Bright Lights Film Journal

Asking the Wrong Questions: Reiteration and Doubling in David Lynch’s <em>Lost Highway, Mullholland Drive,</em> and <em>Inland Empire</em>

Reiteration and doubling, Mulholland Drive: Betty/Diane and Rita/Camilla

“Mystery is good, confusion is bad. And there’s a big difference between the two.” – David Lynch

 * * *

A survey of the critical literature pertaining to David Lynch’s dark triptych of Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Inland Empire (2006) reveals a curious fact. Overwhelmingly, both critics and theorists engage in a scramble to “explain” the films, by which I mean they attempt to make Lynch’s inherently unstable and self-contradictory narratives “make sense.”1 This is almost always effected by one of two strategies. The first makes an appeal to Freudian, Lacanian, or Žižekian psychoanalytical thought, revolving around the Real and Fantasy.2 The second appeals to the quotidian rendering of “dream” or “fantasy,” resulting in readings of Mulholland Drive that typically posit that the first two-thirds of the film (up until the puzzling sequence with the mysterious blue box, which takes place in the bedroom of Betty/Diane’s aunt) is a “dream” or “Hollywood fantasy” of Diane’s, whereas the rest of the film is real. Similar arguments have been made for Lost Highway, retroactively, since the discovery of the deciphering Rosetta Stone supposedly offered by Mulholland Drive. Pete, the argument runs, is thus Fred’s young, virile, and desired fantasy alter ego. Variations on this line of inquiry involve arguments about precisely which portions of the films are “fantasy” and which portions are “real.” Even the more obviously enigmatic Inland Empire can be approached in this way. For example, I might argue that the bulk of the film is the “Hollywood fantasy” of a nameless prostitute, or alternatively the fantasy of a former film actress, Nikki Grace, who wishes (but fails) to make a comeback.3 However, what becomes apparent in any such reading of these films is that they are mutually exclusive, and also, ultimately, logically impossible. There is always a remainder that resists explanation. No matter how hard we try to neatly separate the fantasy from the reality, to map characters onto other characters, or to arrange the sequence of events in some sort of logical series, there are always anomalies, leftovers, pieces of the puzzle that won’t fit.4 A paradigmatic example from Mulholland Drive consists in the final shot of the film, in which a blue-haired lady whispers the word “silencio” from the balcony of Club Silencio. In any “sense-making” reading of the film, this takes place after Betty/Diane’s death, so cannot be her “fantasy.” And yet the blue-haired lady belongs in the “fantasy” portion of the film, in which Rita/Camilla and Betty/Diane visit Club Silencio. The scene in Lost Highway in which Fred visits the Lost Highway Hotel and impossibly discovers Mr. Eddy (supposedly a character from Fred’s “fantasy incarnation” as Pete) having sex with Renée operates in the same way. It is impossible because Fred purportedly murdered Renée at the beginning of the film, thus sparking the “Pete and Alice fantasy,” according to the fantasy/reality school of reading the film. What this shows is that all three films remain impervious to logical, linear readings.

A fundamental principle of classical narration insists that “the chief dramatically significant questions do have answers that the text will supply […] or, the absence of an answer will be rationalised by other constituents of the narrative and narrational structures” (Wilson 40, 41. My ellipsis.). However, there is no internal rationalisation of the explanatory indeterminacy of these films. They simply resist any final reading, and this is not an accident. Rather than refine the technique of identifying who is who, which scenes fit with what, discovering when and where certain scenes take place, or making further attempts to explain and fix (to use a Jamesian terminology that seems appropriate here) the films to our satisfaction, perhaps it would be more fruitful to consider why David Lynch, who is quite capable of offering a straightforward, easily read narrative when he wants to, chooses to offer us such puzzling material.5 It is instructive to bear in mind the words of Rob Burbea here:

If one is seeking a final, intellectual understanding of “how it all works” [he is talking about “dependent arising” here] then there may be frustration. A view which comprehends the emptiness of all phenomena does not, and cannot, give an ultimately coherent explanation of the functioning of conventional reality in conceptual terms. Any such hypothetical account could only be available from views which reify at least some thing as elementary, including time. In seeking a full explanation, then, we may be missing the point of the teaching. (Burbea 374)

In other words, I propose that the “meaning” of the David Lynch “trilogy” inheres in its resistance to being conventionally understood and “made sense of.” In fact, Lynch explicitly states that his modus operandi during the making of Inland Empire was “not knowing.” He did not know what was going to happen in the story (there was no script) or how the pieces would fit together (Lynch 2006: 145). We can read Inland Empire, then, as the final part of his extended essay on bewilderment, on not knowing. In what follows I hope to show the ways in which these three films, when considered together, circle around three central issues, namely the true nature of the subject or “self”; the contingency of time; and the limitations of so-called epistemic mastery. These essentially Buddhist philosophical questions are explicitly figured through tropes of reiteration and doubling, found in all three films. Rather than discuss each film separately, the essay will explore these teasing questions sequentially, formulated simply as Who? When? and What? I posit that together they describe what amounts to a species of scepticism toward what we take to be the world, with Inland Empire finally offering a possible solution to the problem of samsaric existence.6


All three of the films in David Lynch’s increasingly dark and obscure “trilogy” deal with the knotty problem of the subject. Lynch employs two parallel strategies here. Firstly, he troubles the concept of the coherent subject by breaking one of the fundamental rules of filmmaking, namely the sanctity of the “person schema.” Simultaneously, he empties his unstable subjects of content, thus forcing us to relinquish attachment to the notion of a subject as either a coherent entity (as a particular body) or a coherent psychological “personality.”

