The tagline for David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) describes the film as “a mystery” about a “woman in trouble”. 1 This simple phrase coincides with much of what viewers see on the screen but proves less helpful than typical blurbs as a synopsis of narrative meaning. To which of the film’s female characters does it refer? Many of them – from the first shots of Karolina Gruszka and Laura Dern to their embrace and parting shortly before the end – are in some kind of trouble. And what among the film’s many strange features – from actors playing multiple roles to anthropomorphic rabbits – constitutes the mystery?

Answers to these basic questions prove elusive, possibly unobtainable using conventional narrative expectations, and audiences may understandably conclude that their viewing efforts have been arbitrarily sabotaged. On the other hand, Lynch may simply have been seeking the venerable aesthetic aim of fitting his film’s form to its subject matter: a mystery about trouble. Images appear without being traceable to a single origin. Mechanical recording and psychic memory, two types of automatism, are part of a single continuum. Most of all, trouble and mystery affect the nature of time. The past bears down on the body with an accumulated weight of inscriptions. The socialised body as “memory pad”, as Bourdieu describes it, then in turn provides enabling conditions for future affect and movement. 2

In this essay I will show that the deviations from cinematic narrative conventions are not capricious or gratuitous in relation to the film’s content. The difficulty results from a surplus of narrative series within the sjužet, rather than an incomplete or incoherent fabula. 3 Mystery as missing, indeterminate, or indiscernible diegetic information features prominently in all of Lynch’s films, regardless of genre. Solving mysteries involves finding out secrets, things hidden in space and time. Trouble, as distinguished from the identifiable threats often accompanying it, can best be understood to refer to danger and suffering exceeding the capacity of audiovisual representation or narrative signification, let alone thematic closure. Mystery and trouble together contribute to life’s surreal complexity, its strange resistance to sense. 4

Trouble is inseparable from conflict, antagonism, and relations of power. It cannot be solved, only escaped. Even in flight, confrontations are impossible to avoid. By specifying the protagonist’s gender in the tagline, Lynch emphasises her embodiment in sexually stratified social space. Inland Empire explicitly focuses on the kinds of trouble or social suffering specific to women, particularly in relation to the family, markets and marriage. The entertainment industries’ exploitation of women as producers and consumers both follow from and reinforce the latter, especially through the production and selling of recorded images coded as pleasurable based on the socially dominant symbolic images of the division of labor between men and women. Hollywood stands in metonymically for these industries, from the process of production involving technology and firms, through advertising and publicity, to the investment of social agents in the industry’s accumulated artistic capital and symbolic power.

Lynch’s films contain sequences from multiple perspectives on differing worlds and temporalities, taking what Gilles Deleuze calls the collapse of the sensory-motor link as a given. 5 Time images make possible reconfigurations of the relationship between brain and body, inside and outside. 6 Deleuze sees this change as making clear the automatism of thought, psychic or spiritual automata. 7 More fundamental for the study of culture, in my view, are the mutually dependent relationships between recording technology and bodily automatism, which according to Bourdieu are also characteristic of social practice grounded in the habitus. 8 Lynch’s films delineate and explore, through the images on the screen, automatic circuits connecting brain and body to a world of machines, networks, markets, and systems. His anatomy is not disinterested but a search for a way out, an awakening through knowledge and struggle into another world.

The beginning and the end of Inland Empire exemplify how it disrupts conventional narrative coherence. The first people shown on screen appear to be a prostitute and a john searching for and entering a hotel room. Near the end of the film, on a Hollywood Boulevard sidewalk, a prostitute is shown bleeding to death from a stab wound. Searching for the narrative thread linking these two scenes might seem like the reasonable first step towards solving the film’s mystery were it not that the women are played by different actors, speak different languages, and inhabit different locations in time and space. The unmistakable perceptible differences between the characters prevent, within the codes of narrative cinema, their being understood as the same character. One’s experience of the film largely depends on how one understands the relationship between these two women, who are neither the same nor simply distinct, as well as the doublings and repetitions throughout the film that serve as variations on this fundamental difference.

The film contains numerous cues that its various narrative elements are not multiple stories from distinct points of view, but rather the heterogeneous overlapping deliria of a single character. 9 Her identity remains stubbornly indeterminate, frustrating personalising identifications in favor of more generic social traits and situations. When the causes of her trouble cannot be moralised away as a result of bad choices, subjective inauthenticity, or maladaptive traits, the film’s focus shifts from the main character as the typical culture industry protagonist – an exceptional but ordinary individual – to the common events and situations involving women who share significant properties and histories with the Woman in Trouble.

As a first step in exploring how the images of this delirium relate to an underlying narrative pattern, I will analyse the film’s opening sequence, showing how it coincides with my version of the Woman in Trouble’s story. I break down this sequence as follows, listing the segments in chronological order.

