Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Inland Empire & The Story of Marie and Julien (Lynch/Rivette #7)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Inland Empire & The Story of Marie and Julien (Lynch/Rivette #7)


This is the seventh and final entry in a series covering the Lynch/Rivette retrospective at Lincoln Center, running from December 10 - 22. I attended a double feature of Inland Empire (2006) and The Story of Marie and Julien (2003) on the evening of Sunday, December 20. This review contains spoilers for both films.

The double feature will repeat, at 4:00pm on Tuesday, December 22, the final day of the retrospective.

Throughout the David Lynch/Jacques Rivette series we have seen characters blur together and switch places, sometimes literally - replacing one another through a miracle of space and time - but often more subtly, as they shift positions of power, experience each other's thoughts and feelings, or enter a mutual dream space. How appropriate that this final double feature rotates the directors themselves into one another's territory even if the changeover is far from complete. Inland Empire still feels Lynchian and The Story of Marie and Julien still feels Rivettian. But in significant ways, the two filmmakers evoke each other's fascinations, a quality especially true of Inland Empire. Fascinated by the rehearsal process and the loss of identity inside an intense psychodrama, depicting a fluidity between worlds that go anywhere at any moment, and shot as experimentally as any Rivette film (Lynch invented random scenes the day of the shoot) Inland Empire feels like a mash-up between the psychological/aesthetic intensity of L'Amour Fou and the crosscutting narrative freedom of Celine and Julie Go Boating.

The Story of Marie and Julien does not evoke Lynch as overtly as Inland Empire evokes Rivette (although someone did describe the film to me as "Lynchian" before I saw it). However, there is an uncanny stillness and slowness to Rivette's work in Marie and Julien that recalls Lynch's touch, especially in early works like Twin Peaks that sought a mood of meditation - and occasional frustration - by drawing out moments as long as possible. Marie and Julien also falls more readily into a genre than most of Rivette's work (all the better to subvert, my dear), recontextualizing a romantic ghost story just as Lynch recontextualized the road movie, film noir, or TV soap opera. Finally, perhaps most importantly, no Rivette film holds as much stock in the ability of faith and love to achieve the miraculous. Although Lynch himself drifted away from this viewpoint in the previous two selections (the fatalist Lost Highway and tragic Mulholland Drive), Inland Empire fully returns to the transcendence of his earlier films, even more full-throated in its lack of ambiguous irony or bittersweet resignation. For the final night of a series that has probably highlighted differences more than similarities between the two auteurs, Lynch and Rivette find their sentiments strangely in sync - like clockwork.

Clocks appear as crucial motifs, magical talismans in fact, in both films. Inland Empire disguises this importance through fleeting references to "after midnight" and "nine forty five" (recalling Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me's own cloaked obsession with clocks and times of day), while a few scattered scenes focus on a wristwatch as psychic portal. The Story of Marie and Julien foregrounds the motif by making Julien (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) a clock repairman, with clocks big and small cluttering his home/workplace. This well-ordered world is disrupted when Julien falls in love with Marie (Emmanuelle Beart), an old acquaintance whom he runs across shortly after seeing her (armed with a knife) in his daydream. Marie moves in with him, taking part in a blackmail plot that reveals not only one ghost story but two: the first ghost is the subject of the blackmail, and the second ghost, we eventually learn, is Marie herself. In Rivette's delicate fairy tale, these ghosts act and interact as if normal human beings. The only giveaways are that they don't bleed when cut and they sometimes enter into trancelike states, pushing them into certain actions: in Marie's case, reassembling the room in which she hanged herself.

Immensely more subdued than Inland Empire, Marie and Julien lingers over long, mundane tasks: cooking, eating, cleaning, and especially fixing those clocks. The dreamy, unnerving moments arrive unexpectedly in the midst of this everyday aura. Their forcefulness is accomplished by simple camera movements (recalling the uncanny reframings of Duelle) and subtle shifts in the actor's expressions or lighting cues...or occasionally through rude awakenings (literally) triggered by startling, unexpected gestures inside characters' dreams. Those rare moments are as close as we'll get to the jarring cuts of Rivette's earlier films; he has sublimated the radical technique underneath a more conventional narrative form, a maneuver both soothing and unsettling. The quiet, pregnant visual prose poetry of Marie and Julien reminded me of Krzystztof Kieslowski, albeit slightly subdued. Held side-by-side with a film like Celine and Julie, you would be hard-pressed to identify them as works by the same director despite some atmospheric and thematic continuity.

