‘Evoking it in a mere review is a doomed enterprise’: Inland Empire reviewed in 2007

As David Lynch’s Inland Empire returns to cinemas this week with a 4K remastered picture and soundtrack, we look back at our original rave review of the film from our April 2007 issue.

Laura Dern and Justin Theroux in Inland Empire (2006)
Laura Dern and Justin Theroux in Inland Empire (2006)Courtesy of StudioCanal

Whether or not such a thing as ‘pure cinema’ exists is an argument that will never cease – can movies attain essential ‘movieness’ by way of pure visual effect, associative or imagistic, without depending on the remnants of theatre and literature, namely language, character or drama? Should they? Can we separate form from content, or is form the content? Or should content be an integral factor in form? Is such a thing possible? Is Stan Brakhage ‘pure’ (or just ‘abstract’?), and if so, what does that mean? Does ‘pure’ simply indicate a lack of coherent material (‘material’? What’s that?) and a surrender to impressions and subliminals, if not outright de-significance?

Over the years, critics have attached the ‘pure’ bumper sticker to everyone from Andrei Tarkovsky to Brian De Palma. But David Lynch’s Inland Empire makes the argument new again: here is an undiluted, madcap splooge of purest grade-A cinema from our greatest and most uncompromising sui generiste, three aggressively nutsy hours long and so furiously self-involved, so hermetically sealed yet explosive and fascinating, so purely a movie and nothing else, that roping it into any category with other movies seems a dubious labour. Evoking it in a mere review is, in fact, a doomed enterprise; Lynch seems to have constructed the film deliberately to evade the butterfly nets of critical response altogether. If that’s not ‘pure’, what is?

The arguments are still raging in the US about whether or not Lynch’s uncompromising and demanding act of movie-movie defiance was the best American film of 2006 (it has, in any case, little significant competition). Which is to say, Lynch has finally and irrevocably wagon-trained deep into farthest Lynchistan without a map, and we can’t expect to see him return to civilisation any time soon. 

Trapped in its own bell jar, Inland Empire – taking its title from the Southern California region not because it’s set there, but simply because Lynch liked the name – summons the likes of Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965) in its allusive structure and suggestions of a fracturing female psyche, but only because the movie behaves like a narrative deprivation tank, forcing you to scramble for corollaries. There are no visible marks of influence, homage or even traditional psychology. It’s one of the rare films that teaches you – obliquely – how to watch it.

In a real sense, Lynch’s devotion to primitive digital video reflects his disregard for diegetic cohesion – the uglier and more fractured the film is, the more Lynch regards it as peculiarly beautiful and, vitally, exuding its own logic. It’s difficult to deny, after seeing it, that he has a point. Certainly, often the sense of Inland Empire, as it jaggedly leaps from absurdist non sequitur to psychodramatic set-up to lurching creep-out, is that there’s no orthodox there, just dreams within dreams within movies within nightmares.

Laura Dern in Inland Empire (2006)
Laura Dern in Inland Empire (2006)Courtesy of Studio Canal

Laura Dern, stretched on the rack of being a crazy auteur’s favourite go-to girl (a scouringly fearless performance, or performances), shows up in a variety of personae; it’s symptomatic of Lynch’s sensibility that we’re never sure how many. Several could be contained within the movies-within-the-movie, or not, or both – as a roomful of prostitutes dance to ‘The Loco-Motion’, other figures float stories and notions of murder, movie sets open on to real homes and mysterious neighbourhoods, interviews are held with no clear purpose, and so spectacularly on.

Inland Empire is a cataract of anxiety, Lynch’s semi-conscious menagerie unleashed. Think of it as an epic version of the Radiator scenes from Eraserhead, or the Tower Theatre scene in Mulholland Dr., without those films’ already semi-conscious contexts. Even so, reading the film’s formal explosions as purely psychoanalytic – as the mental storms of a single character, in Lynch’s words, “a woman in trouble” – seems crashingly reductive, given its visual assault and, most importantly, the torque of it as an experience. 

Truly, the movie shares DNA not with traditional narrative cinema but with the legacy of confrontational underground montage (plus an injection of Lynchian frisson) exemplified by Kenneth Anger (another LA mythologiser), Jack Smith, Gregory Markopoulos and Abigail Child. Endurance of the film’s length is pivotal: the free-associative chaos becomes its own context, and as a viewer you’re living in a rule-free cinematic space, where film is merely another form of consciousness, not an alternate reality you can forget as you occupy it. 

Indeed, Lynch has tended to characterise the film as an ‘experience’ you have, not an entertainment product you consume, and though he would never dream of being programmatic, Inland Empire is a close cousin of Artaud’s concept of a Theatre of Cruelty, intended to unravel complacent expectations and create a cathartic crisis in the very fact of spectatorship.

Or Lynch was just having fun with the new and inexpensive technology (he shot the film on an outmoded, five-year-old PD150 digital camera), without the Hollywood overhead. Either way, the surest way to find disappointment in Lynch’s Byzantine, exhaustive howl is to hunt for codes and readings, while ignoring the sensual textures of life in the under lit corridors of his imaginary space. 

The familiar distance and omniscience of ordinary filmgoing are simply not factors in this hectic equation. From its very first, far-too-intimate close-up of Grace Zabriskie’s Polish-accented gargoyle, Inland Empire appears to be a film that exists for itself and for its maker, not necessarily for us. Of course, you could say as much about any incoherent, gone-amok gout of cinematic self-indulgence, which is another way of saying ‘pure’ – but for Lynch’s movie, it’s the crucial truth.

Inland Empire returns to UK cinemas 26 May.