Inland Empire, David Lynch’s tenth feature, is in many ways a summing-up of his career so far: it has a budget, a look and a sound design that are not that different from his 1977 experimental debut Eraserhead; it stars one of Lynch’s favourite actresses, Laura Dern, who also appeared in Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart; and its plot almost follows on from Mulholland Drive.
Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) could indeed be Betty (Naomi Watts) from Mulholland Drive twenty years on. Now mature and established, she has just landed the role of Susan Blue in a film entitled On High in Blue Tomorrows, the remake of an unfinished film based on a Polish folk tale that may or may not be cursed. As Inland Empire plays out, the lines between the remake and the original blur – and to add a further level of complexity these two films blend in with the story of what happened to the cast of the previous film and with the trials and tribulations of Nikki Grace’s personal life.
These stories are so intermingled that it is simply pointless to try and make sense of them. David Lynch goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure that you don’t, guiding you towards a particular frame of mind. Unusually here, Lynch seems to want you to trust the film and to trust him as an artist, exposing himself and his methods far more than he has ever done before. Inland Empire opens as Nikki gets a surprise visit from Grace Zabriskie’s emigrant neighbour who disturbingly seems to know exactly what is going to happen in Nikki’s life. We share Nikki’s confusion at her predictions, which puts us in a situation unprecedented in a David Lynch movie: from the outset we share the journey of the leading actress. This is the key to the power of Inland Empire: at no point do we feel that Laura Dern is any wiser than us; and at no point do we feel that, as an actress, she is lost because of that. Her performance can only come from an actress who completely trusts the director.
While Laura Dern provides the movie with its heart Lynch adds an unusually high dose of almost Godardian one-liners to the script, which attack the rational frame of mind required to follow traditional movies. One example is offered by Harry Dean Stanton’s assistant director Freddie who declares that ‘Dogs reason their way out of trouble’. Godard’s game-playing with the audience is even echoed in a flirtatious exchange between the Blue Tomorrows characters Susan Blue and Billy Slide. It is presented to us as a ‘real-life’ encounter between the actors Nikki Grace and Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) and the artifice isn’t revealed until the fictional director (Jeremy Irons) shouts ‘cut!’
The big difference between Lynch and Godard is that Lynch makes no political or even aesthetic statements with these ploys but merely tries to provide his audience with ways into Inland Empire. This is what makes this film unusual in the Lynch canon and more satisfying than most of his other films. When, in one of the Poland-set scenes, Nikki Grace/Susan Blue replies in English to her Polish interlocutor, ‘I understand it but I don’t speak it’, it uncannily echoes what may be at the heart of the film, i.e., how cinema can operate in a metaphysical rather than a rational sense. Dern’s intense, utterly convincing performance is what makes you trust that the film is indeed full of meaning. In that sense Inland Empire is like the intelligent cousin of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Double life of Veronique.