Much the same could be said of Lynch. True, Inland Empire has many moments immediately identifiable by their sensibility: Harry Dean Stanton's mordantly funny monologues and non sequiturs; the jump-shock moments when a light flickers or a leering character rushes the camera; ominous extended passages of awkward silence in which characters stare at one another in confusion, eerie confidence, or some mix of both. But the delivery system for these moments bears no resemblance to the glamorous classicism of Blue Velvet or the swooning impressionism of Lost Highway. Even more notable than the grungey, bleary DV texture or the dipping, swerving handheld camera movements, Inland Empire is defined by a documentary/home movie feeling to the mise en scene and performance. As well, the cutting evokes a combination of channel and web-surfing (mixing viral mash-ups, YouTube poop, and internet porn) resulting in a film far more engaged with the contemporary media landscape than any of Lynch's other features.

If the aesthetic is a dramatic departure for Lynch, he stuffs the story (or stories) with his familiar motifs and themes. A beautiful young Polish woman, the Lost Girl (Karolina Gruszka), weeps inside a hotel room as she watches scenes from the rest of the film unfold on her TV (which Martha Nochimson calls "a magic mirror shaped like a television"). We will revisit her not only in the hotel room but across nocturnal city streets and grubby backrooms where a possibly supernatural pimp - the Phantom (Krzysztof Majchrzak) - beats and torments her. Another abused woman (Laura Dern), possibly named Susan Blue or simply the Battered Woman (or are these actually separate characters - two, three, or more?) lives in California's Inland Empire, the South, both, or neither. She wanders through domestic crises including an unexpected pregnancy, the departure of her husband for a Polish circus (from a backyard barbecue infused with hilarious dread - one of my favorite Lynch tableaux), and an extramarital affair with a wealthy Southern gentleman (Justin Theroux). The latter - I think - leads to her death by screwdriver stabbing on Hollywood Boulevard, guided "into the light" by several characters whose bizarre ramblings may actually have the most grounded, realistic subjects in the film (concerned as they are with everyday questions of transportation, health, and money).

Finally, the entire film is framed as the tale of Nikki Grace (also Laura Dern), an actress cast as this same Susan in a Hollywood movie (floridly titled On High in Blue Tomorrows), adapted from a haunted Polish screenplay. Despite the terrorizing presence of her controlling husband, she sleeps with her co-star Devon Berk (also Justin Theroux), consequently losing herself inside the role as her situation and the character's begin to merge. Is this a psychological breakdown or a genuinely paranormal passage, triggered by the alchemical incantation "Axxon N.", rendered in vivid Lynchian handwriting on various walls? Like all of Lynch's other films, but even more aggressively than usual, Inland Empire asserts that both are the case. Anyway, this convoluted summarization makes the film sound more straightforward than it actually is, because the switches between these modes don't come cleanly or clearly. They are layered on top of one another; sometimes several different, even contradictory, narratives unfold simultaneously in the same image or line of dialogue. If Rivette's late work draws him closer to clarity and simplicity, late Lynch embraces chaos and confusion, seeking to overwhelm us with a sensory experience whose "sense" feels perpetually, tantalizingly, out of reach.

The styles of Inland Empire and The Story of Marie and Julien may be worlds apart, but there is a hidden passage between them. In 2007, Lynch released More Things That Happened, a seventy-minute collection of deleted scenes from Inland Empire, cut and mixed to form a parallel quasi-movie (Lynch took the same approach to additional footage from Wild at Heart and, most famously, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me). The presentation of More Things That Happened is starkly different from Inland Empire. The hallucinatory score and sound design are replaced by hypnotically ambient room tone; the jagged cutting and superimpositions are swept away in favor of contemplative long takes soaking us in the strangeness of the moment; and the mixture of diverse material into an interconnected stream of consciousness becomes a series of extended standalone sequences, blackout sketches linked only by teasing suggestions and memories of the movie rather than through the montage itself. The dead-air eeriness of More Things That Happened might just be the most Rivettian work Lynch has ever done. Though not featured in the retrospective, it bears discussion as a reminder that for all their differences Lynch and Rivette may be working from a similar place.