Inland Empire: Unstable subjects (Grace Zabriskie)

With Murray Smith, we can say that as audiences we apprehend films by applying various cognitive schemata to the material with which we are presented. To understand films we need initially “the same schemata through which we understand reality” (Smith: 53). However, as we watch the film, we may revise our schemata. Each slot of a given schema is filled by a default hierarchy of likely/possible terms, beginning with the most likely/most common. We subsequently work through our list if revision needs to be made in order to make sense of the film. The fundamental (and usually inviolable) schema, upon which all others are based, is the “person schema.” As proposed by Smith, it consists of seven criteria, the first of which is “a discrete human body, individuated and continuous through time.” The last is “the potential for traits, or persisting attributes” (Smith: 21). It becomes apparent at once that Lynch breaks both of these schematic rules with his use of “doubling” in his films.

The trope of doubling first begins in Lost Highway when the highly tenuous “central character” Fred Maddison (Bill Pullman) is “reborn” as the young Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), while Fred’s murdered wife Renée (Patricia Arquette) is “reborn” as Alice (also Patricia Arquette), who subsequently dates Pete. Here we have two male actors playing what may or may not be regarded as the same person, “Fred/Pete,” and one actress playing what may or may not be two different people, “Reneé/Alice.” The confusion, and misperception, of identity is even figured diegetically. For example, at one point Pete sees a photograph that seems to show both Renée and Alice standing either side of Andy, a mutual acquaintance. Pete points to the image of Renée and asks Alice, “Is that you? Are both of them you?” In answer, Alice points to herself in the picture and says, “that’s me, baby.”7 However, this is flatly contradicted toward the end of the film. When Fred asks almost the same question of the Mystery Man, he answers cryptically: “Her name is Renée. If she told you her name was Alice she was lying.” Fred, then, finds himself bewildered at the film’s end. He has just transformed from “Pete” back into “Fred” and is confronted with his own lack of specific identity by the Mystery Man, who points his video camera at Fred and shouts, “What the fuck is your name?”8 As Fred hurtles down the “lost highway” in the final moments of the film, it is clear that this question is unanswerable, both for him and for us. The last shot of Fred at the steering wheel reveals that he is about to morph into someone else… But not only is the “discrete human body” schema compromised here; the notion of a subject with “persisting attributes” is also rejected. Fred and Pete behave in quite different ways, and the difference between Renée and Alice, as “characters,” is perhaps even more striking. Renée is drained of affect, and passive, whereas Alice is a sexualised “femme fatale.” This produces cognitive dissonance. With Gary Bettinson we can say that “spectators are here confronted with abrupt and unmotivated shifts in character behaviour. In such cases, an initial orientation [we know what “type” of people Fred and Renée are] gives way to cognitive dissonance and narrative incongruity” (Bettinson: 43). As Michel Chion argues, Lynch’s characters are fundamentally “non-psychological.” Lynch’s cinema is “not a cinema in which characters are defined by a behavioural logic corresponding to that which is most often found in real life” (Chion quoted in Bettinson & Gleyzon: 183). They have no interiority.

Lost Highway: “The face of the Mystery Man superimposed on Renée’s”

In Mulholland Drive the pattern continues. Here, we are presented with two actresses each playing a double role that may or may not in fact be one person. Naomi Watts plays both Betty the plucky would-be film star and Diane Selwyn the bitter, unsuccessful bit-player; Laura Elena Harring plays both the enigmatic amnesiac “Rita” whom Betty tries to help and Camilla Rhodes, Betty/Diane’s successful film star lover. An extra twist to this particular configuration is the addition of another Camilla Rhodes, bearing no physical resemblance to Laura Harring, who is forcibly cast as the star of a film directed by Rita/Camilla’s sometime film-director lover, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux).9 Once again, the question of interior subjectivity is positioned centrally within the film, this time more overtly. “Rita” is suffering from amnesia, due to a concussion received in the near-fatal car accident with which the film opens. “I don’t know who I am” she confides to Betty with both horror and despair. For Rita, “the lights are on, but there is nobody home” to coin a phrase. Rather than perceive this void as a point of freedom, as I suggest Nikki Grace will do in Inland Empire, for Rita it is a state of confusion and fear. She immediately grasps at the name “Rita,” picked at random from a film poster on the wall, rather than experience herself as empty. Betty colludes in the scramble to fill this horrifying void, and decides to help “Rita” discover her true identity. Lynch neatly equates such a subjectivity with the story one tells oneself of who one is. “It’ll be just like the movies, we’ll pretend to be someone else,” Betty tells Rita as they embark on their quest. Here, self is a story, nothing more. The Hollywood setting of the film, where fictive narratives are packaged as “reality,” underscores the message.

