If you were to ask me who my ten favorite film directors are, I might have a difficult time deciding upon a definitive list — it changes all the time, as it probably should. But one director whose name will always be in my top five, no matter what, is David Lynch.
I didn’t become aware of Lynch’s work until one April night 21 years ago when my mom and I sat down to watch the series pilot of Twin Peaks. Since then, I’ve seen all of his feature-length films, watched his HBO mini-series, Hotel Room, viewed a documentary or two about him, and generally become fascinated with him and the art he produces.
One of the things I find most interesting about Lynch’s films and television shows is the female characters. They are complex and unique, yet also share a lot of similarities. They are strange, yet somewhat relatable. They are women I want to know, but that I would also probably be a little bit scared of if they were real. So, for the second installment of Filminism, I wanted to talk about some of my favorite Ladies of Lynch (h/t to Robin Monica Alexander for giving me the idea for that title).
I’m not going to discuss all the women in all of Lynch’s ouevre — I’ve decided to talk about my favorite ladies from Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. You’ll notice that the women of Twin Peaks are missing — I think they deserve their own post, so look for the Ladies of Lynch, Part 2 very soon.
I’m sure that those of you who are Lynch fans will have a thing or two to say about these characters, so let me know what you think of them in the comments. And if you’d like to discuss the ladies from films I didn’t cover, have at it (just remember to save the Twin Peaks discussion for next time).
Warning: this post is spoiler-filled, so if you’ve never seen these films, get to it! Also, the film clips I’ve included are pretty much all NSFW.
Blue Velvet (1984)
Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini)
When I first watched Blue Velvet, what really drew me into the story wasn’t the insane antics of Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) or the youthful curiosity of Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan). It was the sad, passiveness of Dorothy Vallens. When we first see her, she’s this gorgeous woman singing a passionate song, commanding the room to whom she’s performing.
But soon, we learn that she is fragile and broken, dominated by Frank and forced to do sick, horrible things to please him in order to keep her husband and child, whom he has kidnapped, alive. But when she’s given the chance to be the dominant party, with Jeffrey, she regresses to a passive stance, demanding that he hit her so that she can feel pleasure. The only way she knows how to communicate is through sex and violence. She’s become so used to being abused by Frank that she has lost some of her identity to him — she even emulates some of his behavior with Jeffrey, such as screaming a phrase he often uses: “Don’t look at me!” With every move Dorothy makes, you fear for her, so you understand why Jeffrey wants to save her — you want to save her, too.
Sandy Williams (Laura Dern)
The other main female character in Blue Velvet is Sandy Williams, the daughter of the police detective working the case of an unidentified severed ear which Jeffrey Beaumont finds in a field. She meets Jeffrey when he visits her father to talk about the case and the pair strike up an immediate friendship. Sandy is a little bit younger than Jeffrey — she is a high school senior while he is in college — and is sweet, charming and beautiful and has a positive outlook on life. She also has the same curiosity about the mysteries surrounding their hometown of Lumberton that he does. After Sandy tells Jeffrey about a crazy case she has overheard her father talk about involving Dorothy Vallens that might be connected to the severed ear, the pair decide to launch their own investigation into the mystery.
As the two get more drawn into the Dorothy Vallens/severed ear situation, Jeffrey becomes torn between these two women he finds to be so mysterious. As much as he’s drawn to Dorothy, because he wants to save her, he’s also drawn to Sandy because she loves life and has an intense curiosity about it — and he knows he’ll likely never have to save her from anything. But Sandy isn’t so sure about him — she is afraid to get involved with Jeffrey because she sees how intense he is and how fascinated he is with Dorothy. But she eventually gives into her feelings, admitting that she loves him.
It isn’t long, though, until Sandy finds out that Jeffrey has been sleeping with Dorothy. She is angry at this discovery, but rather than breaking things off with him, she tells him she still loves him and accepts his apology. She seems to not only accept Jeffrey’s affair, but almost understands it after she witnesses the results of Dorothy’s victimization first-hand. She seems to want to take care of Dorothy, too. Eventually, the case comes to a close, Jeffrey and Sandy make amends and, in a strangely straightforward happy ending for a Lynch film, wind up together.