  1. A beam of light from what looks and sounds like a projector gradually illuminates and reveals the film’s title.
  2. While a phonograph turns, a voice announces the radio play AxxonN.
  3. In a sequence shot in blurred black and white, a man and a woman walk down a hotel hallway and enter one of the rooms.
  4. The man and the woman vanish, the film switches to colour, revealing the “Lost Girl” sitting alone in front of a television screen.
  5. Rabbits in the front room of an apartment appear on the television. Accompanied by a laugh track they speak to one another about secrets, waiting, and knowledge to come.
  6. The male, Jack Rabbit, leaves the apartment and enters an ornately decorated room in what appears to be a different building.
  7. “The Phantom” and an older man converse there in Polish, their dialogue subtitled in English.

The first two shots emphasise the predominance and priority of projecting and recording technology over everything but the silence and darkness that constitute the first source of audio-visual information in the film. After the revelation of the title, an announcer’s voice from an old record player names another one: AxxonN, “the longest running radio play in the Baltic region.” Projection and recording produce and enable voices and images, which can be played repeatedly. Some or all of what follows may be a part of a long running show, rather than a unique set of events. This technology mediates social relationships and shapes the ideology it transmits.

When the first people appear, the flow of images gradually suggests relatively distinct plot segments either occurring, or remembered as occurring, in the setting named by AxxonN’s announcer: “a gray winter’s day in an old hotel.” The perspective from which images appear cannot be determined, though the film’s opening is full of clues, hints, and traces as to what kind of position might be the source, for example: someone who, in silent darkness, might be prompted to imagine the sound of an old record player and recognise in it a Polish radio serial with dialogue somehow in English. The visual images of the two people entering a hotel after a cue supplied in a radio play must be coming from somewhere: the brain of the Woman in Trouble, one capable of and interested in being the source and spectator of these images.

In the hotel sequence viewers see the past before the present. The Lost Girl first remembers the immediate past, how she came to be in the room, but only in the stylised blurry black-and-white images consistent with the radio announcer’s introduction. Confused and afraid, she does not recognise herself in this mixture of radio play and film, at least well enough to remember where the room and its key are. She does know how to answer the man when he asks her if she knows “what whores do.” “They fuck,” she replies nonchalantly. Socioeconomic role and its codification stick in her memory better than physical location. Since she had already asked him what he wanted her to do, the questioner was probably not interested in whether and how satisfactorily she could define the word “whore”. By asking he performs the role of questioner, personified masculine knowledge probing for feminine ignorance. Her quick and even response shows that she knows how to handle these little discursive power games. He remains the only one who knows what he wants her to do after she undresses, however, a power that belongs to the buyer and in sex work can be backed up by the threat of violence if the selling party backs out. A glimmer of light off her lingerie ends the sequence.

Abruptly and with minimal transition, the glimmer is replaced by a bright light now shot in colour. The Lost Girl appears, her face visible, trapped in a room watching television. She is surrounded by images. Even the view out the window is of a backdrop painted with a moonlit night scene. The clearest sign of her confinement is not a locked door or other barrier, but her nudity, covered only by a robe. Crying, she watches a jumble of images and static gradually clear to reveal humanoid rabbits.

Inland Empire

Aside from being the first sustained dramatic narrative in Inland Empire, the Rabbits’ sitcom contains elements similar to what has preceded it, but estranged to the point of confounding the human-animal boundary, just as the human-machine boundary is unsettled by the obtuse laugh track. The Rabbits also inhabit a room in a larger building, though a shabby and small apartment, not a luxurious old hotel. A triangle replaces the man-woman dyad of the first sequence. One irons in the background while the other relaxes on the couch, looking at what is probably another television on an out-of-frame fourth wall.

A male rabbit walks through the door wearing a business suit. His entry echoes the conventional patriarchal arrival home from work, establishing a link between masculinity and mobility. The female rabbits are in a state of ignorant anticipation, waiting for something to happen or be revealed, but Jack Rabbit announces that he knows a secret. Though only a giant bunny, Jack somehow knows of a secret opening and can move through it. Among these rabbits knowledge and mobility, which Lost Girl does not possess, belong to the male. His clothing signifies gender and class status. The Lost Girl, who is viewing this scene, cannot leave. Her confinement may well be related to a lack of knowledge. If she knew about a secret opening, perhaps she could escape from the television room. Both the female Rabbits and Lost Girl are close to stasis, waiting.