This trope is taken still further in Inland Empire, where the instability of both “fictional” and “real” subjectivities is rendered explicit, thus equating their ontological status. Here, film actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) attempts a Hollywood comeback starring as “Susan Blue” in the film-within-the-film On High in Blue Tomorrows. But this is no straightforward reflexive tale of nested narratives. Echoing Mulholland Drive, distinctions between the “real” world and the “film” world are rapidly eroded to the point where the audience becomes highly uncertain of the characters’ ontological status – as do the characters themselves. This creates a new form of doubling, this time between apparently “real subjects” (Nikki, her co-star Devon, and her husband Piotrek) and the characters they seem to play in the film (respectively, Susan, Billy, and Smithy). The distinctions between Nikki/Susan, Devon/Billy, and Piotrek/Smithy do not remain stable. As we found in Mullholland Drive, characters themselves become increasingly confused about who they are and what constitutes reality. On one occasion, while Nikki/Susan and Devon/Billy are illicitly making love on the set of Blue Tomorrows, they become confused. Devon/Billy behaves as if he is making love with “Susan,” while Nikki/Susan attempts to persuade him that she is “herself,” Nikki. To confuse the issue still further, she addresses him as his character, “Billy.” At another point, Nikki warns Devon that her suspicious husband knows of their off-screen affair. She breaks off, complaining that it sounds like dialogue from the film, only to discover that they are in fact filming Blue Tomorrows. Understandably, Nikki becomes bewildered here, echoing our own bewilderment. Nikki also takes on other identities: sometimes she is “the lady upstairs” who is engaged in some kind of confessional or therapeutic encounter with an unknown man, sometimes she is a (Polish?) prostitute. The relationship of these women to the nested film is never specified. Are they other roles that Nikki is also playing in the film, are they all instances of “Susan,” or are they completely autonomous cinematic subjects played by the same actress, that is, Laura Dern? This is a distinct possibility, because other worlds do exist in Inland Empire. There is a world peopled by man-sized rabbits who speak in non-sequiturs; there is the world of The Phantom; there is the world of the Lost Girl; there is the world of the original German film 47, of which Blue Tomorrows is supposedly the remake.10 Finally we do not know which subjects are “real” and which are “fictional.” At bottom, we don’t even know who they are.

“Other worlds do exist in Inland Empire”

All this makes it impossible to engage with the trilogy in the usual way. Our recognition of characters, usually automatic and instant (Smith: 82), is radically interrupted by Lynch’s violation(s) of the person schema, namely the “one body” rule (Smith: 21) and the rule of “persistent traits of character” (Smith: 120). This causes a certain dis-ease in the spectator. Surely “these cases can only be as troubling as they are because the assumptions they challenge are so firm and taken for granted” (Smith: 26). And this, of course, is the point. Literalised by Rita in Mulholland Drive, the trilogy asks us the unsettling question “who would you be without your story?” The answer? No one at all, because “self” is ultimately performative and narrated. We may wish to dispute this. “Here I am; things have happened to me,” we might argue. But this position can be attacked from at least two quarters: neuroscience and non-duality. Sam Harris, amongst others, argues that scientifically there is no identifiable “self,” no special part of the brain that accounts for the persistent intuition that “I” am somehow “in” my body somewhere:

There is no discrete self or ego living like a minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is – the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself – can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of “self-transcendence” are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are. (Harris 2015: 9)

In other words, the self is no more than an idea, a thought. Most humans go about with a belief in a little someone located somewhere inside them, a little controller, the internal homunculus, who does all our thinking, acting, reacting, and experiencing. He, or she, is both author and owner of all our experience. But can we find such an entity anywhere? If we look, we will find that we cannot. All that we can ever say, or think, about the self remains just that: something said or thought. There is no self, outside of thought. On this view, all we are, at best, is the chronological “sense making” version of our history, predicated on memory. But the imputed “self” arising from this activity is a mere chimera. We simply narrate ourselves into apparent being. Just as a film has no concrete narrator (Bordwell 2005), so too with the so-called self.11 Like a film, the self is an illusory text, narrated by nobody. There is no a priori narrator. Who would that be? And who could possibly be narrating the narrator’s story? This way lies infinite regress, reflexivity en abyme. In fact, it is the narration itself that we misperceive as a coherent, existing self. And with that, the Cartesian view collapses (again). Not so much “I think therefore I am” as “I think the thought ‘I am,’ therefore I think I am.”12 Lynch’s message in the trilogy, and especially in Inland Empire, thus echoes the key tenet of Buddhist thought, namely that “enlightenment consists, not in the addition of a certain transcendental attainment to an actually existing self, but rather merely in the cessation of the delusion that any kind of self exists at all” (sic. Sangharakshita: 206). For an audience witnessing the disintegration of Lynch’s characters the belief in a fixed, coherent self becomes untenable.