Wild at Heart (1990)
Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd)
Marietta Fortune is one of my favorite female characters not only of any Lynch movie, but in all of film. She is controlling, manipulative, charming and completely batshit insane. If you think Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford from Mommie Dearest is the winner of the Campiest and Most Horrifying Mother award, think again — that shit belongs to Diane Ladd’s Marietta.
She will try to fuck your boyfriend in the bathroom at a party.
Then, after he refuses her and stays with you, she will try to have you killed — multiple times.
She says she loves, you, but all she wants to do is control you. And when she can’t, she will lose her goddamned mind.
I think that Ladd gives one of the most entertaining, over-the-top performances of the past 30 years and it is because of her that Marietta is the insanely amazing character she is. I definitely don’t think anyone else could’ve played Marietta any better than she did. And the fact that she lost the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Whoopi Goldberg is a travesty. Seriously, how do you not reward that performance with every acting award that exists?
Lula Fortune (Laura Dern)
In direct contrast to the controlling Marietta is her rebellious, free-spirited daughter Lula, portrayed by Lynch favorite, Laura Dern, who is also Diane Ladd’s real-life daughter. Lula is young, beautiful and sexual and is not afraid to express herself and her love for her boyfriend, Sailor (Nicolas Cage). But past that confident sexuality lies innocence, naivete and ignorance, which Sailor is constantly referencing when he speaks to her (“The way your head works is God’s own private mystery”), though he’s almost always genuine and affectionate with her and rarely treats her like an idiot. He loves everything about her, especially her enthusiasm for him, even when he’s telling her about sex with another woman.
Even though Lula may seem to be sort of a dumb sexpot, there’s more to her than meets the eye. She is damaged, having been raped by a family friend and aborted a subsequent pregnancy. She doesn’t talk about her past much and when she does, she doesn’t act as though it’s a big deal, though it has clearly affected her and her emotional growth. She constantly makes references to elements of The Wizard of Oz, such as equating her journey with Sailor to traveling down the Yellow Brick Road; telling Sailor he takes her over the rainbow when they have sex; clicking the heels of her red pumps together to try and get out of a horrible situation with scumbag Bobby Peru (Willem Defoe); and having visions of Marietta as the Wicked Witch of the West.
Despite the childlike behavior, she is also very perceptive and she knows that she and Sailor have placed themselves in the middle of a very dangerous situation, even if he won’t heed her warnings that they need to get out. Eventually, Lula proves to be the most mature character of them all — she does a good job raising her son, despite having to do so without Sailor. She finally stands up to batshit crazy Marietta without having to run away. And she never gives up on Sailor, even when he almost gives up on her. And, so, we get another strange and ironic Lynch happy ending.
Lost Highway (1997)
Renee Madison/Alice Wakefield (Patricia Arquette)
One thing I’ve noticed in all my years of David Lynch fandom is that he really loves dual roles when it comes to his female characters. And Patricia Arquette gets the privilege of playing one of the best in Lost Highway. She starts out as Renee Madison, the mysterious, raven-haired wife of jazz musician Fred (Bill Pullman). She is softspoken and sad, obviously unhappy in her marriage — she can barely even make love to her husband without letting on that it’s just a pity fuck. And he knows something is wrong, too. His insecurities about the marriage manifest themselves in crazy nightmares about her. Only, it isn’t her. Or is it?
And then Fred is arrested for Renee’s murder and sent to death row. But while he’s there, some shit goes down and he becomes another person. I don’t mean that the prison experience profoundly affects him and his personality changes. I mean he literally morphs into a completely different person — Fred disappears and the young, hot, dangerous Pete Dayton is there in his place. And eventually, Pete meets this gorgeous, blonde sexpot named Alice. And guess what? Alice looks just like Renee, only with blonde hair.