Accompanied by bright light, Jack enters an already established shot of an ornate room containing two men in tense conversation, an impassive older figure, Janek, and an aggressive younger one, The Phantom. The latter searches for an opening, but to what he does not say. Jack Rabbit’s appearance has already revealed one, probably the one the Phantom searches for, especially if his goal is to move closer to the Lost Girl, who sees and thus learns about the opening and the Phantom’s search on her television screen. Later, in other narrative series, they will be seen to know each other well. The Phantom wants to be mobile, and observing his movements throughout the rest of the film reveals that they always bring him closer to the Woman in Trouble. Jack observes the conversation, gaining more knowledge. The stoic Janek is an old-world patriarch, potentially an ominous gangster but perhaps also a source of stability and help. How Janek will react to the Phantom’s request is also unclear but seems noncommittal, establishing an atmosphere of mysterious suspense.

As the men fade from the scene before a cut to the front of a large house, the Woman in Trouble achieves a breakthrough into a coherent wish-fulfilling fantasy in which Nikki Grace, one of the simulacra of herself, possesses freedom of movement in space and even time. Nikki’s house, and her first appearance, are established as taking place on the television the Lost Girl watches, and there that world remains, along with the others that appear on that screen (see image below). The perspective shifts to within the television’s frame, making it invisible. These segments introduce and put in relation with one another the plots constituting the Woman in Trouble’s delirious production of narrative series for the rest of the film. Before the introduction of Nikki Grace at least two of them have already been established. Solving the mystery involves integrating those that follow and feeling one’s way through to what connects them: desire and suffering.

Inland Empire

Nothing in the film can be identified as an image of the fabula’s present narrative reality separate from memory, wish-fulfillment, or delirium. At the same time, the film does not show unique private inner experiences or fantasies, because the material used to represent those experiences are as social, symbolic, and conventional as the experiences themselves. The Woman in Trouble resembles more a habitus than a character, occupying a position in social space and historical time. The film shows those images in a progression from wish-fulfillment to confrontation. While the movement is not direct or irreversible, the confrontation tends to predominate over and ultimately shatter the wish fulfillment as the film progresses. Memory, wish fulfillment, delirious-desiring social fantasy, and present experience are produced, reproduced, and recorded. They are effects of psycho-social technology.

To a degree not seen in his earlier work, Lynch not only subverts but rejects, at least formally, the narrative distinction between real and imaginary characters, moving from what Deleuze terms “implied dream” to crystal images, in which actual and virtual can no longer be distinguished. This progression liberates time images from the codes of psychic representation. 10 The fragments viewers decode from the images on the screen, regardless of widely divergent and contradictory spatial and temporal markers, emerge as responses to the situation of the mysterious Woman in Trouble, even if it remains unavailable except as an implied source of repeated effects. While Lynch does not dispense with the narrative present, centered points of view, or plots, the form of the film denies them centrality or privilege in favor of an infrastructural apparatus of memory, recording technology, image production, and symbolic power.

The death scene on Hollywood Boulevard illustrates Lynch’s use of crystal images. As the Nameless Woman dies on the sidewalk, she spends her final minutes of life in silent delirium, surrounded by strangers less interested in her than in how to get from Hollywood to Pomona by bus. They react calmly to her appearance. One gently but frankly tells her she’s dying and holds the flame from her lighter before her eyes. Before and after this sequence bright lights appear at several moments. Could they be delirious echoes of this moment, or are they all repetitions within a series of lights that have no discernable origin? Perhaps the point becomes moot as soon as the entire scene is revealed to be part of the film within the film, On High In Blue Tomorrows. The lights would thus be a motif in that film, but what then would explain the lights that appear during Nikki’s story? Real and virtual deaths, performances, stories, wounds, and flashes of light may all be anticipatory projections of the future, memories, or present perceptions. Hallucinatory projection converges with external stimuli, manifest and latent content thoroughly confounded. Psychic images actualise virtual ones that have retreated into the past, leaving only traces which function as prods or goads for a memory in which percept, concept and affect intertwine.

The Woman in Trouble’s story cannot be reconstructed as conventional progressive narrative or sequence of present moments. What happened cannot be remembered. What is happening is unendurable. These struggles with past and present events are not autonomous psychic conflicts. Images and signs are social, drawn from a symbolic order determined within the field of power. Her socio-psychic suffering exceeds the capacities of representation within a symbolic order that must deny its reality to preserve its own legitimacy. The symbolic order provides pain, fear, and refusal with their only possible means of expression but cannot allow them to be articulated without endangering the legitimacy that it maintains.

This kind of image recurs throughout Lynch’s work. I will refer to it as the laceration image, a violent cutting and tearing or the fragmented results thereof. Viewers of the film risk exposure to the impact of this suffering without the protection of its being contained within the boundaries of well-defined character capable of signifying separate selfhood, while at the same time losing human and object-world coordinates through direct involvement with the apparatus of cinema and its endless repetitions.

