FORGET “BEFORE” AND “AFTER”: Inland Empire is a bewildering but beautiful cinematic fugue.
By the time it got to the anthropomorphic bunnies acting out a sit-com to a laugh track (or are they donkeys? subscribe to www.davidlynch.com to learn more), I knew that Inland Empire was David Lynch at his most seductive and a film I’d be thinking about for a lot more than the rest of the afternoon. And this was after only about five minutes. Three hours later, after Lynch had reprised and reconfigured themes, motifs, images, and obsessions from Eraserhead onward while at the same time questioning and vindicating the validity of narrative, identity, dreams, and “The Locomotion,” I was pretty sure this film was on a par with Mulholland Drive and maybe even Blue Velvet. Some might suggest he’s going over the same terrain, but if so, it’s a world that is bottomless and inexhaustible.
As in Mulholland Drive, the initial premise involves an actress seeking a role. Unlike the aspiring ingénue played by Naomi Watts in Drive, though, Laura Dern’s Nikki has been around the block a few times and is looking for a comeback. She’s jubilant when she gets the starring role in a kind of pseudo–Tennessee Williams potboiler directed by the unctuous Kingsley (Jeremy Irons) playing opposite Devon (Justin Theroux), a sleazy womanizer. Even the innuendos of a gossipy talk-show host (here the film seems about to take a For Your Consideration tack) can’t dim her enthusiasm. But the weird warnings of Grace Zabriskie’s pop-eyed Polish “neighbor” (neighbors are seldom a good omen in a Lynch film) set her up for more role playing than she’d bargained for.
That bare plot line doesn’t last long as the story doubles back on itself at least three times and the characters — mostly played by Dern — shed and regrow identities. By the end, the notion of chronological or any kind of conventional order — everybody has trouble with such basic terms as “before” and “after” — has been laid to waste. In its place is a bewildering but beautiful cinematic fugue.
Employing digital video, Lynch exercises unprecedented narrative freedom — he seems to have shot the film and written the script simultaneously. What’s lost is his trademark lush visual elegance. Much of the film was shot in the grimy byways of Lódz in Poland (which might account for the hint of Kieslowskian synchronicity), and Lynch’s usual bright palette is here almost monochromatic. He uses superimpositions and dissolves for a palimpsest-like effect, unveiling deeper layers of beguiling ambiguity. But his most characteristic device is the tracking shot following Dern as she wanders corridors, climbs stairways, and opens doors into stranger and stranger rooms.
There aren’t too many images you take home with you. But Laura Dern’s face is enough. She triumphs in the role of a lifetime. Several lifetimes, in fact, as her character metamorphoses with every story within a story and dream within a dream. For the nuances she brings to the expression of perplexity alone, her performance ranks as one of the best of the year. She’s as an ideal guide to the most cryptic — and rewarding — film that’s come out since the last time Lynch invited us into his empire.