In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for Inland Empire, we talk about themes that help us understand the film.
- Laura Dern – Nikki Grace / Sue Blue
- Jeremy Irons – Kingsley Stewart
- Justin Theroux – Devon Berk / Billy Side
- Harry Dean Stanton – Freddie Howard
- Julia Ormond – Doris Side
- Diane Ladd – Marilyn Levens
- Peter J. Lucas – Piotrek Krol / Smithy
- Grace Zabriskie – Visitor #1
- Mary Steenburgen – Visitor #2
- Karolina Gruszka – Lost Girl
- Krzysztof Majchrzak – Phantom
- Ian Abercrombie – Henry, The Butler
- Nae – Street Woman
- Terry Crews – Street Man
- David Lynch – Writer and director
The themes and meaning of Inland Empire
Our changing perception of cinema
It would undoubtedly prove fruitless to examine the narrative structure of Inland Empire from a linear perspective. Anybody—which includes myself—who ran to the internet to search “inland empire explained” after watching Lynch’s 180-minute low-res epic is undoubtedly searching for simple answers that pertain to traditional narrative structures. But if you know Lynch, then you know there are no simple answers. And particularly in the case of Inland Empire, the narrative is not laid out in the traditional, linear format to which we’ve become so accustomed. While this might make Inland Empire seem intimidating, I would argue it’s actually quite liberating. Our understanding of Inland Empire does not require us to understand the chaotic spatiotemporal landscape of Lynch’s experimentation, but instead to look within, to observe the audience’s relationship with movies, to contemplate cinema’s changing complexion in a world where digital has overtaken celluloid.
It’s no secret that Lynch shot Inland Empire on a PD-150, an outdated low-end digital camera that doesn’t even run at 24p—a mode which was designed to deliver an image that looks somewhat like film, as opposed to Inland Empire‘s unmistakable home video aesthetic. As Amy Taubin aptly writes in her essay, “The visuals in Inland Empire look as if they’re decomposing before your eyes, as if any minute they are going to disappear into a void, and the extreme lighting adds to the effect of the film’s porous borders.”
This is our first and most overwhelming clue as to why we cannot approach Inland Empire like we approach traditional linear films from Hollywood: Lynch’s movie actively engages an aesthetic that rests outside our comfortable perception of cinema. Inland Empire was shot on a low-res camera and transferred to a 35mm, which, as Jodi Brooks writes in her essay, “troubles our sense of detail, image and screen scale.” The image presented in Inland Empire is, inherently, an image we’re not used to. From the word go, the very visual makeup of Inland Empire challenges our traditional notions of what cinema is and how we relate to it and understand it.
Lynch embellishes that aesthetic through Nikki’s story, which sends Dern down several twists and turns that seemingly share no narrative connections in the traditional linear sense. As an audience, we do not observe a discernible narrative thread that can be easily blueprinted, but instead an amalgamation of personalities that visually captures the chaotic mental landscape of human beings—all the anxieties and pleasures and fears and wonders that accompany the everyday. The home video aesthetic intimately intertwines the viewer with this woman’s misery, with this woman’s inevitable catharsis.
Lynch’s entire approach inherently initiates discomfort: we begin the movie with the purpose of active engagement, only to find that Lynch’s aesthetic requires us to transcend our traditional understanding of cinematic narratives in order to fathom this woman’s harrowing journey. It’s comfortable being an omniscient viewer who relies on accepted narrative rules—but the second a movie drifts outside that comfort zone and forces us to intimately engage with the character, our sense of direction is immediately thrown. Instead, we are asked to simply be part of the movie and confront that the complicated nature of the human psyche can (and perhaps should) be illustrated through means beyond our traditional understandings.
Lynch himself claimed he chose the PD-150 camera as a means of replicating the look of Old Hollywood films. Which creates inherent tension, as old movies were shot on film stock, a notably unreliable format that is subject to deterioration with time—unlike digital, which can ostensibly last forever due to its immateriality. While a majority of film reels have remained intact, they have developed unmistakable blemishes—while many others have been lost to time completely. Which means that Lynch chose a seemingly indestructible format (digital) to replicate an undeniably precarious format (celluloid). Brooks argues that this very conscious decision illustrates Lynch’s idea of cinema: “In many respects what anchors (Inland Empire), what gives it a centre around and through which it fractures, loops, and dissipates, is precisely the idea of cinema that it summons—an idea of cinema that crucially involves ideas of scale and an experience of disappearance.”
This entire idea gains texture and becomes meta when Kingsley, the director of On High in Blue Tomorrow, reveals to Nikki and Devon that their movie is a remake. And not just a remake, but a remake of a movie that was never finished. “Well, after the characters had been filming for some time, they discovered something in—something inside—inside the story,” Kingsley says. “The two leads were murdered. It was based on a Polish Gypsy folktale. The title in German was Vier Sieben—Four Seven. And it was said to be cursed. So it turned out to be.”