Above, I argued that the spectator becomes increasingly destabilised by the erosion of coherent subjectivity in Lynch’s magisterial triptych. Now, I want to suggest that the director employs tropes of paradoxical reiteration and temporal dislocation for the same purpose. Lost Highway resembles a Möbius strip, a one-sided surface created from a rectangle with two surfaces, twisted through one hundred and eighty degrees and joined at the ends. On one side is Fred, on the other Pete. Their separate surfaces become one in this hellish, endless loop from which Fred/Pete can never escape. Fred is destined forever to warn himself that “Dick Laurent is dead” via the intercom at the front entrance to his house,13 while at the same time another instance of Fred-in-the-past, located inside the house, is destined never to comprehend this message, and to repeat the cycle endlessly, making the same mistakes and ending with the same result. This constitutes a time paradox, because it is an iterative temporal loop. Self-haunting/self-doubling recurs in both Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. In Mulholland Drive “Betty” discovers what we will later realise is her own corpse in a seedy apartment, while helping “Rita” discover who she really is. And in Inland Empire Nikki haunts herself on the set of “Blue Tomorrows” in an eerily reiterated scene. In the first iteration, Nikki is rehearsing with her co-star Devon (Justin Theroux) and their director (Jeremy Irons) when they hear somebody walking about behind them, on the film set. Devon searches for the intruder but finds nobody. “They just disappeared where it’s real hard to disappear,” he remarks. In the second iteration of the scene, much later in the film, Nikki magically enters the studio from an enigmatic (and impossible) doorway in a side alley, and finds herself on the film set. Looking through the window of the set she sees herself as she was previously, a Nikki-in-the-past rehearsing with Devon and wondering who has disturbed them. Nikki also haunts herself a second time in the film. At the beginning, The Visitor (Grace Zabriskie) concludes her troubling monologue to Nikki about time and cause and effect with the remark, “if it was tomorrow, you would be sitting over there,” and gestures across the room. The camera then pans right to reveal “Nikki” hearing that she has won the part of “Susan Blue.” At the end of the film, that same shot of The Visitor gesturing across the room is reiterated, but when the camera pans this time we are not propelled into a repeating Möbius loop of Nikki being offered the part of Susan. Instead we find another instance of “Nikki” sitting demurely in a blue dress, staring back at Nikki-in-the-past. (This instance of Nikki represents her “blue tomorrow.” The ways in which she is “on high” will be discussed later.) Significantly, it is only Nikki who recognises other instances of herself-in-the-past. Fred and Betty do not. But what ought we to make of this Lynchian trope of the recurrence of recurrence?

Mulholland Drive: Discovery of the corpse

Lynch’s characters become unfixed in linear time, either falling prey to repetition, like Fred, or becoming completely dislocated from time, like Nikki. The most urgent question for the audience of these films is not “what is going on” but “when does this happen?” This is signalled clearly near the beginning of Inland Empire in a speech from The Visitor, which is worth quoting in full:

I can’t seem to remember if it’s today, two days from now, or yesterday. I suppose if it was 9.45 I’d think it was after midnight! For instance, if today is tomorrow, you wouldn’t even remember that you owed an unpaid bill. Actions do have consequences. And yet there is magic. If it was tomorrow, you would be sitting over there.

It is instructive to note that Nikki’s jealous husband Piotrek warns Devon, a famed “ladies man,” against becoming romantically involved with Nikki by echoing one of these lines early on in the film. “Actions have consequences,” he explains. This reiteration seems to point to another central tenet of Buddhist thought, the law of karma.14 This word is widely misunderstood, especially by critics writing about Lynch’s trilogy.15 It does not mean retribution, or fate, or anything like it. In the Sanscrit (academic written) language, karma simply means “action.” Karma vipaka means “the fruit of action.” It is simple cause and effect. Not retribution, but some sort of “result.” This result can be positive, neutral, or negative. For example, the karma vipaka of my dropping a pebble from my hand is that it falls to the ground due to the law of gravity; the karma vipaka of my deliberately throwing a brick through a shop window may range from experiencing a feeling of delight (or guilt) to a custodial sentence. In short, actions always have consequences of one sort or another. But this is not what the film itself seems to teach us. Rather, we are more and more frequently denied erotetic apprehension of the film, which is to say that successive shots do not pose “questions” that are subsequently “answered” in cause-and-effect fashion (Carroll: 180). Increasingly, there is no temporal order or linear succession of scenes, and it becomes very difficult to place them either in time or space. On a micro level, within a given scene in a given world, actions may seem to have consequences, and temporal logic may seem to prevail.16 However, across scenes no such logic occurs. I want to suggest that these different levels or modes of cause and effect, or karma vipaka, correspond to two different levels of experience, namely the absolute and the relative. In the relative, phenomenal world, time is experienced as linear and actions are experienced as having consequences. The two go together. “But there is magic,” The Visitor tells Nikki. This magic constitutes the absolute, the world of timeless being17 where the law of karma, of cause and effect, is suspended. On the absolute plane “A causes B, and B causes A” (Lynch in Nochimson: 180). This is why a fully realised being creates no new karma vipaka. He or she is exempt from the laws of linear time.

That Enlightened One in whom there is not that ensnaring, entangling craving to lead anywhere in conditioned existence, and whose sphere is endless, by what track will you lead him astray, the Trackless One? (Sangharakshita 2001: 66)

This is why The Visitor tells Nikki in the opening scene “if today was tomorrow you wouldn’t even remember that you owed an unpaid bill.” At the time, from the relative perspective, the words make no sense to us (or to Nikki) and seem meaningless. But from the perspective of freedom from time achieved at the moment of reiteration of this scene at the film’s conclusion, we understand the words precisely because in non-linear time such concepts are meaningless, predicated as they are on ideas of “before” and “after.” When watching Lynch’s cinema, then, we are being invited to witness the relative, linear world from the absolute perspective. “It was a risk, but I had this feeling that because everything is unified, this idea over here would somehow relate to that idea over there” (Lynch 2006: 145).