But Alice is seemingly very different from Renee. While Renee was quiet and understated, Alice is overt and agressive. While Renee was secretive, Alice puts it all out there. She is extremely sexual — she even does porn films. She is in a bad situation with a man and needs a way out — which is Pete, of course. Or does she? Nothing is really as it seems with this woman.
So, what’s the deal with these characters? Are Alice and Renee really two different people? I don’t think so. I think Alice is just a manifestation of the wild side of Renee, the one she never let Fred see but that he always suspected existed (I also think that Pete is the same manifestation of Fred’s wild side). The only way for Fred to make sense of anything that is happening to him — and to understand his wife and her secret life of kink — is to break elements of their lives and personalities into pieces that he can look at more closely, then try to put back together into one big, convoluted puzzle. The only problem is that puzzle never really gets completely solved. Now, that’s more like it, Lynch.
Mulholland Drive (2001):
Rita/Camilla (Laura Harring)
Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts)
After Lost Highway, Lynch took a break from confusing the hell out of everyone and directed a pretty straightforward movie for Disney called, appropriately, The Straight Story, which was a lovely film. But you can’t keep Lynch from being Lynch for long and two years after that film’s release, he delivered Mulholland Drive, a modern noir thriller featuring possibly the most perplexing plot of any of his films. Part of the confusion may come from the fact that the film was originally supposed to be the pilot of a television series, but was then turned into a feature-length movie, leaving a lot of open-ended, overlapping stories — and a lot of questions unanswered.
Where do I even begin discussing the two main female characters of this movie? Or should I say, four main female characters. I was going to discuss them separately, but their stories are so intertwined, I think it makes more sense — if that’s possible — to discuss them together.
The story starts with an unnamed dark-haired woman (Harring) who narrowly escapes being murdered after the limousine she’s traveling in is in an accident on Mulholland Drive and she is the sole survivor. Injured and suffering from amnesia, she wonders down the hill and into Los Angeles proper, where she sneaks into a seemingly empty apartment to shower and sleep.
The next day, blonde, bubbly aspiring actress Betty Elms (Watts), who looks like she could’ve easily stepped out of the 1950s, arrives at the apartment of her aunt, where she will be staying while she auditions for film roles — the same apartment where the dark-haired woman is hiding. Betty finds the strange woman in the shower and, because she’s sweet and unsuspecting, thinks the woman is a friend of her aunt’s. Betty asks the woman her name and, since she can’t remember, tells her it’s Rita, a name she assumes after spying a poster for the Rita Hayworth film Gilda, which is very appropriate.
Rita eventually admits to Betty that she really doesn’t remember her name and since Betty is such a kind soul, she decides to help Rita figure out who she really is. The pair look in Rita’s purse to see if they might find an ID of some sort, but all they find is a bunch of money and a weird blue key. And while having coffee at a Denny’s-type restaurant, Rita remembers the name Diane Selwyn after she notices that their waitress is named Diane. They look Diane up in the phone book and call her, but get no answer.
Betty and Rita eventually wind up at Diane Selwyn’s apartment, breaking in after no one answers the door, and find the dead body of a woman in the bedroom, presumably Diane’s. This discovery terrifies both of them and they return to Betty’s aunt’s apartment, where Rita insists that she needs to disguise herself, choosing to don a blonde wig. A few hours later, as they are preparing to fall asleep, the two women realize that they are attracted to each other and end up having sex.
Then, in the middle of the night, Rita wakes up and demands that they go somewhere and they wind up at this bizarre theater called Club Silencio. And then shit gets weird.
Of course, you know they opened that blue box — then shit got even weirder. Betty becomes Diane Selwyn, a lonely, failed actress who has been rejected by the woman with whom she’s been having an affair, Camilla Rhodes — who is, of course, Rita. Hurt and humiliated by Camilla, Diane puts a hit out on her and the man she hires to do the job says that when it is finished, Diane will find a blue key. Yes, that blue key. Then, after some hallucinations, well, let’s just say things don’t end up so great for Diane. What happens to Camilla/Rita? I don’t know.
