Laura Dern cries a lot in Inland Empire. I was crying before I sat down to write this. I cry so much these days, I wonder if I’ll ever run out of tears. I cry quietly in the bathroom where my mother cannot see or hear me. I cry when I’m alone in my room. I cry as I write. My body miraculously produces more tears than I know what to do with. They leak out of me constantly. It feels like I’ve been crying for years now. I guess I have.
David Lynch’s cinema is tear-stained. I think of the Llorando scene in Mulholland Drive, an overwhelming climax of crying–one woman on stage crying as she sings, two women holding each other as they listen and cry together.
Like Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire is full of weeping women. Now, I’m thinking of that painting by Picasso–The Weeping Woman. A portrait of grief and sorrow, a portrait of a fragmented woman, a broken woman, a woman in jagged pieces.
Why does this film have such a hold on me? Maybe it’s all the weeping–the naked, raw, unapologetic weeping of Laura Dern and the girl who seems to be watching her on television in some random hotel room in Poland? One woman falling apart watching another woman falling apart. Maybe if you are a weeping, shattered woman you are always looking for the other weeping, shattered women of the world. There is Nicole Kidman crying in Birth, and Juliette Binoche crying into the water in Three Colors: Blue. I always find the weeping women, or maybe they find me.
So, I am particularly moved by Laura Dern’s crying face in Inland Empire. Perhaps without it, I’d have no interest in the film. What I see in Dern is a woman unravelling, a woman losing herself violently, a woman destabilized by her collision with another woman–the character she is playing in a film.
I never would have thought I could fall apart the way I have this past year. My desire has truly unstitched me, unhinged me. I use those words as verbs. I need new words for what has happened to me. Unravelling doesn’t cut it. Coming undone doesn’t touch it. Disintegration comes close, as it describes the process of moving from wholeness to chaos.
In my obsession with a man I only knew online, I see my own unwellness, my own instability laid bare. “Thought I could never feel the things I feel,” Tori Amos sings in “Hey Jupiter.” Some feelings come out of nowhere. We can’t believe something so violent can originate within our own bodies. My skin feels too fragile to contain all the emotions churning inside me.
Again, I’m thinking about Inland Empire. It’s shocking how much I’ve connected to it. I just finished Melissa Anderson’s book about the film. In it, she uses the film as a jumping off point to explore the career of Laura Dern, the way we watch women on screen, and the complexities and complications of David Lynch’s representations of women.
Inland Empire feels like more than a film. It feels like a door to my unconscious. It feels like this massive space in which you can wander, like a labyrinthine mansion with many rooms. You open different doors and walk in and explore. You pick up objects and rummage through the closets.
I’ve always been drawn to films about women falling apart, women struggling with their own degradation and psychological instability, but it’s often some precipitating event that causes a perfectly stable woman to unravel. With Under the Sand, it’s the disappearance of Charlotte Rampling’s husband. With Birth, it’s the death of Nicole Kidman’s husband and the appearance of a boy claiming to be his reincarnation. Often, the precipitating event is grief. But the event can also be some other trauma or even desire.
With Laura Dern in Inland Empire, the breakdown of self is caused not by desire or death but by the female character she is playing in On High in Blue Tomorrows. Dern plays Nikki, the actress starring in this film. Nikki begins to merge with the character (named Susan) and undergo a dizzying disintegration or maybe that’s not the right word–is it a dissolving? Or is it a merging? She’s not losing herself so much as she is adding to herself, adding this female character to her consciousness. Reality blurs. There is a woozy destabilization, a melting of boundaries between the self and the character, a unity, a fusion. No beginning and no end. Two women who become one.
It reminds me of the way I can get consumed by art. The way I seem to merge with a film or book and take on the energy or life of it, how I don’t want to leave that world behind once the thing ends. Why does Nikki lose herself so much in Susan? Does she have a desire, in general, to not be who she is and to become other women? I’ve always felt that this desire must be in actresses. I’ve always wished I could be an actress because I’ve never wanted to be myself. I think of that Neko Case song where she sings “I wanted so badly not to be me.”
But what if actresses are not driven by that desire at all? What if they do want to be themselves but they also want to bring to life other women and tell those stories? How does the actress maintain the integrity of her individuality and also surrender to her acting role?
Why would Nikki lose herself so much in Susan? What is it about Susan that triggers this dissolution of self? Maybe we come across female characters that so deeply resemble us and tap into our own traumas that we feel like we are those women. I think of Wanda by Barbara Loden. I felt like some essence of me was captured in that film–the way she wanders through life, passively struggling to survive.
Some of us connect so deeply to art that the characters in a book or on-screen feel more real to us than actual people in our lives. That identification with a character is what makes art so powerful, cathartic, and life-affirming. It’s what makes us feel understood and like we’re not so alone in the world. Does Nikki identify with Susan? Is there a buried trauma in Nikki that Susan’s own trauma dislodges and brings to the surface? I think of the scene where Susan seems to be telling the story of an attempted rape. This appears to be a scene from the film, and Nikki is using a Southern accent (Susan is supposed to be Southern). This is also the scene where she talks about men revealing who they really are. These are women who know the degrading violence of living in a patriarchal world. Perhaps Nikki has suppressed a past trauma and once she begins to confront it through this role, she begins to dissociate?
There is a horror in not knowing ourselves. There is a horror in not being in control of ourselves. Loss of control is terrifying. I’d not felt the full force of it until my obsession with a man who did not want me. In that torment, I felt lost at sea and drowning. I felt a desperation that brought me to my knees. I no longer knew myself. I no longer had power over my emotions. I had no power over the situation and what it triggered. An abyss opened up around me and within me. Pitch black darkness took over my world. I am still trying to come back from this experience of nothingness.
Does Nikki come back to herself? She seems as lost as ever once the film wraps. She wanders the streets, her face begrimed and stunned. She ends up in the room of the Polish girl who’s been watching her performance on television. One broken woman reaches out to another broken woman. Perhaps this is art. Perhaps this is why I write and share at all–to reach out to the broken ones like me, to let them know there is a reason to live. A lyric from a song that plays at the end says something like “What will make me want to live?” Maybe art is that thing. The film, the performance, the connection that comes from the actress using her face and body to convey deep, mysterious, nonverbal emotions and put the heartbreak of another woman on the screen for her to see and identify with. That is the hope of the film. Film itself is the hope. Directors, actresses, writers, all of these people creating a film that can reach someone who is alone in a dark room crying and watching another woman cry.