USA / Poland / France, 2006
Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 03 October 2006
Source Asymetrical / Studio Canal Plus 35mm print
Features: The 44th New York Film Festival
Inland Empire opens with a shaft of light, a mere needle’s eye revealing the title card in stark grays and blacks. Visually this will be the only reminder of classical Hollywood, with its impressive block font, reminiscent of an epic and an age-old era, before the film dismantles the dream. Lynch’s tenth feature is not only shot entirely in the accessible and modern video format, but is also analogous to his last feature, Mulholland Drive, in its rejection of the superficially glowing luster of Tinseltown. To simply consider the film on this theme alone wouldn’t approach the intricate web of Inland Empire. Yes, it is a mystery within a mystery within the world and mind of an enigmatic and arcane woman, but — as even a lukewarm admirer of David Lynch would surmise — this doesn’t so much explain as dress the bare bones of the plot floating somewhere in a three-hour cerebral landscape.
The basic narrative assigned to the film focuses on actress Nikki Grace, the mystery woman struggling to get her career back on track. Nikki is visited by an older woman (Grace Zabriskie, Twin Peaks’ Sarah Palmer) with a foreign accent and frightening mascara who claims to be a new neighbor, who over a cup of coffee, proceeds to adamantly insist Nikki will receive the part she is up for, but also tells her that the film will involve far more sordid details than she previously thought, including a murder. Time appears to pass as Nikki looks across the living room and sees herself score the lead in the juicy Southern tinged melodrama (entitled On High in Blue Tomorrows). The joy is short-lived, however, when on the set Nikki learns that the film, based on Polish Gypsy folklore is not only a remake, but also cursed, as the previous production ended when the two leads were murdered. Sexual tension develops between Nikki and her co-star, Devon, a playboy who is warned several times by both Nikki’s high-profile husband and his own guerrilla entourage to keep his libido in check, a request that appears to be ignored by both Devon and Nikki.
This description applies to perhaps 45-60 minutes of Inland Empire, which then begins to burrow into a complex network of holes that only lead far down and deep, revealing clues to our whereabouts in bits and pieces, and never fully letting in the light. I can’t even begin to comprehend much of Inland Empire, a precondition that is perceptibly Lynchian, but there is also the wonderful inability to stop myself from wrapping my brain around the film’s images in the past forty eight hours. It is simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting to watch Inland Empire, but it is also genuinely revitalizing; with at least six more films to see at the NYFF and a fall/winter release schedule that is barely holding my attention, this is already ranking as the most engaging film I will see all year.
Inland Empire is disorienting, at times slightly nauseating in its use of digital video, a technique that has allowed Lynch to shoot freely and extensively for the past three years. Stylistically, Lynch depicts an ugly portrait of Southern California as much as Mulholland Drive had a bauble’s glow. Laura Dern looks genuinely dreadful in certain scenes, her face magnified, exhibiting pores and wrinkles in plain sight. This physical deviation is one of the many reasons the women in Inland Empire are so fascinating. David Lynch, accused more than once of misogyny, particularly in older reviews of Blue Velvet, has created stinging and horrific portrait in both Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire of what life might be like for a working actress in Hollywood. Portrayed by Lynch as a realm where women are mere property (both Dern’s Nikki and Naomi Watts’ Betty are passed through the ringer as commodity for sale and use in the film industry), women in Hollywood sell themselves whether as actress or hooker, both ending up on the Walk of Fame, albeit through economically different methods. Inland Empire features a gaggle of women who follow Nikki, and, falling somewhere between a Greek Chorus and sirens, these ladies know their worth lies in their physical assets, complimenting one another on T&A before doing an inspired dance performance to “The Locomotion.”
All of the female performances are commendable, with Dern taking on what could very well be one of the most challenging roles for an actress in recent memory. Dern slips between two characters, Nikki and Sue, the role Nikki is cast for, and seemingly inhabits to a surreal degree. Is Nikki losing her mind, confusing her role in the film as an adulteress with an actual affair with Devon? Or — as the film progresses down an even darker labyrinth involving eerie bunny suits and a white trash Southern California home — has Nikki stumbled into a wormhole? Perhaps not literally time travel, but there is a strange connectedness between the dimensions depicted in Inland Empire, from the soundstages of Hollywood to the snow-ridden streets of Poland that suggest a tesseract in this universe, as Nikki appears to be in two (sometimes it seems to be more) places at the same time, but as uniquely different people. Lynch stretches to his most fascinating here, with a realm of possibility as dauntingly endless as it is inviting.
Symbols abound that will appear darkly familiar: a record player’s needle scrapes along with no end in sight; dark hallways pulse with an unsettling strobe light; bodies are gashed in unusual ways (the semi-forgotten Julia Ormond has an unpleasant encounter with a screwdriver); and Jeremy Irons and Harry Dean Stanton share a moment involving tea that rather hysterically matches up with the Mulholland Drive espresso incident. However, Inland Empire capsizes the narrative format that has long contained the incredibly imaginative Lynch brushstrokes, by not simply containing bizarre twists and turns, but also forcing us to watch, challenging us to some degree, in a manner and structure far more familiar to those used to the lengthy and often unapproachable work of the avant-garde. Inland Empire is incredibly aware of its own past in the Lynch oeuvre, but moves beyond that history into a realm of possibility that I almost hope will remain as enigmatic and remote on the third viewing as it was on the first.