The virtual fabula reality the Woman in Trouble inhabits has withdrawn from view, persisting only in cerebral images of a woman in a situation whose repeating elements within the various image sets and narrative series allow it to be recognised. Remembering that the images are produced from a particular perspective is no longer a strategy of epistemological vigilance for viewers, but rather necessary for basic understanding of the film. One looks at the images and asks just as characters do at several points in the film where they have been seen before, perhaps embedded in another image series. Narrative stakes and character identifications have been pared to a minimum or destabilised, leaving attention nowhere else to go but the situations and events.

Distinguishing among dreams, fantasies, old stories, and conscious experiences – the accurate recollection of which one should also doubt – loses urgency when one looks less for a unique individual character rather than the kind of social position such representations, with their wide variety of functions, might typically emerge from or be useful within. The hyperbolic symbolic emphasis that characters in Lynch’s films often carry conveys the typicality of roles and relationships, as well as the conventional explanations for them, the old tales that serve as instruments of a social struggle for survival. The dizzying mixture of narrative series recreates the same basic scenario, and the key to understanding them lies in recognising repetitions and analogies among narrative series. Images that recur can be detached from their immediate narrative context and viewed as images of psycho-social states or temporal relations.

The Woman in Trouble’s experiences in this basic scenario involve men, and the Nameless Woman begins telling her story to Mr. K accordingly: “there was a man I once knew.” She stops herself just before revealing his identity because it ‟[…] doesn’t matter what his name was […]” and more importantly ‟all men reveal themselves in time.” For the audience, the first part of her utterance exactly repeats a statement hurled at a disoriented and distraught Nikki shortly after she finds herself trapped in Sue Blue’s house. While this crucial and complex sequence demands a detailed analysis beyond the scope of this essay, for my purposes here I only note that when one of the strange women utters that phrase she defines in advance the first words of the Nameless Woman’s story as a repetition rather than the unique words of a unique self telling her unique story. Among the women the phrase does not introduce an autobiographical confession but rather a group discussion with little narrative content about the common features of the men they once knew, whose names do not come up because they do not matter. During the Woman in Trouble’s transition from Nikki to Sue she is reminded of circumstances and traits she shares with these women, generic social features. Temporal recurrence eventually establishes an identity all the men share, the typical masculine social position and properties, rather than a proper patronymic surname. This repetition typifies the coexistence of generic commonality and particular experience that characterise the film’s narrative form and style.

Mystery results from the subversion of distinctions among present, past and future, as well as among dreams, experiences and memories. The dislocations allow for a reconstitution of experience from the fragments, one that enables connections to be made beyond causality and what Deleuze calls the movement-image. Consciously perceived linear time, just happening to coincide with culturally dominant paradigms of narrative organisation, obscures these connections in favor of the self-presence and intentionality of the protagonist. The biographical-vitalist model of narrative organises time to privilege the living present and subordinate the dead to the living, or at least to a certain ideal of what life should be.

Entering what the Nameless Woman refers to as “a bad time” involves losing one’s place within the sensory-motor images of linear biographical time, not being able to distinguish today, tomorrow and yesterday, before and after. Though painful and terrifying, the mixing up of scenarios and personae opens up passages that impossibly connect separate times and places. The disorientation results from the accumulation of laceration images that block the Woman in Trouble’s search for spatio-temporal coherence.

This state is not a happy or empowering one, though not bereft of possibilities. The film poses the problem of what escaping from a bad time would entail, such as a cure, salvation, or a restoration of normality. It may be that the features of the bad time have to be exploited, so that finding resolution entails never returning to or discovering a good time. Inhabiting a bad time corresponds to what the First Visitor describes as being “half-born” and thus vulnerable to dislocations and dissociations, which are always also lines of flight, because being “half-born” also means being “lost in the marketplace” and never feeling secure in one’s place, like goods on a shelf that may be sold at any moment. According to the Nameless Woman, she went into the bad time after her son died, an event almost as occluded as the Lost Girl’s crisis in the hotel room. Her incredulous question, “How can this be?” responds, I believe, to her shock at being able to see the generic repetitive patterns that connect the events in her life, something made possible by inhabiting a bad time.

Most of the images in Inland Empire are of what the Woman in Trouble remembers, dreams, imagines, fantasises and hallucinates while in this state. None of them are simply hers, however, as her experiences are inextricably interwoven with various reproducible cultural conventions, especially as inscribed in culture industry texts: glossy Hollywood melodrama, gritty Hollywood realism, a nostalgic costume drama, old films, radio plays, celebrity television journalism, sitcoms, her own narrations of her story and at least two national cultures’ worth of old tales.