Inland Empire: “she sits demure and radiant, quite untroubled by time”

Nikki, who experiences emancipation from constructed subjective coherence and from linear time as the film progresses, becomes free. At the film’s end she sits demure and radiant, quite untroubled by time. And thus a troubling question inevitably arises: For Nikki, did any of the foregoing really happen? Has she achieved equanimity subsequent to her experience of making On High in Blue Tomorrows? This is the crux of Lynch’s message, and it consists in the final moments of the film. During the final sequence, in which various characters from the film populate Nikki’s living room, a lumberjack sawing logs (who has not yet appeared in the film) is given prominence. This either could be read as a reference to Twin Peaks (arguably Lynch’s best-known work) or it could refer to Lumberton of Lynch’s Blue Velvet. In either case, the lumberjack operates as a metafictional gesture signalling the fictionality of “Nikki’s” experience. Alternatively, or doubly, he may refer allusively to “sawing logs,” a colloquialism for sleeping/snoring.18) The lumberjack thus posits that mundane, phenomenal reality is nothing more than a dream, an illusion. Nikki sits in repose, having seen through all this in a moment of satori.19 The Visitor’s koan, consisting of two folk riddles and a paradoxical discourse on time, jolt her awake. In the words of the Dammapada “[t]hose who have known the real as real, and the unreal as unreal, they, moving in the sphere of right thought, will attain the real” (Sangharakshita 2001 15-16). The multiple subjectivities of Nikki, which constitute the film we see, may now be understood as previous existences perceived as occurring simultaneously rather than in series.20 Adyashanti describes it thus:

At the moment of awakening […] it was like moving close to a knothole in a fence – when you get your eye right up to it, you don’t see the fence any more; you see what’s on the other side.[…] And then I noticed there were all sorts of other points, and I could enter each one of those points, and each was a different world, a different time, and I was a different person, a totally different manifestation in each of those points. I could go into them and see a totally different dream of self and a totally different world that was being dreamed as well (Adyashanti: 208-9. My ellipses.)

This description seems a remarkably good fit for Nikki’s experience, especially the evocative “knothole,” which corresponds to the scene in which “Nikki” is shown how to burn a hole through a piece of cloth to stop time and to see into another world. This, then, is the sense in which Nikki is “on high” in blue tomorrows. She is in a state of grace, or transcendence, exemplifying her name, Nikki Grace.

Inland Empire: “You need to burn a hole through the silk with the cigarette, and look through the hole.”

One reason for reading Lost Highway, Mullholland Drive, and Inland Empire as a triptych is the progression of this idea across films. Fred/Pete and Betty/Diane do not fare so well as Nikki in their respective journeys through life. Fred does not escape from linear time. In fact, he is trapped in an endlessly repeating existential loop. The logically impossible Möbius-strip narrative actually describes perfectly the non-linearity of time on the absolute level, in the sense that “A causes B, and B causes A.” Does Fred warn himself first, or does he first receive the warning? Like Nikki, Fred confronts a classic chicken-and-egg situation in which cause and effect could run either way. But unlike Nikki, Fred misrecognises it. He does not heed his own warning, which is in fact a call to recognise that a linear perception of time, and the so-called self, are illusions, and so he re-enacts the endless cycle of samsaric existence, believing only that A will always cause B. “This samsāra is without discoverable beginning. A first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on, hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving,” urges the SamyuttaNikāya (Bhikku Bodhi: 652). Such is Fred/Pete’s fate in Lynch’s iterative tale.

Betty fares no better. Her desire to discover Rita’s identity/subjectivity mirrors her own desire to “be someone” in Hollywood. It is this misperception of identity as something real that can be garnered from the external world (supplied by a profession, a role, or another person) that traps her. Unlike Nikki, Betty/Diane fails to read the multiple signs of both performed subjectivity and the illusory nature of “experience” that proliferate around her. With wonderful dramatic irony, Betty is capable of saying “it’ll be just like the movies. We’ll pretend to be someone else,” without perceiving the true import of the statement. She is equally blind to the message behind various scenes in which actresses mime their “experience.” Betty/Diane watches the “second” Camilla Rhodes mime her song of plucky upbeat heartbreak when auditioning for the starring role in The Sylvia North Story (a role she will win), and again misses the message. Here, Lynch literalises the way in which performance is unproblematically taken to be the “real thing” as a matter of course. Later, when Betty and Rita visit Club Silencio, the message is reiterated en abyme. In this now-famous sequence the MC tells us “there is no band” and yet we hear (recorded) music; a trumpet player then appears, only to be shown to be miming; finally, Rebekah del Rio offers a heartbreaking, show-stopping a cappella rendition of Roy Orbison’s song “Crying” in Spanish. But her apparently strong emotion is revealed as doubly performed. Firstly, we discover that a brown tear is part of her make-up; secondly, she collapses (dies?) before the end of the song (a cinematic joke on the concept of “live” performance) but the song continues. This, too, has been mimed. “It is all an illusion” the MC tells us. Baseline “reality” has not been reached, and will never be reached from Betty’s perspective. Like Fred in Lost Highway she is destined not to read the signs, and to continue to experience the world of illusion. Thus she falls prey to mundane cause and effect that leads inexorably to sickness, old age and death.21


