Inland Empire


Reviewed by: Chris

Inland Empire
"Since any film from the David Lynch surreal canon comes with a guarantee to fry your head, you have probably already guessed that the two realities get a bit blurred for us too."

Have you ever wondered how actors create amazing performances out of thin air?

The leading character of Inland Empire is Nikki Grace (Laura Dern). She's an actress who gets a part in a film called On High In Blue Tomorrows.

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If Nikki is a Method actor, she has plenty to draw on for her character, Sue. She needs to immerse herself in her character's feelings then connect those emotions to her own experiences to realise the performance. And at the studio, the director casually goes all Blair Witch Project on her and says the film is not only based on an old Polish gypsy tale but the story is meant to be cursed. The first time it was filmed, the two leads ended up dead. Only the day before, an unpleasant Polish gypsy neighbour has foretold that Nikki will get the part. Faster than you can say Stanislavski, Nikki is caught up in what seems parallel reality.

On High In Blue Tomorrows includes a plot line about Billy (who has a wife and kids) trying to seduce Sue. We already know that Nikki's husband is (conveniently) murderously inclined towards any co-star who gets too friendly. Nikki, at one point, tells her co-star she is worried her husband will kill both of them. She breaks off suddenly - "It sounds like lines from a script". Which it is, as the director calls 'cut'.

Since any film from the David Lynch surreal canon comes with a guarantee to fry your head, you have probably already guessed that the two realities get a bit blurred for us too. The scenes-within-a-scene are almost like a broken record - an image which is obligingly interlaced (with a nice scratchy record sound). The psychological cues (for us or the 'actors') pile up... a dark staircase, Polish whores who 'act like whores', and an unsettling, humourless TV comedy where people wear rabbit-heads.

Folk tales, as we find in Jungian Psychology, work on the subconscious in different ways for different folk. They take symbols that express or trigger archetypes within all of us. They 'mean' something to us before we know what they mean. As does this film. Lynch uses abstractions not just for their own sake but to take us deeper inside a character and their world.

The storyline that is beyond debate is the emotional journey of Nikki, but the actual details of what really happens probably depend on viewer perception. "In the future you'll be dreaming," they tell her. "When you open your eyes, someone familiar will be there" We get to know the inner Nikki, but who she actually is may well take a bit more work. The parallel strands, her real life, her movie story, the folktale elements, her unconscious, can all become confusingly familiar.

Me, I like a nice materialistic, Hitchcockian conclusion that ties up the loose ends. Other people will find a supernatural explanation or a purely symbolic tableau. Websites are springing up to discuss the film even before its release. Maybe in six months people will accept my explanation (which I won't mention for fear of spoiling it), maybe they won't. People didn't agree on Mulholland Drive overnight. But just as people draw different inferences from great works of modern art, so will they with this film. If you're not allergic to the experimental, the surreal and the avant-garde in cinema, you may well even think it's a masterpiece.

Inland Empire is the most abstract of Lynch's films, but is also more accessible than Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway. He has become very good at what he does. The more you concentrate on any tiny detail, the more it makes sense, and often on several levels. One of the elements of this particular Polish folk tale is that when a boy goes through a door, evil follows him; when a girl goes through, she becomes lost. Dern's character, or character within a character, becomes increasingly lost - a favourite theme of Lynch's - whereas evil seems to flow from the male characters.

At one point, she tries to phone Billy. A character from the 'bunny' shows answers. Jealousy and frustration are never far from the surface. How would you feel if your husband deserted you to travel to the Baltic with gypsies in a circus? Maybe kick him in the nuts so hard they go crawlin' up to his brain for refuge? The mix of Polish and American slang can be unsettling, as much as chorus line of prostitutes singing The Locomotion or a girl hypnotised to kill someone with a screwdriver. (The soundtrack also features beautiful songs by Nina Simone and Etta James.)

For a three-hour movie, Inland Empire is still a roller-coaster ride. Lynch fans avoid it at your peril.

Reviewed on: 03 Mar 2007
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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:

Stuart Crawford *****
Jennie Kermode ****1/2
Amber Wilkinson ****
Angus Wolfe Murray *1/2


Glasgow 2007

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