When the First Visitor tells Nikki Grace early in the film, “Actions do have consequences,” she refers to causality, in narrative a product of fictional coherence established by or traceable to the fabula. To show how the actions-consequences relationship can be seen to operate in Inland Empire, I offer a reconstruction the film’s fractured fabula, which I hope my analysis justifies as plausible though not exclusive or final. The film’s narrative series can yield different meanings depending on how viewers rearrange them. The distinctions among the various narrative worlds are ultimately indiscernible and cannot without arbitrariness be organised into an ontological hierarchy.

Inland Empire

Nikki Grace

The main character of the film is a young woman who immigrated to the US from Poland, not a wealthy Hollywood actor named Nikki Grace who looks like Laura Dern. Her name is never given, and one can never be certain whether her image appears on camera directly, though she most likely resembles the “Lost Girl”. Raised by her mother and other relatives, she never knew her father. At some point during her childhood, she enjoyed listening with her mother to recordings of a family collection of old radio plays on a phonograph.

As a young adult she worked in some domestic capacity for a wealthy man who sexually exploited her, probably to the point of assault. She also had an affair with a married man, perhaps but not necessarily this same employer. One or both of these relationships ended violently, resulting in the deaths of two or more people. Though she may well not be responsible for the deaths, her involvement in the events leaves her with well-founded reasons for feeling implicated. She feels intense guilt and loss in the aftermath of the incident, which may – along with a desire to escape powerlessness and poverty – have prompted her to flee Poland. She decides to settle in Los Angeles, probably out of an interest in Hollywood. She relied on the assistance of a Polish criminal organisation operating both in the US and in Poland for assistance with the move. She had some connection to this gang earlier, probably through working for some business – most likely a bar or a circus – controlled by them. While living in Los Angeles she marries a fellow immigrant from Poland who may also have ties to this gang.

They struggle financially on their combined incomes. She again works in the home of a wealthy family and has an affair with her married male employer. She becomes pregnant and worries about how she and her husband will manage financially. She also fears estrangement from her lover. When she tells her husband, he physically assaults her, at the same time revealing to her that he is sterile and could not have been the father. Her husband injures her in the attack, probably doing permanent damage to her and the fetus.

He returns to Poland to work for a travelling circus connected to the same criminal organisation that facilitated her move to Los Angeles. Abandoned by her husband and her wealthy lover, she struggles through the pregnancy and attempts to raise her child alone. Economic pressure mounts, and she begins working as a prostitute to survive and support her child, who nevertheless dies in infancy.

After his death she works at various jobs, including sex work. Accustomed to the threat of violence, she is always on her guard and gets in the habit of carrying knives or other sharp objects to protect herself. She gradually dissociates, perhaps at least in part due to drug intoxication, from her situation in such a way that her psychic temporality diverges from linear chronology. Associations among similar events become more vivid and important than the order in which they occurred. Her perceptual experiences, which never appear onscreen without symbolic inflection, blend with memories as well as hopes and fears.

Around 9:45 one night a john known to her arranges to meet her in a hotel located on a street off Hollywood Boulevard. At some point during their encounter, he attacks her. She defends herself with a weapon, perhaps killing him. Terrified and disoriented, she remains in the room delirious for several hours. Most of Inland Empire’s early extended narrative sequences, including both the stories of Nikki Grace and Sue Blue, occur during her hours of delirium in the hotel following this final attack on her person by a familiar man – one she once knew.

Later that night, after midnight, she makes her way out to Hollywood Boulevard. Some women she knows, also working as prostitutes, ask her where she has been. A few may also be unsure who she is. Something about her appearance or response frightens them and they move away. She stabs herself with the same weapon she used against the john, screams, and collapses, dying. A second period of delirium begins, of indeterminate length. Does she bleed out on the sidewalk surrounded by other residents of Los Angeles with nowhere to sleep? Does she make it back home to die more slowly? Or is she rescued and committed to a hospital, treated, and left to die the slowest death of all? How and when she dies should be left out of even the most tentative reconstructions. Instead her relationship to her own death and what she feels about it occupy the frame.

Inland Empire

The only parts of the Woman in Trouble’s experience shown in present time and through conscious, if still partially distorted, perception are the moments between her second appearance on Hollywood Boulevard – when her friends ask ‟Where have you been?” – and her death. The blurred opening sequence of the film shows indirectly some of what happens on the way to and in the hotel room, but even that sequence, located in contemporary Poland rather than Hollywood, is being imaginatively re-experienced by the Woman in Trouble. She is both puppet and puppeteer in her own show, every bit as fake and urgent as the performances in Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio (David Lynch, 2001). Her investments and affects inflect every image in the film, with the Nameless Woman and the Lost Girl being closest to her situation. Sue Blue occupies an intermediate position, while Nikki is a wish-fulfilling reversal. Inflection is not dream work, however, and Inland Empire is cinematic fiction, not a mimetic representation of fantasy or other psychic processes.