Above, I have explored the ways in which Lynch undermines the spectator’s understanding of what constitutes a character or subject, and his iterative presentation of time. Both of these operations defy attempts to make a “logical” reading of his films. It is now time to turn our attention to further strategies of incoherence that Lynch employs. One of the most troubling of these is his (mis)use of conventional topography. The internal geography of Fred’s house in Lost Highway is kept deliberately vague. It is never made clear to the spectator which rooms are contiguous with other rooms, and this spatial confusion is shared by characters in the film itself. The police are confused when they come to Fred’s house to investigate his claim that somebody broke in. “This is the bedroom? This is where you sleep?” they ask, doubtfully, during their inspection of the house. The absence of doors to delineate thresholds is also troubling. Instead we are offered indeterminate curtained hallways and blind corners that seem to lend credence to Fred’s frightening dream, in which, he tells Renée, “you were calling my name but I couldn’t find you.” Here is a family home in which a man can “lose” his wife. Its impossible geography defines it as a liminal, even atemporal space inhabited by both Fred-in-the-past and Fred-in-the-future.22 The Lost Highway Hotel/Andy’s house operates in a similar manner. Pete enters the house ostensibly to rob Andy, but Andy is accidentally killed. Shortly thereafter Pete suffers a nosebleed. He goes upstairs to the bathroom, only to find that the upstairs floor is in fact a hotel corridor with numbered rooms. This “impossible” location is revealed as The Lost Highway Hotel a few minutes later, when Fred visits it shortly after his transformation from Pete back into Fred. Ontologically, we cannot know the status of this location, therefore we cannot make sense of the narrative because we no longer know what schemata to apply to it.

Exterior of the “impossible” house in Lost Highway

Spatial relationships are even more indeterminate in Inland Empire. Nikki finds that an unprepossessing door in an alleyway magically leads onto the set of Blue Tomorrows, yet when she flees through this same door to avoid discovery by her former self, she finds it leads to a strange house, possibly in Poland, possibly a brothel; on another occasion “Nikki” enters another battered street door and finds herself, in media res, suddenly taking part in a scene from the hypodiegetic film; a door seems to connect the Rabbit Room to the world of The Phantom, but this is not always the case. Space, it seems, is not to be relied upon. With this move, Lynch deliberately denies us knowledge or mastery of the text. It is simply not possible to “make sense” of the relationships (if any) between these worlds, and so the spectator is left in the uncomfortable, but fruitful, position of not-knowing.

Inland Empire: “Nikki finds that an unprepossessing door in an alleyway”

When presented with texts that consistently resist our attempts to fix their final meaning, what becomes apparent is our desire to make sense of them. That these three films have a long history of “explanatory” critical commentaries of the psychoanalytical and “sense making” sort clearly attests to this. It seems that we resort to these sense-making strategies to assuage our uneasiness at being confronted by discontinuous, indeterminate texts. We do not like contradictory readings to co-exist, but logic cannot be forced to prevail here. It does not all fit together neatly. We remain bewildered. I say this not to contradict particular readings of the films that have been previously advanced – for example, the contention that the first two-thirds of Mulholland Drive is a fantasy and the last third is real, or the view that the first part of Lost Highway is real and the second part is a fantasy that collapses in on itself (or even the other way around). The point is that we are forced into such readings out of a desire to make sense of the texts, and this is problematic.23 I would go further and suggest that such readings actually face us in the wrong direction. We begin to ask the wrong questions and fall in danger of obscuring the central argument of the films. The prevailing logic of sense-making readings of this sort contends that in Lost Highway either Fred is real or Pete is real. But not both. The character played by Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive is either Diane or Betty. But not both. The problem arises because we are stuck in a binary mode of thinking, despite Lynch’s pervasive use of the trope of double imaging throughout the films to warn against such a reading. Betty, in her “fantasy,” impossibly discovers her own dead body in her apartment. Whose fantasy could this possibly be? The film itself signals this impossibility by double imaging both Betty/Diane and Rita/Camilla on the screen at the conclusion of this scene. However, what is most interesting is the desire of both spectator and critic to cling to this binary fantasy/reality reading of the film in an attempt to make sense of it, long after it has become logically untenable and signalled as such by the film. We want epistemic mastery at any price. Ironically, our desire to render Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway intelligible by way of a binary fantasy/reality model is itself an expression of deluded, divided consciousness in action.

Buddhism posits that delusion, or ignorance (avidyā), is caused by a divided consciousness (vijñana). This is ordinary awareness as most humans experience it. It is the world of opposites, of here and there, of this and that, of self and other, of identity and non-identity. Wisdom (vidyā) is gained through jñāna, which is non-divided consciousness.24 It is a wisdom that transcends time and space, self and other; it is actually the transcendence of all such oppositions. The scene in Mulholland Drive in which Betty discovers her dead “self,” and the double images with which it concludes, really points to a new kind of reading. Not a fact/fantasy dichotomy of whatever stripe, but a plurality of possibilities that force us to relinquish a particular definitive reading. Our very desire to make sense of the film in a logical manner forces us to overlook that Diane and Betty are both “real,” or equally “unreal.” The trope of doubling and of emptying characters of apparent subjectivity is the real content of all three films. We can’t choose between Betty and Diane, ontologically. Likewise, who is more real in Lost Highway, Fred or Pete? And which instance of Nikki/Susan is the “real” one in Inland Empire?

With Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, it seems that both spectator and critic are destined to act out the very misrecognition that befalls the films’ protagonists (argued above), forcing us into our own reiterative loop of re-viewing and attempted sense making of the films. On this view, such readings represent a desperate attempt to gain epistemic mastery by way of binary thinking, and thus retain our (imputed) identity. Is this not why we are so disturbed by the story of Camilla’s impossible, interrupted (and ultimately failed) search for identity in the first part of Mulholland Drive? With Ronie Parciack we can say “the journey of Rita/Camilla is in fact an attempt to explore the way in which one fails to constitute an identity within a world in which a phenomenal identity is impossible” (Parciack: 85-86). And this, surely, is a reiteration of Fred’s failed attempt to do the same in Lost Highway, when he fails to answer the Mystery Man’s question “what the fuck is your name?” But with Inland Empire Lynch takes us a step further. Not only is the subject well and truly deconstructed here, but Lynch refuses us the simple option of either/or thinking with the introduction of many more worlds and levels of being. If we attempt to think our way to an understanding of Inland Empire we get “confused” because there are too many logical impossibilities, and much too much that does not fit. The film resists this type of meaning making much more easily than its two predecessors. We cannot think our way through it. It is beyond the rational, even beyond the metaphorical. Esoteric “knowledge” (jñāna/prajñā) simply has to be accepted, as Nikki accepts it. We will never make rational sense of such knowledge – it is itself full of apparent paradox, like The Visitor’s baffling discourse on time. In this triptych of perplexing films, Lynch is exercising scepticism (what do we know of the world? How can we know the world?) to shake us out of our addiction to epistemic mastery and into wisdom (vidyā) by way of “not-knowing.” If we open up to the message behind the paradoxes, we discover the mystery of who/what we really are, which is, as Nikki discovers, timeless being. As Lynch himself remarks, “[m]ystery is good, confusion is bad, and there’s a big difference between the two” (Lynch in Rodley: 227).

Works Cited

Adyashanti (2008), The End of Your World: Uncensored Straight Talk on the Nature of Enlightenment, Boulder CO: Sounds True.

Burbea, Rob (2014), Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising, Ogwell: Hermes Amara Publications.

Beckman, Frida (2012), “From Irony to Narrative Crisis: Reconsidering the Femme Fatale in the Films of David Lynch,” Cinema Journal 52:1 (fall), pp. 25-44.

Bettinson, Gary (2010), “Eraserhead: Comprehension, Complexity and the Midnight Movie,” in Gleyzon, pp. 40-57.

Bettinson, Gary & Francois-Xavier Gleyzon, (2010), “David Lynch and the Cinema d’Auteur: A Conversation with Michel Chion, in Gleyzon, pp. 182-187.

Bodhi, Bikhu (trans.), (2000), The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Boston: Wisdom Books.

Bordwell, David (2005), “Principles of Film Narration,” in T. Wartenburg and A. Curran (eds.), The Philosophy of Film, Carlton, Maldsen, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 183-189.

Carrol, Noel (1988), Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Gleyzon, Francois-Xavier (ed), David Lynch in Theory, Prague: Literaria Pragenzia Books, pp. 40-57

Hainge, Greg (2010), “Red Velvet: Lynch’s Cinemat(ograph)ic Ontology,” in Gleyzon, pp. 24-39.

Harris, Sam (2015), Waking Up: Searching for Spirituality Without Religion, London: Black Swan.

Jerslev. Anne (2012),The Post Perspectival: Screens and Time in David Lynch’s Inland Empire,” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 4 (no pagination).

Lim, Dennis (2007), “David Lynch Goes Digital,” slate.

Lovat, Simon (2017), “Whose Life Is It Anyway? Practice-based Research into Performed Fictional-Autobiography and the Paradox of Fiction,”

Lynch, David (2006), Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity, New York: Penguin.

McGowan, Todd (2010), “The Materiality of Fantasy: The Encounter with Something in Inland Empire” in Gleyzon, pp. 8-23.

McGowan, Todd (2000), “Finding Ourselves on a Lost Highway: David Lynch’s Lesson in Fantasy,” Cinema Journal 39:2 (Winter), pp. 51-73.

Nochimson, Martha P. (2013), David Lynch Swerves – Uncertainty from Lost Highway to Inland Empire, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Parciack, Ronie (2011), “The World as Illusion: Rediscovering Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway Through Indian Philosophy,” in Devlin W. J and Biderman S. (eds.), The Philosophy of David Lynch, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, pp. 85-86.

Rodley, Chris (1997), (ed.), Lynch on Lynch, London and Boston:.Faber & Faber.

Samarzija, Zoran, “ Auteurship in the Age of the Internet & Digital Cinema,”

Sangharakshita, Urgen (2000), A Survey of Buddhism: Its Doctrines and Methods Through the Ages, (9th ed.), Birmingham: Windhorse Publications.

Sangharakshita, Urgen (Trans), (2001), Dammapada: The Way of Truth (anon.), Birmingham: Windhorse Publications.

Smith, Murray (1995), Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion and the Cinema, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Thain, Alanna (2010), “Rabbits Ears: Locomotion in Lynch’s Inland Empire,” in Gleyzon, pp. 86-101.

Wilson, George M. (1986), Narration in Light: Studies in Cinematic Point of View, Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Žižek, Slavoj (2000), The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Seattle: University of Washington Press.

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Note: Images are screenshots from the films.