Inland Empire and Marie and Julien - perhaps Rivette's most overtly spiritual film of the series - are soaked in distinctly karmic cosmologies. Characters intersect not only to relieve themselves of a metaphysical burden (Marie's suicide reminds us of Diane's at the end of Mulholland Drive) but to offer peace and comfort to fellow sufferers. Nikki and Marie end the two films with acts of sacrifice and redemption. Nikki commits herself so thoroughly to her role that Susan's death is played as real, at least until the camera pulls back to reveal another camera. She awakens from the set as if a somnambulist, wandering into a series of shabby corridors where she will eventually assassinate a version of the Phantom with her own face stretched across it. This wordless, eerie journey into a physically-detailed shadow space strongly resembles Cooper's Black Lodge visit on Twin Peaks. Among the most important influences upon, and keys to, Inland Empire may be the two "T"s - Twin Peaks and Transcendental Meditation. The film obliquely references not just Lynch's TV show but the process behind it (particularly Sheryl Lee's astonishing dedication to the role of Laura in the prequel film, during which the film's crew worried for her well-being). Inland Empire also explicitly articulates concepts taught by the Maharishi, when the ominous Visitor (Grace Zabriskie) speaks of a "Palace" and a "Marketplace" (a scene too effectively creepy to be considered straight-up proselytizing). The film's form may be obscure, but Lynch's conceptual framework has never been more exposed.

At the end of her journey, Nikki arrives in the Lost Girl's room, now overflowing with light. The actress embraces this lonely soul, liberating her with a kiss as she herself disappears. The Lost Girl escapes through an open door, another connection to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. After all, Laura Palmer's dramatic journey was conveyed through a progressions of doors: the bedroom door which she was locked behind, a fairy-tale princess trapped in her tower; the unsettling door in the painting which she passed through to discover her own spiritual power and potential; and finally the door to the train car, opened briefly by a confluence of dramatic events, long enough for Laura to receive the ring which saved her soul even as it doomed her body. With this callback not only to those doors, but to open and closed portals scattered throughout Lynch's films, Inland Empire feels more than ever like a summation of Lynch's previous oeuvre but also a more thoroughly redemptive conclusion, untempered by reference to an afterlife/side-world removed from the character's everyday reality (Eraserhead, Fire Walk With Me) or cheerful, fantasylike quotation marks (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart).

A similar sense of bittersweet happiness presides over the ending of The Story of Marie and Julien. Marie seeks to resolve the brokenhearted despair she felt at the time of her death, thanks to an empty, vindictive love affair. Perhaps for this reason she attaches herself to Julien despite (we sense) hardly having known him in the past. Also for this reason, she initially flees and hides from him, later hesitating before she finally settles down with him. Her erotic fantasies, spoken aloud during passionate sex scenes, involve subjugation and abasement, reflecting many Lynchian heroines scarred by abuse but attracted to pain in a fashion both limiting and liberating. Marie, the fragile, flighty suicide, and Julien, the cold-hearted, reserved blackmailer, heal one another through their romance - an emotionally risky endeavor. Marie's mission, and ghostly existence, will end once she learns how to love and trust, paradoxically meaning that she and Julien will be torn apart at the very moment their wounds have been healed.

Julien's solution is to kill himself so that he and Marie can be united as ghosts. Her heartbreaking solution, to spare him this pain, is to enchant him. She becomes an invisible spirit once again, compelling him to forget she ever existed. This demonstrates her compassion, and when she lingers as a kind of quiet companion (whom he can't see), she demonstrates her commitment. Like Nikki, Marie's empathy resurrects her: when her tears fall upon her bloodless wounds, blood begins to flow, returning her to the human world. And like the Lost Girl, Julien is rescued from his loneliness by the grace of another - he can suddenly see Marie again, even though he doesn't remember who she is. Asking why this stranger is so confident that they will get along, she wearily smiles and - in a play of words as charming as the rest of the film - tells him to "give it time."

Like Celine and Julie Go Boating and Duelle, The Story of Marie and Julien offers its characters an escape hatch from their narrative trap. This time, however, the rules of the game seemed to be firmly set (perhaps because of the precision of the filmmaking vs. the more playful approach of the earlier films), implying a fate more, well, Lynchian in its conception of an inviolable cosmic order. Thus Marie's blood feels all the more miraculous, one last gift from Rivette, a storyteller whose skepticism of spiritual salvation is matched only by his belief in the transformative power of imagination. This appreciation of creativity is a quality shared by both Lynch and Rivette, even if they give it different form (connecting to a pre-existing strain of mysticism or crafting one's own mysticism out of thin air). Without avoiding darkness or despair, even while acknowledging the real risk - likelihood, even - of failure, the work of Lynch and Rivette remains atypically attuned to realization of the sublime. Evoking an unusually optimistic sensibility in an era smugly devoted to surfaces rather than depth, their visions are terrifying, frustrating, upsetting...and inspiring, because strange worlds can be beautiful depending on the spirit that moves us.

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