A man and a woman are glimpsed, in murky black-and-white images, in a Polish hotel room, their faces mosaiced out. “You want to f*** me?” she asks. “Shut up and take off your clothes,” he answers. “I’m frightened.” she says. Cut to full color and a girl wrapped in a red sheet, crying, and watching TV. Enter into her television; it’s a strange, twisted kind of sitcom with three human-size rabbits sitting in a queasily colored 1950s-style living room. Their conversation consists of nothing but cryptic nonsequiturs: “Who could have known?” “What time is it?” “I’m going to tell them some day.” Each utterance is met with raucous canned laughter. One rabbit walks out the door on the set; he enters an ornate room where two Polish thugs are having a conversation, and then he disappears.

Cut to Hollywood. Actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) is visited by a woman in grotesquely heavy makeup (Grace Zabriskie). “I’m the new neighbor,” she says, and proceeds to quiz Nikki about a new film she might be starring in. “Is there a murder in your film?” she asks, with a disturbing insinuation. The conversation gets more and more bizarre, until the neighbor says, “If it was tomorrow, you’d be sitting over there.” Cut to the next day, and sure enough, Nikki’s sitting where predicted. The phone rings, telling Nikki she got the lead role in a film called “On High In Blue Tomorrows.” It turns out, though, that’s it’s a cursed movie, based on an old Polish folk tale — in an earlier production, both the leads were murdered.

Welcome to “Inland Empire,” David Lynch’s longest, darkest, and definitely most twisted film yet. Lynch has created the cinematic equivalent of an Escher painting; think “Mulholland Drive,” but imagine that as a mere warm-up for the acrobatic surrealism on display here. “Mulholland Drive” followed one story for about two thirds of the film, before shifting gears into an alternate reality — “Inland Empire” performs that trick not even 20 minutes into the film: Nikki Grace’s world starts to dissolve, first between her “real life” and the world of the film she’s in, then between dreams and dreams of dreams, all tantalizingly connected.

Inland Empire
Director David Lynch
Run Time 180 minutes
Language English
Opens Now showing (July 27, 2007)

“Making films is a subconscious thing,” says Lynch. “Rational thinking gets in the way. It really stops you cold.” And, boy, he sure proves that with this one. There is no rational way to explain the same actress existing as several different people in many different places . . . but what about irrational ones? Much of “Inland Empire” feels like a journey through the various levels of a mythological Hades or, as with Rita and Diane in “Mulholland Drive,” it feels like Nikki’s fate is being exchanged with someone else’s.

But what is “fate,” anyway? Quantum physics posits that particles move backward and forward in both space and time. In discussing Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “The Double Life Of Veronique” — another film which has the same actress playing two women, who may be the same person — psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek (also a Lynch fan) wrote how “the illusion that there is a ‘flow’ of time results from our narrow awareness, which allows us to perceive only a tiny strip of the total space-time continuum. Is not something similar going on in alternative narratives? Beneath ordinary reality there is another, shadowy, preontological realm of virtualities in which the same person travels back and forth, ‘testing’ different scenarios.”

That is about as clear an explanation as you’re going to get as to what’s going on here in “Inland Empire.” (Although the title is itself a hint — this is a film set in the world of the subconscious.)

On first viewing, the film comes at you in an oneiric rush — for the first hour, you’re completely disoriented. Then you start to see how the pieces may fit — Nikki’s film with the Polish curse, the Polish version of that film (called “47”), the “Lost Girl” watching TV trapped in her room, the pink room full of cheap whores swaying to “Do The Locomotion,” the mysterious “room at the top of the stairs” and, yes, even the rabbits. But just when you think you’re catching on, the film takes more hairpin turns that leave you reeling once again. Murder is on the cards . . . but the dark secrets surrounding it are hard to fathom.

Some people hate being confused or — god forbid — having to engage with a movie, and it’s a safe bet that this will not be Lynch’s most popular offering. On the other hand, it’s no more strange than “Eraserhead” — which itself dissolved between dreams and “The Girl in the Radiator” — and that was a huge cult hit in the ’70s. This is a different, less adventurous era, though, and this time around Lynch was unable to find a distributor in the States, so he booked it himself into a few small theaters. In Japan, though — ah, what a fine country this is for cinephiles! Where else could you turn on your TV late on a Saturday night and see whacked-out ads for a David Lynch film?

“Inland Empire” is not a perfect film, and at three hours, neither is it a lean one. As Kieslowski once wrote, “Absolutely everything that isn’t necessary has to be discarded. . . . The difficulty lies in being able to understand what is necessary.” In Lynch’s case, that might have been 20 to 30 minutes less than what made it into the film; in particular, the “room at the top of the stairs” sequences — basically just long monologues by Dern playing a low-rent character — could have been trimmed substantially. The film was shot on a home-use Sony DV camera as well, and while this freed up Lynch to create, the image quality is definitely a step down. But if Lynch indulging himself means we put up with some rambling, it also means we get to see him go deep into the twilight zone like he hasn’t done since “Eraserhead,” and for that, we can be thankful.

I could not tell you how the pieces of this puzzle all fit together — it would take several viewings, this is a dense film — but I do feel like I got what it was about. Lynch is a big fan of giving the viewer enough room to use his/her own imagination and intuition to work things out. As he wrote in his recently published book on creativity, “Catching The Big Fish,” “Cinema is a lot like music. It can be very abstract, but people have a yearning to make intellectual sense of it, to put it right into words. And when they can’t do that, it feels frustrating. But they can come up with an explanation from within, if they just allow it. They really do know more than they think.”

Best viewed under the influence of coffee.

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