(Fireflies Press, 2021)
The films of David Lynch exist on a narrative spectrum. While some of his movies delve into abstract expressionism (Eraserhead, 1977), others are classically constructed (The Elephant Man, 1980), informed by Hitchcockian storytelling (Blue Velvet, 1986), or reliant on dream logic (Lost Highway, 1997).
And yet, Inland Empire (2006) doesn’t fit neatly into any of these categories, comprising the most inscrutable entry in David Lynch’s filmography. However, the film stars Laura Dern, one of David Lynch’s most frequent collaborators, motivating a new book on Inland Empire 15 years after its initial release.
Melissa Anderson, film editor at 4Columns, a website for arts criticism, and previously the film editor at The Village Voice, has tackled Inland Empire in her new book from Berlin and Melbourne-based Fireflies Press. The 128-page monograph forms part of a book series on 10 films from each year of the aughts. This project works in tandem with programs at ACMI (formerly known as the Australian Centre for the Moving Image) in Melbourne.
In Inland Empire, Dern plays a Hollywood actress named Nikki Grace, who takes a film role opposite fellow thespian Devon Berk (Justin Theroux). However, the director (Jeremy Irons) soon informs Grace and Stewart that the film they are working on is a remake of a cursed Polish production.
Nikki soon begins conflating her persona with the role she is playing in the film-within-a-film, and the movie descends into a psychological labyrinth which is at turns absorbing but frequently interminable. Its target is Hollywood, but its objective is unclear. As Irons’s character states, the metafictional ill-fated Polish production was plagued by “something inside the story.” There are a lot of somethings within Inland Empire, but if we follow Anderson’s argument, it turns out there’s a method to the madness.
Viewed in a vacuum, Inland Empire scans as a collection of mostly random material: It pays little attention to the eponymous Southern California region east of Los Angeles; the film is perplexingly more focused on assorted scenes in Poland, in addition to bizarre vignettes with anthropomorphic rabbits on a sitcom set (sampled from a Lynch web series). Adding to the film’s inaccessibility is its three-hour runtime and Lynch’s baffling decision to shoot on a digital camcorder. While that last choice lends the film a disturbing “found-footage” quality, the side effect is a grainy aesthetic.
Wisely, Anderson doesn’t try to directly explain Inland Empire, a fraught prospect given the film’s ambiguous, freewheeling nature, but rather contextualizes the movie as a simulacrum of the themes both Lynch and Dern have taken on throughout their careers. The process enriches Lynch’s cypher-like text as a shorthand for Inland Empire’s intriguing connections to Hollywood history and the industry’s long-standing exploitation of women.
“The most potent précis of Inland Empire remains its tagline: a woman in trouble,” Anderson writes, noting a connection between Lynch’s interest in stories about women in peril and Dern’s wide-ranging career portraying such troubled characters for Lynch and other directors.
For example, Anderson considers the Lynch character of Laura Palmer, the mysteriously deceased center of the Twin Peaks TV and film universe, a variation on Laura Dern’s roles in Blue Velvet and Inland Empire. “Sandy [from Blue Velvet], Laura, Nikki: each a woman troubled or in trouble, each sending out an SOS via a look of unremitting pain,” Anderson explains.
Anderson is interested in filmic genealogies and how certain motifs are carried forward by different performers. She relies on the lens of “acteurism,” after a term promulgated by Dave Kehr’s 2014 Museum of Modern Art series. If auteurism centers the filmmaking process on the choices of the director, acteurism highlights the decisions and histories of the particular actor.
Intriguingly, some of Dern’s other roles have complemented the “woman in trouble” theme in her Lynchian projects. Before she played the high school love interest to Kyle MacLachlan’s amateur gumshoe in Blue Velvet, Dern also starred in Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk (1985), a loose adaptation of the oft-anthologized Joyce Carol Oates’s short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” In both the story and the film, a young woman (Dern) is seduced by a shiftless man named Arnold Friend (Treat Williams), and it is left ambiguous whether Friend sexually assaults Dern’s character. Decades later, in Jennifer Fox’s The Tale (2018), Dern played a woman who realizes that her teenaged “affair” with a high school track coach was in fact statutory rape, adapted from Fox’s life experience.
When Anderson digs deeper, she finds even more intriguing cinematic connections. In a monologue scene in Inland Empire, when Nikki Grace recounts a traumatic episode from her youth, she slips into a Southern drawl evocative of Dern’s role in Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), one that also calls back to Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964).
“Holding up Marnie as a prism, I see odd, atavistic refractions, energy waves passing through Laura Dern’s film roles,” Anderson writes. She points out that in a pivotal scene of Marnie, Tippi Hedren’s titular kleptomaniac character abandons her generic American accent for a Southern one when she remembers discovering her mother, a prostitute, in bed with a character named “Sailor”—played by Bruce Dern, Laura Dern’s father. As it happens, “Sailor” happens to be the name of Nicholas Cage’s character in Wild at Heart (paired off with Laura Dern’s character in that film). Of course, Tippi Hedren’s well-known story of being harassed and blacklisted by Hitchcock adds further wrinkles to the historical and cinematic echoes realized by Dern and Lynch.
Anderson goes on to place Inland Empire directly in conversation with the 2017 #MeToo movement, arguing that though Lynch’s films often portray cruelty to women, these films convey sympathy to the plight of “women in trouble.” In Anderson’s telling, Lynch’s work seems persistently engaged with the danger women face in Hollywood, particularly in Mulholland Drive (2001). In discussing a scene from that film, she goes as far as to argue that Lynch parodies Harvey Weinstein when a large thug who visually evokes Weinstein beats up the wife of a film director played by Justin Theroux.
By trying to find authorial intent where it is ambiguous and by conflating Dern’s public relations persona with her private opinions, Anderson acknowledges that her reading of Inland Empire might involve “categorical errors.” But her strategy might be the only practical way to read Inland Empire, an eclectic hodgepodge of Lynchian moments averse to chronology. As Anderson writes, “I often don’t know what was before or after in Inland Empire no matter how many times I’ve watched it.”
In spite of the film’s apparent lack of legibility, some of the refrains stick. A repeated line in the movie goes, “Look at me, and tell me if you’ve known me before.” Despite Inland Empire’s strangeness, we are indeed familiar with its elements. Inland Empire may only appeal to the most devoted of Lynch’s acolytes, but Anderson’s modest volume ties the film to the modern moment by tracing its connections to the past.