This reconstruction of Inland Empire’s story differs from many viewers’ understandings of the film, but I believe it accounts better for the film’s formal heterogeneity – particularly the opening, the rabbit sequences, the contemporary Polish material, and the extended non-narrative phantasmagoria that erupts between the blue-lit love scene and Sue’s fixing breakfast. This version also emphasises affinities with the narrative experiments in Lynch’s two previous films, particularly in its emphasis on self-destructing wish-fulfillment fantasies. Taking Nikki for the real, story-level character would resemble giving Betty in Mulholland Drive or Pete in Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997) the same status but more arbitrary, as Nikki is one of several stand-ins for the Woman in Trouble. Inland Empire takes the deterioration of the wish-fulfillment fantasy further than the two earlier films, exploring instead the productive antagonisms of delirium.

The action/consequence dynamic governing a fabula does not control the entire film-text, made up of visual, auditory, musical, and other signs. “And yet, there is always the magic,” promises the First Visitor. Each textual element – such as the type of cut used or an element of mise-en-scène – that produces effects functions magically in relation to the narrative. The magical elements are paradigmatic, relating to one another rather than to the syntagmatic narrative chain. Only some narratives grant those magical elements the ability to intervene in or subvert the coherence of the narrative itself. Objects, machines, phrases, spaces, and characters can be magical in Inland Empire. Many of them are produced by or associated with the culture industry.

Phrases repeated in different contexts suggest magical connections between them, as well as non-signifying uses for the phrases. For example, the unpaid bill is a debt, suggesting economic need and pressure. It can also refer to guilt, perhaps even blood guilt, especially because within the Woman in Trouble’s “bad time” she may not remember exactly what she has done or not done. The unpaid bill also suggests unfinished business she has as a result of her marriage and working as a prostitute. Ultimately she settles this bill not by being killed or killing herself, but by shooting The Phantom.

Inland Empire’s main magical modes are repetition, hypnosis, and passage. Repetition confers magical status on things, such as the phrase “good with animals”, and references to the times 9:45 and “after midnight”. Hypnosis and passage oppose one another, the former territorialising and the latter deterritorialising. Hypnosis, here enabled by patriarchal seduction or terror, prevents people from escaping roles they have come to occupy to the benefit of someone else and danger to themselves. Passage offers opportunities for flight, but only if the hypnosis can be overcome to the extent necessary for the passage to be seen. Usually openings are “secret”, as Jack Rabbit describes the one he has found, difficult to see because to do so involves fully recognising one’s confinement and feeling pain hidden in the past.

AxxonN, the first word spoken in the film, is a magic nonsense term, what the Russian Formalists called “transrational language” (zaumnyi jazyk) that functions as a memory trace. 11 It is the name of a radio play and appears several times as graffiti that stirs the Woman in Trouble’s memory and guides her through passageways. It could be the name of the Rabbit show or even the old Polish film, but the voice-over associates it with what occurs in the “old hotel” at the start of the film, part of the “longest running radio play.” Thus I see AxxonN as split between the repetition of old stories and their overcoming. By following the memory traces, the Woman in Trouble can play a role in this repetition of AxxonN, put the transrational term to new uses.

Unsurprisingly, machines feature prominently as magical elements. Two machines precede the introduction of any other narrative elements: the flash of light and the phonograph. These establish the priority of machinery over voice, perception, consciousness, will and action. The watch, in combination with the cigarette burn hole in the silk camisole, is connected with the phonograph and manipulates time by displaying images cinematically. This machine for seeing, unlike these technical machines, requires misusing objects, even damaging them in the case of the silk, a secret passed between women, from the Lost Girl to Sue, facilitating movement, knowledge and action.

The screwdriver and the gun are two mobile weapons, though interestingly one is also a tool. The screwdriver can be connected metaphorically with rape as well as stabbing. It breaks through barriers in the abdomen, as Miko’s wound is described at the end of the film by the woman waiting for the bus. Magically, spaces, such as Łódź or Los Angeles, come to be “sides”, through which one can find passages or openings. The Phantom, Jack Rabbit, and the Woman in Trouble all find their way through these passages.

Magic multiplies and connects scenarios and personae, defying identity and causality. The magical elements appear early in the film to structure much of the inland empire in which the Woman in Trouble has become trapped, but they also can be appropriated by her. The dispersed spaces and times can be connected through these magical elements, which allow not reintegration but movement. Most importantly, they make possible the convergence of the Phantom with the Woman in Trouble who at that point has already combined the actor Nikki with her roles, Sue and the Nameless Woman. Joining the Lost Girl requires this final confrontation.

