Inland Empire

Inland Empire

*****

Reviewed by: Stuart Crawford

"Wake up and find out what the hell yesterday was about. I'm not too keen on tomorrow, and today's slipping by".

David Lynch's Inland Empire is perhaps his most inaccessible work to date. The film weighs in at a hefty three hours, and only the first displays any semblance of traditional narrative structure. It is, of course, magnificent.

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Laura Dern plays Nikki Grace, a successful actress who's just landed herself the lead role in On High in Blue Tomorrows. Directed by Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons), this film-within-a-film sees Nikki's character Susan caught in an adulterous relationship with a man named Billy Side, played by Devon Berk, played by Justin Theroux. Eventually, Nikki and Devon find themselves in similar circumstances, and the distinctions between these abstracted levels of reality completely break down.

This puts the actors in something of an unsafe position. Not only is Nikki's husband a jealous, powerful and well-connected man, but the film itself may be cursed. It turns out to be a remake of an earlier, unfinished work called 4/7 - itself based on a Polish gypsy folk tale (that's abstraction number four for those playing along at home) - that had its plug pulled when the lead actors were brutally murdered.

It's all too late for Nikki, though, who finds herself becoming both the Susan of the movie and a grubbier, more debased version of the character who works as a prostitute and drifts through a series of ever-more-terrifying schizophrenic episodes. Nikki possesses a limited awareness of her muddled identity, as evinced by her repeated line, "Look at me and tell me if you've known me before." Dern's electrifying performances (in three completely distinct registers) amount to one of the greatest displays of acting talent ever recorded, a high-water mark in an already impressive career.

Much of Inland Empire's emotional impact is down to Lynch's incredible propensity for sound design. Imagery and sound are so closely wedded throughout that at times it seems meaningless to distinguish between the two. Music is linked to the film on several levels, wielded with an immediacy that borders on brutality. It's designed to knock viewers off-kilter, softening them up and allowing lyrical references to blend into the storyline through the subconscious.

Repeated phrases and symbols seem to resonate throughout the film, one of the ways by which Lynch lends such a dreamlike quality to the whole experience. Some are overt, others more subtle: background details which may take several seconds of processing before their import is revealed. "I suppose," reveals Grace Zabriskie's character at an early juncture, "if it was 9:45, I would think it is after midnight." This foreshadowing of fractured time is reflected back at key points, when ties to causality are at their weakest.

Every screen is a portal, a rabbit hole to another of the film's many intermeshed planes. Indeed, one such hole (a television, holding the rapt attention of a Polish prostitute) takes us into the world of Lynch's Rabbits, a sort of inverse sitcom, previously released online as a work in its own right, here carefully folded into a larger context. Rabbit-headed characters emit non-sequiturs, while canned laughter plays at wildly inappropriate moments.

In this way Lynch acknowledges his unseen audience, one of many references to the film's various elements and technical processes: lighting, camerawork, sound mixing and acting are all held up at various points and shown for what they are. Through subtle means Lynch reminds us that we're watching a film about film.

Similarities to Mulholland Drive abound, particularly in the repeated criticisms of Hollywood's treatment of the bright young things. Lynch's self-referentialism doesn't end here, of course, as various folds and tangles hark back to Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, the aforementioned Rabbits and even the as-yet-unfinished Axxon N. The repeated themes of the Lynch canon are evident in abundance, from sumptuous red curtains to the eternal struggle of his female characters - the blonde and the brunette.

What's the film about? Lynch's response: "It's on the poster". Inland Empire is about a woman in trouble.

Reviewed on: 27 Feb 2007
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Inland Empire packshot
A married actress falls for her leading man whilst making a film about an illicit affair.
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Read more Inland Empire reviews:

Chris *****
Jennie Kermode ****1/2
Amber Wilkinson ****
Angus Wolfe Murray *1/2

Festivals:

Glasgow 2007

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