This further contributes to the aura of disappearing film, that movies can exist one moment and be gone the next. It’s not just the movies themselves we lose, but the people within those films—the characters, the actors who portray those characters. This especially relates to Dern’s array of characters, who slip in and out of each other at whim. Much like our relationship with these characters, Dern herself is constantly losing the character she previously inhabited. Only to, once shooting was completed, to become herself again. But do the characters ever truly leave? Doesn’t she continue to hold pieces of them inside herself? And doesn’t the viewer’s relationship with those characters continue? Despite whatever happens to the original footage?
In this way, you can think of Inland Empire less as a traditional story from which we enjoy some comfortable distance and more as a physical confrontation; a psychological labyrinth that challenges our very notion of cinema and our relation to it. There are both no connections and seemingly endless connections between all the characters played by Dern. From one second to the next, Nikki disappears and becomes Sue, who disappears and becomes whatever unrecognizable entity awaits. Just as Nikki is unaware of herself, we are unaware of her self—precisely in line with Lynch’s aesthetic.
Dern’s characters represent the complicated makeup of not only the human soul, but how we observe the human soul. Art blossoms our understanding of humanity through story and character, and cinema has perhaps allowed that art to flourish like never before—but the structure of those stories can evolve just like the very nature of cinema can evolve. From celluloid to digital and back again, Lynch crafted an aesthetic with Inland Empire that, I must stress again, is liberating. We are not asked to explain and understand Inland Empire, but to experience it as we experience our own lives.
The scattered fragments of our selves
Stemming directly from the above discussion is another dominant theme: the fragments of our very beings. In a conversation with Kyle MacLachlan in the special features of Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of Inland Empire, Dern spoke of her trying experience to understand Lynch’s approach to her character(s). “I understood who each woman was and I understood what her pain may be about,” Dern said, “but not necessarily how I got there or where I would go next.” Dern accepted that path as an actress because she knew that experience would be replicated with the audience: “David wanted me in the same position at the audience, which is: We don’t know what’s unfolding. We don’t know the miracle of one thing a person’s going to tell you who’s a stranger in your life and how it may impact the rest of your life.”
In addition to challenging the viewer’s perception of cinematic narratives and exploring our relationship with film, I believe Lynch also crafted a very straightforward character study of a woman. After all, when Dern asked Lynch (a director notable for never explaining his movies) if he could tell her anything about her character, he simply said, “She’s a woman in trouble.” That was enough for Dern to recognize what Inland Empire was truly about:
I really understood that. That’s all I needed to know. It scared me even more that she didn’t know (what was happening to her). And in a way, the performative aspect of multiple characters, the woman inside the woman inside the woman, is: Whose fantasy is it? Is the actress playing this broken homeless woman in trouble? Or is this woman in trouble dreaming of these different lives? And that was awe inspiring. And so that put me on my own internal journey so I could discover it for me.
Essentially, Lynch asks us to understand the psychological makeup of Dern’s character without worrying about spatiotemporal relations. “I understood who each woman was and I understood what her pain may be about,” Dern told MacLachlan, “but not necessarily how I got there or where I would go next.” Because, in the end, does it matter if we know which characters are real and which aren’t? Which are full-fledged beings and which are symbolic representations of the human psyche? At the end of the day, they’re all real, as all these characters played by Dern are simply pieces of a larger whole. We’re never just a single person, but an amalgamation of personalities that shift and evolve and alter as we move from place to place, person to person.
Anybody can recognize this journey in themselves, as we constantly vacillate between the people we’d like to be and the people we’re pressured to be and the people we’re afraid to become. Really, Nikki’s journey is no different than Nina’s journey from White Swan to Black Swan in Black Swan, other than Darren Aronofsky chose a traditional character narrative for Nina and Lynch chose an experimental approach for Nikki. Those two characters go through similar variations and rhythms, with the only difference being the structure and format.
When viewed from this perspective, the movie becomes much less intimidating. There is no need to explain how characters get from one place to the next. Instead, as Dern says, you simply understand each woman and what her pain is about.
And there is crucial information that links all that pain together. One woman is an aging actress and hoping to make a comeback. Another woman is scared of her husband’s controlling nature. Another was hardened by the men who physically and mentally abused her over the years. Another is stricken with grief over losing her son. Another is a prostitute. Another is homeless. Another is stabbed with a screwdriver. Another is irrevocably lonely (actually, that last one applies to all the characters). All these stories serve as representations of the crevices and spaces of the human psyche we don’t actively acknowledge, yet cannot deny.
Lynch chose a perfect aesthetic for this exploration, as the meta narrative of Inland Empire forces the very star of the film, Laura Dern, to inhabit those scary spaces that hover in the periphery. “It took me to the edge of my own darkness,” Dern told MacLachlan. “The fact that I didn’t know why I was there at times was that much more terrifying. Losing my sense of self. Acting out something behavioral. There was terror in the spaces.”
That, to me, is the most inspirational part of Inland Empire: the confrontation of those spaces. Readily accepting terror into our lives because denying that the terror exists in the first place is a lie we tell ourselves to feel more comfortable. But, inevitably, as life beckons and commands our selves, we find ourselves in those scary spaces. And while it’s scary, those are the moments we change and evolve for the better. That’s why the end of the film feels so celebratory: Dern finished the movie. She came out the other side of such a trying experience with a smile on her face. There’s such liberation in confronting our fragmented selves.
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