After the stabbing, the filming of On High In Blue Tomorrows ends, revealing Nikki to have been playing the role of the Nameless Woman, draining a witnessed death of reality and replacing it with triumph, a final dying re-investment in the Nikki fantasy. Following the pattern in the Nikki narrative of deviation from happiness in favor of confrontation, Nikki ignores Kingsley, as though continuing to perform. Death itself is refused by transforming it into a performance, though that fantasy almost immediately returns to the original dilemma and its dangers. Fantasy leads back to trouble, but within it a prototype of a solution can be discovered while dying.

Inland Empire

Sue and the Lost Girl

The motif of marginalising relationships with men in favor of those with women recurs when she does not respond to the director’s congratulations. She enters an old theater and sees herself performing segments from the Nameless Woman’s monologue. Bypassing Mr. K in favor of confronting the Phantom, the Woman in Trouble stops talking to the Other and goes after the oppressor. Still dressed and made up as the Nameless Woman, Nikki moves from one projected character to another, gathering them together. She revisits the places, such as the building with the stairs, from her characters’ narrative series. She sees Sue’s husband in the house before finding her way to the other side where the Rabbits and Lost Girl are, a place analogous to where she started. Here she kills the Phantom with the gun she finds in the dresser drawer, knowing where to look for it because Sue’s husband brought it back from Poland and placed it there. In this symbolic space the Phantom has moved all the way from where he started, looking for that opening, to being just down the hall from the door to the rabbits’ room and the passage to the Lost Girl.

A series of resolutions occur. The Lost Girl is reunited with her nameless husband and her son, apparently no longer dead. This wish for domestic restoration achieved, she disappears. As Nikki and/or the Nameless Woman stand alone in the Rabbits’ apartment, recorded applause resonates as a bright light falls on her, forcefully emphasising the longings of a dying woman. The canned applause is produced by the same apparatus that creates the Phantom, and the theater is empty, except for the blindingly bright lights – perhaps a promise but emphasising that her visibility to others has been more important than her ability to see – and an image of a dancer spinning. The contrast between the two women combines cruelty with a knowledge that perhaps brings peace. The scene is left open-ended. Whatever transcendence it implies must be supplied by the viewers’ imaginations. She does not leave the room. Instead a Deleuzian irrational cut returns to Nikki’s conversation with the First Visitor, before her jump from today to tomorrow.

Nikki looks the other way to see the actor playing her, Laura Dern, without the glamourous clothes and makeup, sitting across from Nastassja Kinski. The ending blends into something like a wrap party. The credits cannot roll and the music cannot start, however, until the child murderer who uses a carved stick as a prosthesis for her missing leg – from the Nameless Woman’s monologue – enters to utter one final repetition: “sweet”. The quiet private house, butler and husband gone, fills with people, dancing, and music. These resolutions preserve dissonant remainders, perhaps suggesting the difficulty of imagining alternatives to the finality of physical and social death.

The Woman in Trouble envisions three resolutions: a fantasy of domestic reunification with her husband and son, a direct stare into the stage lighting of a seductive and menacing apparatus and an ecstatic return to Nikki’s home transfigured from private space into a group celebration that exceeds the limits of the fictional frame. Within the fabula, this final victory is seen by no one and has no discernible effect. This limitation to the unshared fantasy experienced at the moment of death may seem to rob the film of its critical force. But that would be to forget that no fantasy is really private. They are all symbolic and reproducible by an apparatus, which is why audiences can view them in a fictional film.

The gaze of the camera flows from or falls upon the various personae played by Laura Dern, but those personae stubbornly resist reassembly into a self. While the viewer can pursue a dizzying array of options in imposing coherence on the film, none works without remainder. The biggest mystery in the film, from a subject-centered perspective, is the identity of the Woman in Trouble. By rendering it indiscernible, Lynch shifts attention to what the trouble is, just as in Twin Peaks and Fire Walk with Me the identity of Laura Palmer and her killer is overshadowed by incest, rape, addiction, and violence – namely the trouble. While the Lost Girl and Sue experience that trouble, the Nameless Woman describes it, despite her having the most uncertain and unstable identity of all. Her narration of her own story competes with the various scenarios as they reach crisis points. She is not saved by therapeutic recognition of reality, adaptation, or acceptance. She pursues her line to the limit of madness and suicide.

Inland Empire continues Lynch’s career-long exploration of how and where trouble occurs in social space. Trouble often begins in families, themselves differentiated according to their location in social space. The combined effects of patriarchal and economic power prove quite effective in fomenting trouble. The world of Lynch’s films is riven with fundamental asymmetries of power, and the resulting struggles never yield equilibrium, though the power to project an image of order is always the weapon of the dominant antagonists in the struggle. For Lynch male power – which is always at least potentially male violence – is perhaps the most pervasive and vicious, by which I mean the combination of instrumental and sadistic, form of power structuring this world. Struggles most commonly erupt around pleasure and suffering, efforts to obtain the former or end the latter. Those individuals or institutions who achieve, or strive to achieve, monopolies over the means of pleasure are Lynch’s most ubiquitous and malevolent figures of evil. Defeat in these struggles results ultimately in death, preceded by material deprivation and social exclusion. Inland Empire’s Woman in Trouble has arrived at that limit, and like other such characters, experiences a complex confrontation with her own death.

