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Some Reflections On David Lynch's Inland Empire
By Xaven Taner
March 2008

I saw inland Empire for the first time a couple of weeks ago and have been obsessing about it since. I have watched it twice more and think I have a few ideas about what’s going on. I definitely think it’s Lynchs most interesting film yet, it has a depth and richness the heights of which he has not reached before. My reading of it attempts a metaphysical and ontological viewpoint - avoiding the anti-Hollywood or religious approach - and is one which I feel appropriate as I believe Lynch is well versed in this line of thinking and also has an interest in the more out there ideas of Karl Jung, whose concept of Synchronicity (an acausal connective principal) could be applied to Inland Empire.

My first impressions of the film were that it may be going down a similar line to Mulholland drive, that of the fantasy as a form of wish fulfilment. But after the third viewing I have come to the conclusion that there is in fact no “dreaming” or solitary fantasy element in the film whatsoever. The film has many different elements but I think only a few themes. These are causality (primarily the inversion of), Self-awareness and reflection, and fate. The dialogue and narrative particularly the beginning and end of the film indicate that there are two “everyday” realities, that of Nikki acting in a film, and the Lost Girl crying in front of the TV. The later residing in the real past and the former in the real present. Between the two realities/times there is another world, that to which an entry point exists within the very narrative of the film (On High in Blue Tomorrows) as Kingsley tells Nikki and Devin “They discovered something inside the story“. As she continues the filming she gradually begins to slip into this other world which manifests itself as a series of representations, of the life of the actors (Nikki etc), the narrative of the film (Sue) and then as she gets deeper and deeper within, it takes on abstract representations of the life (to come) of the lost girl.

This is an important point to make, the scenes of prostitution in Poland or the US do not exist in reality, just like the abusive marriage and the murders that Nikki/Sue/Polish women experience they exist as potentialities in the mind of the lost girl as she watches the TV screen. These events are not dreams or fantasies, they are very real possibilities that she sees in her life, it is that realisation and a overwhelming sense of fate/powerlessness that devastates her. In our own lives we experience this, we experience our future as that of a future present, or as Sarte says “We are what we are not”. Freddy eludes to this in his monologue to Nikki and Devin on the film set, “There’s a vast network right? An ocean of possibilities” The interesting thing in Inland Empire is that the lost girl seems paralysed by fatalism, it’s as if her future is already written, and the way we observe the lived reality of that future seems to add weight to the theory that these events have already occurred. This is one of the incidences of the suspension of temporal causality in the film. In real life we make our future, but the Lost Girl does not.

Nikki’s role is twofold within the world-between-past-and-future, on the one hand she plays out the drama of the potential life of the lost girl, and secondly she provides a form of resolution for the existential crisis gripping the lost girl at the end. I maintain that it is not until Nikki/Sue is stabbed and appears to die that she is conscious of what is happening. Up until that she is either confused (the first 45 minutes after entering the world-within-the-film) or is totally consumed with living out the representation of the lost girls potential future as Nikki/Sue the prostitute in Hollywood. After Nikki/Sue dies she crosses back to reality and awakes with some kind of distant determination, she speaks to no one and walks straight to the confrontation with The Phantom, after whose annihilation the lost girl seems freed from the fatalistic grip and starts reconciliation with her husband and son.

This is the second instance of inverse causality, Nikki from the future through this other-world-within-the-film is able to effect the life of the lost girl and potentiality alter the course of her history. It is not the past making the future, but the future making the past. Or as metaphorically eluded to early in the film “Stars make dreams and dreams make stars”. This for me is a truly brilliant meditation on human consciousness by Lynch, posing questions about fate and human potential, and about the nature and possibilities of self awareness, the awareness of those possibilities (good or bad).

The character of The Phantom is ambiguous, he may be a transcendent figure able to enter the world-within-the-film as Nikki is (although he enters from the past). If that is the case then she may really kill him at the end. More likely I think is that he is just another possibility, one that would appear to unify the whole awful potential future of the lost girl, his symbolic death would seem to act as a signifier for the lost girl, as a break from fatalistic deadlock, that she is the master of her own future and not just a character whose life is already written like those in On High in Blue Tomorrows.

There are other characters and set pieces which are unclear, the old woman at the start being one. We could take a radical view that she is in fact the lost girl in the present trying to instigate Nikki in the activity of helping the lost girl of the past. Perhaps she exist in an alternate causal universe or, she needs to come to the house to start the chain of events that lead to her being rescued in the past in this universe. The core of the narrative would thus constitute a temporal paradox. I think this takes the analysis to far though. Lynch primarily tells stories about unconventional relationships (Two women in Mulholland Drive, college boy and hysterical illicit lover in Blue Velvet, and of course how about Henry and the alien baby in Eraserhead) adding this kind of quantum physics aspect to the narrative distances it from the heart of the matter.

What I’ve summarized here are the underlying themes of the film as I see them, I intentionally haven’t mentioned any of the particulars as I feel that Lynchs style is one that intentionally hides the human truth of his films. He has his own language, his own archetypes which structure the visual and sonic aspect of his films, but the truth is always found in the human relationships and emotions between the characters, the rest is just Lynch being Lynch. I’m sure Zizek will write pages and pages on this film and will no doubt come up with a far better (Lacanian of course) viewpoint.