  1. There are some notable exceptions to this rule. Martha Nochimson, Ronie Parciack, Freda Beckman, and Greg Hainge all allow for indeterminacy in their discussions of these films. Nochimson appeals to the uncertainty of quantum theory. For her, “there is no reason to believe that either part of the film is more real than the other” (Nochimson: 115). For Hainge, Mulholland Drive cannot be forced to be read as a narrative, even across cuts, or shot-reverse-shot sequences, as we seem to jump time or location at random (Hainge: 31-32). []
  2. Žižek seeks to cover all bases, arguing of Lost Highway that “the final conclusion to be drawn is that “Reality,” and the experience of its density, is sustained not simply by a/one fantasy, but by an inconsistent multitude of fantasies” (Žižek: 41). []
  3. Zoran Samarjisa makes a similar argument. On the other hand, Todd McGowan argues that the “Lost Girl” represents the baseline reality, and that the film constitutes her fantasy (McGowan 2010: 8-9). However, this is not logically possible as the Lost Girl herself appears on a TV screen at one point, thus becoming a part of the diegesis. []
  4. For cognitivist theorists, the pleasure in “puzzle films” (which represent an extreme form of Noel Carroll’s question/answer erotetic narrative model) lies in the attempt to process the puzzle. Such films “often seem to intentionally thwart cognitive closure,” which may prompt the spectator to review the film so that s/he can “explore alternative hypotheses or to unravel how the puzzles work.” (See Sinnerbrink: 53. Here he is paraphrasing Jane Stadler.) Anne Jerslev argues that Mulholland Drive “takes place in a split second in the twisted mind of a strange woman” and that “a fairly coherent story emerges once the riddle of the temporal structure has been solved.” (Jerslev n.p.) She argues that Inland Empire can be read the same way. Warren Buckland’s “Making Sense of Lost Highway” in Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) is an emblematic title of this “sense making” school of scholarship. It exemplifies the persistent critical drive/urge to make sense of Lynch, and render his films cognitively explicable. []
  5. Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man, and The Straight Story are all conventional linear narratives. []
  6. Samsāra is the Buddhist term for phenomenal, mundane existence, which is regarded as painful and cyclic. Its opposing term is Nirvana, which is the state of transcendental, unconditioned awakening, free from desire, ill will, and delusion. To attain Nirvana is to escape the painful cycle of “rebirth” into deluded, samsaric existence. []
  7. To add to this destabilising motif, Alice calls Pete “Fred” shortly thereafter, while they are planning their escape from Andy’s house. Pete corrects her. []
  8. Confusion of identity is figured right from the start. Fred explains to Renée that he had a nightmare: “You were calling my name, but I couldn’t find you. There you were in bed, but it wasn’t you. It looked like you but it wasn’t you.” At the conclusion of this scene, we see the face of the Mystery Man superimposed on Renée’s. []
  9. Further doubling is apparent in the film. The owner of the seedy hotel in which Adam Kesher hides when pursued by angry film “mafiosi” is played by the same actor who plays the MC at Club Silencio. Both these characters exist in the “Rita and Betty” portion of the film, thus troubling a simple reality/fantasy reading of Lynch’s doubling. Cinematically speaking, Rita/Camilla’s limousine doubles shortly before the crash that opens the film; the screen images of Rita and Betty multiply at the moment when they discover Betty/Diane’s corpse in the apartment; and multiple images of Betty/Diane occur on screen after she shoots herself. []
  10. This has prompted several critics to speak of Inland Empire in terms of the internet and hypertextual links. For example, see Jerslev, Lim, and Samarjiza. []
  11. For Bordwell “all materials of cinema function narrationally – not only the camera but speech, gesture, written language, music, colour, optical processes, lighting, costume, even off-screen space and off-screen sound” (Bordwell 2005: 20). Narration arises. There is no entity that narrates. []
  12. For an extended argument on this subject, see Lovat 2017. []
  13. This scene takes place at the beginning of the film. The identity of the caller is not disclosed at this stage. It is only when Fred goes back home at the film’s end to “warn” himself that we realise that the voice Fred heard on the intercom was his own. []
  14. Not to be confused with kāma (Pali and Sanscrit), which means “sensuous pleasure.” []
  15. Martha Nochimson, although sympathetic to the potential for an Indo-Tibetan or Vedic reading of Inland Empire, unfortunately refers to karma as retribution. She states that “[w]hen we reject enlightenment we reap the wild wind of punishment for inhuman behaviour” (25). This is wholly inaccurate, and thus rather skews her argument. She also speaks of “omnipresent evil,” a concept alien to Buddhism. []
  16. The exception is the rabbit sequences. The rabbits speak in non-sequiturs that could be spoken in any order, interspersed with arbitrary canned laughter. There is no logic to these scenes, and they seem to have little or no bearing on the rest of the film. []
  17. David Lynch calls this the “unified field.” See Lynch’s Catching The Big Fish. []
  18. Alanna Thain also notices this potential verbal allusion, but does not elaborate. (Thain, note 12: 90. []
  19. Satori is the Zen term for profound, and often instant, insight gained from the contemplation of an apparently paradoxical spiritual riddle known as a koan. []
  20. In Buddhist philosophy, when an individual fully awakens all previous existences are perceived. []
  21. This is the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The first truth being that existence always involves dukkha, which means (some form of) suffering. []
  22. In an early scene, the fire seems to cast two discrete shadows of Fred as he passes unseen across the room. []
  23. Frida Beckman makes a similar point. See Beckman p. 31. []
  24. Jñāna and prajñā can be considered as synonyms for vidyā in this context. []