Trouble as presented by Lynch can of course also be traced back beyond society and history to basic cosmological, even potentially spiritual, dynamics. These affect humans but cannot be fully comprehended by the images and signs available to them. Thus it would be wrong to say that Lynch’s films are political in the sense that trouble results from social problems that can be solved through political deliberation, legislation, or policy changes. His well-documented personal rejection of political discourse certainly informs the themes of his films. Those themes do not, however, determine or control their multiple proliferating effects. Lynch’s notorious refusals to explain even his most frustratingly mysterious images indicates his own preference for limiting the filmmakers’ control over how audiences use their work. One need not share an artist’s apolitically liberal, or even perhaps conservative, opinions and rhetoric to enjoy and learn from the art.

Through cinematic means Inland Empire transforms the mysterious phenomenology of death into a strange series of visual images that depend on social codes, including perceptual habits, to signify. Transcendence cannot be presented in images, only suggested. The images that conclude Inland Empire point to what cannot be shown by not making sense. Their repetition, which threatens the uniqueness of life experience and identity, hints at a hellishly endless cycle of reoccurrence while also allowing for the articulation of a rhythm suggestive of dance. The credit sequence’s final combination of dance, song and bustle of similarly rhythmic but unrelated activity gives body – more than Lynch ever has ever done before – to a utopian alternative world visible only at the end of life.

This article was peer reviewed.


  1. Inland Empire, directed by David Lynch (2006; Absurda / Rhino, 2007), DVD.
  2. Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), pp. 140-41. For Bourdieu social action depends upon the agent’s habitus, without which one would be left with nothing but the somatic reflexes of a hypothetical a-social and a-historical body.
  3. These series include 1) the story of Nikki Grace, Devon Burke, and the making of On High In Blue Tomorrows; 2) an earlier unfinished film, 47, of which On High In Blue Tomorrows is a remake; 3) the Polish Baltic radio play AxxonN; and 4) an unnamed sitcom about three anthropomorphic rabbits living together in a small apartment. Each series undergoes transformations and interweaves with the others throughout the film, complicating the structure of the sjužet.
  4. David Breskin asked Lynch in 1990 about his statement: “‘Why do people want art to make sense when they accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense?’” Lynch amends it as: “Life is very, very complicated, and so films should be allowed to be too.” Richard A. Barney, David Lynch: Interviews, Conversations with Filmmakers Series (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009), pp. 80-82.
  5. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema II: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), pp. 40-41.
  6. Ibid., pp. 206-07.
  7. I find Todd McGowan’s classification of Lynch as “one of the great anti-Deleuzian filmmakers” in The Impossible David Lynch (New York: Columbia UP, 2007), pp. 235-36 n. 18, difficult to comprehend. My surprise only increases when he characterises Lynch as “the Hegel of filmmakers”, placing Alfred Hitchcock and Alain Resnais in the same category (23 and 229, n. 37). The point is not essential to his argument and not developed beyond a single quotation from Difference and Repetition. If the two volumes of Cinema count as “Deleuzian”, then Resnais and Hichcock’s bodies of work certainly deserve at least consideration as relevant to Deleuze. As will be seen, I find Deleuze’s work useful for the analysis of film in general, Lynch being no exception, including the concepts of coding, territory, assemblage, and delirium he developed with Guattari.
  8. Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, pp. 168-169.
  9. On delirium as used here, see Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), pp. 132 and 274. The essential points, for my argument, are 1) that deliria are based upon direct investments of desire in the social and constructed out of simulacra, and 2) that they involve the disruption of the spatial organisation and symbolic coding that make up the established social order. Delirium, to state rapidly the connection between Capitalism and Schizophrenia and Deleuze’s primary philosophical works, occurs when the true forms of official thought are perceived as simulacra in a social break with the recognised Oedipal codes of capitalism and the movement-image’s sensory-motor link.
  10. Deleuze, Cinema II: The Time-Image, p. 165.
  11. Boris M. Èjxenbaum, “The Theory of the Formal Method,” in Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, ed. L. Matejka and K. Pomorska (Chicago: Dalkey Archive Press, 2002), pp. 9-10.

About The Author

Brian Rourke (Ph.D., Stanford, 1999), is an Associate Professor at New Mexico State University, where he teaches twentieth-century British fiction, film, and critical theory.

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