I rewatched Inland Empire recently and was surprised to find that it wasn’t as confusing as I initially thought. I hadn’t watched it in probably eight years, but I remember my initial reaction: this is nonsense.
I loved Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, so I was no stranger to Lynch’s style and bizarre narrative structures. But it seemed that the abstraction jumped up a notch too far to be comprehensible in Inland Empire.
***Spoiler Warning: I give some of my interpretation of the movie. Obviously, no one really knows what it’s about, so this shouldn’t be a big deal even if you haven’t seen it.***
Fourth Wall Breaking
This time through I noticed something interesting; the viewer isn’t left to figure it all out on their own.
A lot of clues are given in the form of partial fourth wall breaking. If you’ll recall, breaking the fourth wall means talking directly to the audience.
Think Annie Hall, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or Fight Club.
It lets the audience in on something the main character is up to that the other characters don’t know, sometimes to humorous effect, sometimes not.
A lot of people don’t like this technique, because it is so jarring. It pulls you out of the movie. If the information is vital rather than humorous, it can seem like laziness or cheating for the writer to not work at getting the information to you in a more subtle way.
Here’s where David Lynch’s technique comes in. I propose that Lynch uses a partial breaking of the fourth wall.
He makes his characters speak to the audience directly, but the words are part of a normal(ish) conversation. If you aren’t paying attention, you’ll think two or more characters are speaking to each other.
Instead, they are speaking to the audience to clue them into what is happening or about to happen.
This technique has been around forever. Robert M. Fowler presents a convincing argument in Let the Reader Understand: Reader-Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark that the Gospel of Mark uses this technique.
We obvious have no idea what Jesus actually said, so the writer of Mark used conversations with Jesus to speak over the heads of the disciples and directly to the reader.
For example, when he says, “Take up your cross …” the disciples couldn’t possibly know what that meant because he hadn’t been crucified yet! These words are meant for the reader who already knows the full story.
Anyway, enough on that digression (more Biblical analysis here if you’re interested).
Lynch in Inland Empire
The technique has been around forever. Here’s how I think Lynch uses it.
One way to tell is when conversations stop making sense and don’t sound like any sort of conversation normal people would have.
Ask yourself: if the character is speaking to me about the movie they are in, does that line make sense?
But then I noticed a certain camera technique went hand-in-hand with these bizarre conversations. Lynch uses extreme close-up during such moments.
The character doesn’t look directly at the camera like in a normal fourth wall breaking moment, but it is darn close. He keeps it so that it looks like they are in conversation, but really the character is probably speaking directly to you.
I’ll explain using an example from the first scene where this happens. One of the first scenes in the movie is of Grace Zabriskie’s character visiting Laura Dern’s character(s).
She claims to have moved down the street and is getting to know the neighbors. The conversation starts off with normal camera angles and mundane things (I like to get to know my neighbors, which house are you living in, etc).
At some point, things go weird. Arguably, when the new neighbor says, “It’s difficult to see it from the road,” (in reference to her house) she is already speaking to the audience.
She is preparing us to interpret these close-ups. We should interpret this sentence as: It is difficult to see what the movie is about from the far shots of the camera, but if you pay attention to the close-ups things will be clearer.
The next part of the conversation pulls in to an extreme close-up of the face of the neighbor (but note that Laura’s stays at a normal head shot). She says things like
I hear you have a new role to play.
She’s telling the audience that Laura’s character will be playing a role in the movie you are watching (we learn this later by a different means) even though it sounds natural enough that she might be referring to the fact that Laura’s character is an actress.
The True Meaning of Inland Empire
The weird stuff then starts appearing.
Your husband. He’s involved.
Laura interprets this as a question and says, “No.”
Her confusion comes from the fact that those words were not directed at her but to the audience. Her husband is involved in the true plot to the movie.
Grace’s character is so close to looking at the camera in these moments that it is hard not to see it as breaking the fourth wall. Both character’s faces turn directly towards the camera, but their eyes stay ever so slightly away.
The neighbor goes on:
Is there a murder in your film?
Laura gets confused again, “No.”
The neighbor changes it to a statement.
No? I think you are wrong about that.
We, as the audience, are being told that Inland Empire is about a murder. In fact, we were told the husband is involved and were told a story about infidelity.
Putting the pieces together we have been directly told that the key to unlocking the movie: Laura’s character cheats on her husband and is then murdered by him.
If you watch the film with this in mind, everything starts to make more sense. Pay attention to when there are extreme close-ups, so you know that you are being told vital information through a partial fourth wall breaking technique. Good luck.
Watch the scene here:
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