is best expressed explicitly in a scene near the end in which Dern simultaneously functions as spectator and spectacle. (!)
Therein seems to lie the film’s thematic core – Hollywood filmmaking and the male gaze, in their treatment of the female, are inherently pernicious and corrupting. The opening shot of the film is of a projector bulb that reveals the title; this is not merely a film about filmmaking but about filmviewing. Lynch makes the viewer feel guilty for watching the very movie he’s presenting, particularly near the end when Dern stares directly into the camera at us with a look of bewilderment and disgust. If only we could look away!
Like Naomi Watts’ dewy-eyed, revealing comment in Mulholland Dr. that Hollywood is “some kind of dreamplace,” so again is that city’s idealistic image referenced: William H. Macy, in a brief cameo as a radio announcer, says Hollywood is “where stars make dreams and dreams make stars.” But lurking beneath its surface, like the insects in the opening of Blue Velvet, it’s also a place where, in its decadence, “champagne and caviar are on their way,” and where Devon and his entourage chuckle as they discuss Nikki’s “nice ass.”
That may sound harmless enough, but not for long. Hollywood transforms otherwise virtuous women into sex objects, i.e. whores. (My recurring use of that term is not meant to be pejorative, but is the word Dern’s character uses to describe herself later in the film.) Hollywood corrupts us morally, the filmmakers and the filmviewers, as suggested by the image of Dern, after being attacked with a phallus, bleeding all over the stars of Hollywood Boulevard. In the film’s second half, Nikki, or Sue, is no longer a fidelious wife but an adulterer, who spends a good deal of her time with what one assumes to be prostitutes. However, Dern’s time with them, listening to them talk dirty, is often spent teary-eyed. It’s a difficult thing, to face one’s own repressed prurience -- it's not that she is two separate entities, but that the virtuous and the salacious are one and the same.
It seems that Nikki the actress and Sue the character gradually become intertwined, a commingling of Sue’s backstory and Nikki’s fantasies. It is a trip not only through her, and Lynch’s, subconscious but also the subconscious of the script for On High in Blue Tomorrows – a journey through the story’s curse and the curse of Hollywood at large. She is lost and trapped within narrative itself, as an abstract. Once again, yikes!
But all this is only part of the story. The film goes far deeper, and is more tangential than I’ve described, including “lugubrious scenes from Poland, a sitcom apartment inhabited by people wearing rabbit heads,” (Brody) and a teary-eyed woman, possibly a diegetic stand-in for Lynch, enunciating all the images through her television set. Trying to decipher the picture, to make sense of every bit of it, is not only futile but misses the point. Lynch amusingly taunts the audience at one point with two women, who stare into the camera and ask, of a dismembered corpse, “who is she? Who is she?” as though we ought to know. Mr. Lynch, isn’t that what we should be asking you?
The sitcom rabbits, for example, or the choreographed dance scene of the prostitutes grooving to “The Locomotion” are only going to “make sense” to the director; to ask what they "mean" is an invalid question. They don't mean anything, they just are. The film is obviously trying to make several points (some more obvious than others), but the audience is never meant to fully decode Lynch’s brain – ultimately it is up to us to make of it what we will.