What does it all mean? I’ve given it some thought and I’m not 100% sure — I don’t think many people who’ve seen the film are, either. I do think that this a story about Hollywood and how it can change a person — more specifically, a woman. I believe that Betty embodies hopefulness, innocence and the Hollywood dream and Rita represents Hollywood’s glamour, as well as its mysterious dark side. And the sexual relationship between them symbolizes innocence and hope being overtaken by the darkness of Hollywood. Perhaps their alter egos are a result of this change. Beyond that, I’m still trying to figure it all out. I have a feeling that if the film had been the television series Lynch originally wanted, I’d wind up even more confused.
Inland Empire (2006):
Nikki Grace/Susan Blue (Laura Dern)
Inland Empire is probably one of Lynch’s most inaccessible films, which, for him, is saying a lot. This movie is what happens when Lynch runs the show entirely and is allowed to do whatever he wants without having to answer to anyone. It’s the film of his I’ve seen the least — mostly because I don’t own it on DVD — and the one that, upon first viewing, I was the most confused by. Of course, now that I’ve seen it a few more times, I’m really no more confused by it than I am Mulholland Drive. Maybe it was just the rabbits that initially threw me.
Laura Dern returns to the Lynch world to give one of the best, most chilling performances I’ve ever seen her give. She plays Nikki Grace, an actress who hasn’t worked in a long time and who is desperate to play the role of the mysterious Susan Blue in a new film being directed by a highly respected director (Jeremy Irons). She does get cast, but not before some crazy Polish woman, played by another Lynch favorite, the wonderful Grace Zabriskie, shows up at her house spouting some inane gibberish that is supposed to be foreboding, but that Nikki doesn’t understand.
Once she starts rehearsing the film with the director and her leading man, Devon (Justin Theroux), more strange shit happens, like all of them seeing a strange figure on set that disappears when Devon goes searching to see who it is. Finally, the director tells his stars that the film they’re starring in is actually a remake of a supposedly cursed Polish film and that may explain some of the weirdness. Fun!
Nikki is a beautiful, refined woman and Devon is also pretty hot — and a notorious womanizer. He’s warned not to try to fuck Nikki because her husband, who is a powerful rich dude, will destroy him. But Devon isn’t concerned because he says he’s not attracted to her at all. Of course, then filming starts and the two become attracted to each other and, well, you know.
As filming continues, Nikki’s perception of reality starts getting blurred. She embraces her character, particularly her sensuality, and slowly starts to believe that she is Susan. Before long, she can’t tell what’s real and what’s happening the film.
Throughout the rest of the film, Nikki drifts between her real life, the world of the movie she’s filming and the original Polish film that holds the curse. It becomes harder to tell what’s going on — for her and for the audience. We see what we think is Susan’s life — she’s low-class, lives in a ’60s-style house, is married to a man who abuses her and who then joins the circus, and then she falls in love with a rich man to escape her terrible life.
But then things change so quickly, we don’t know who we’re dealing with, and neither does she. For example, we think it’s Susan hanging out in the ’60s house (the only way I could figure that out is because Susan always wears a ponytail and trashy make-up), but then all these women show up who are apparently the ghosts of women Devon has fucked. So is it Nikki in the house? Are these women real? Is Nikki making them up? Are they representative of parts of Nikki’s psyche? What the hell?
Add to the confusion the actress from the original Polish film, who seems to be trapped in some hotel room, watching some of the film’s action on a television set. Are she and Nikki both trapped in the same role? Does Nikki have to experience what she experiences for them both to be set free from this bizarre reality-bending prison?
And what’s making Nikki lose her grip on reality? Is it the alleged Polish curse? Or was she already ready to snap and the pressures of filming the movie and getting involved with her co-star sent her over the edge? What is wrong with her?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I can speculate (and I just did, I suppose, through my questions) but I don’t think Lynch really wants his audience to know the answers. I think we’re supposed to walk away from that movie just as fucked up as Nikki. And I think he accomplishes that goal quite nicely.