David Lynch’s Inland Empire, which runs 172 minutes, keeps collapsing in on itself. This is sure to frustrate most people, even Lynch fans. (I was not a big Lynch fan until the glorious Mulholland Drive, a major, sensuous film about Hollywood, tragic love fantasies and the cult of Marilyn Monroe.) Inland Empire hearkens back to Blue Velvet with its scary ladies of the evening at war with feral little men; at the other end of the spectrum, Jeremy Irons’ ineffectual film director and especially Justin Theroux’s degraded, powerless ladies’ man are male figures of echoing hollowness, nothing more than useless little boys. The women here eventually stand tall together in a sort of matriarchal utopia: as Andrew Sarris would say, “Cherchez la femme.” Inland Empire is a film ravishingly in love with women, and one tall woman in particular: Laura Dern. The sunny symbol of normalcy in Blue Velvet, Dern has grown into an open-faced, mature actress of some power. She’s sometimes over-explicit in other movies, usually doing too much with her face, but Lynch holds her in check, terrorizing her a good deal (she’s touchingly childlike in an ordeal), but raising her up on a Falconetti-pedestal in the end.
Let’s begin with the ending, which takes place under the closing credits and is set to Nina Simone’s scorching rendition of “Sinnerman.” Laura Harring, the raven-haired beauty of Mulholland Drive, blows a kiss to Dern, who has just gone through three hours of truly arduous psychic wear and tear. As Dern sits prettily on a couch with the neglected beauty Nastassja Kinski, girls dance jubilantly around the room and one girl in particular lip-synchs to Nina’s growling vocal. This is a perfect match-up of singer and movie: Simone’s hesitations towards the climax of the song are just as indulgent as some of the early scenes in Inland Empire, but when an artist is as far-reaching as Lynch or Simone we should happily go along with some of their nonsense in order to get to their wild highs and scathing lows. The tragedy of Mulholland Drive is reversed: femme fatale Haring, who broke Naomi Watts’ heart, looks generous and tender in Inland Empire, no longer withholding her affection, but giving it freely, maternally. Her ripe sexuality is still there, but its manipulations have been smoothed away. The only thing we really need in this paradisial conclusion would be to have Sheryl Lee’s Laura Palmer break out of the ice and get a hug from the girls.
Inland Empire was shot on consumer grade DV, and the surprise is how sumptuous it looks, with its dreamy dissolves, the red of Dern’s lips bleeding into a huge ketchup stain on a white shirt, the blue of a desperate sex scene transforming Theroux’s wasted face into a sort of Picasso painting on impotence. Lynch perches his camera right on people’s faces for numerous close-ups, and the effect should be Ken Russell-grotesque, but it never is. Why? Difficult to say, except that the people seem to be shot with love and gentle concentration, as if the director was trying to find new ways to look at the human face, until the faces open up like flowers. Grace Zabriskie begins the film in dragon-lady mode, with a heavy accent (she’s very funny), so that it has a huge impact when, hours later, we see her face again, and it suddenly seems disarmingly pretty, as if a mask has dropped away. And always there is Dern’s face, that long landscape of nose and chin, like a giant high school prom queen just beginning to melt.
There are times when we might feel we’ve wandered into an art installation at a gallery instead of a movie, but Inland Empire is actually fairly simple and quite moving if you go with it. There are longeurs as Dern and Theroux rehearse a film they’re making (called On High in Blue Tomorrows), but Inland Empire springs to life when it goes down into the depths of narrative incoherence and black-out, as Dern becomes an actress who cannot stop living her role, and finally a spectator who can’t find her way out of the theater. From the moment she distorts her face (a mind-boggling visual) and proclaims herself a whore, Dern maintains a steady arc of tension right up to and beyond her character’s death in the movie within the movie, a scene filled with ribald humor and the most affectionate, Tennessee Williams-like compassion. Dern finally finds her way out of the funhouse, escapes from the television screen, and kisses a Polish prostitute who has been watching her film as we saw it being created. It sounds complicated, but it makes clear emotional sense, just as Mulholland Drive did.
Inland Empire is an unabashed love letter to Laura Dern, and as such it carries the weight of obsessive passion, as well as a more generalized feeling of concern for everyone on camera and off. It has such strange pleasures: Mary Steenburgen, looking uncannily like Barbara Loden in Wanda, asking shyly for a bill to be paid. A bloody screwdriver falling onto Dorothy Lamour’s Hollywood Walk of Fame star (surely it wouldn’t bother deadpan Dorothy). Harry Dean Stanton proclaiming that he’s carrying the mantle of the dead king, Clark Gable. The triumphant look in Dern’s eyes as she sits over on a couch and stares at another image of herself. Even better: an extreme close-up of Dern near the end where she seems to be staring at something strange and unheard-of and unsettling (what could Dern possibly be looking at? The inside of the Kiss Me Deadly box?) Best of all, maybe, there’s the moment when one of the street girls, safe and boastful with her companions, lifts her shirt up to expose perfectly formed breasts. It’s becoming clearer that Lynch stays childlike so that he can locate the purity in sex; he looks at the world with fresh eyes and glowing feeling, especially for the women lucky enough to be in front of his camera. If such “childishness” leads to films as ruggedly, nakedly moving and as pledged to emotional connection as Inland Empire, than let’s all be a little childish, a little indulgent, a little unguarded. This is an actresses’ triumph and a director reaching slightly past an already achieved pinnacle; it is not to be missed.