Falling Angels: The Women of David Lynch

Somewhere within a gauzy Hollywood mansion, three models frolic in languid poses to the insidious hook of a pop song. The decor is old world glamour filtered through a deceptive modern veneer; the dresses shimmer gold and satin, the hair tumbling into that indefinite space between the ’40s and the big long now. As the lights outside thread their way through the canyon of Los Angeles the girls fall into a kind of hyper-real trance — it’s immediately alluring and yet, as in a dream, nothing is what it seems. Their superimposed faces blur into ubiquitous fantasy; a drone of white noise escalates beneath the disco beat. Bulbs flash. Seductive discord.

Welcome to the world of David Lynch.

The scene is Lynch’s current commercial for Gucci by Gucci, but it could easily emanate from any of the director’s cinema waking states. Over three decades — from his surrealist 1977 debut Eraserhead to last year’s digital nightmare INLAND EMPIRE — Lynch has evolved into America’s most intuitive cartographer of the subconscious, an avant-garde eccentric bending the constructs of classic narrative to create unique new forms. His movies are also memorable for their complex portrayals of women who, like the sultry apparitions in the commercial, are bound up in the director’s signature obsession: the splintering of identity, the illusion of a fabricated reality versus the dark undertow of secret desire. As he writes in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, “We live inside a dream.”

Lynch’s women are unified by their fractious personalities; they’re enigmas masked in the abstraction of the ideal. In his landscape the familiar female is disrupted by an interior dissolution: apple-pie innocence and starlet myth are superficial cloaks for the turbulence of the psyche. At first they’re portrayed as varied characters: in Eraserhead, a young wife’s pregnancy results in a ghastly creature, a voluptuous femme fatale holds an unknown temptation, and a platinum siren—facially disfigured like an elephantine Doris Day — ironically offers the bliss of a transcendent utopia.

In Blue Velvet, Lynch depicts the rupture between the surface and the darkness more explicitly. With her strawberry blonde hair and pastels of picket-fence Normal Rockwell America, Laura Dern’s peachy-keen teen is like the grotesque mirror of Isabella Rossellini’s tragic chanteuse Dorothy Vallens — a woman who conceals her sado-masochistic ordeal at the hands of a psycho with blood red lips and a raven wig; a parody of control. But Dorothy’s “disease” will infect the idyllic suburbia like a psychic plague, ensnaring Lynch’s naive alter ego (Kyle MacLachlan), and even the man himself — he would later date Rossellini in real life. “Dorothy makes herself up because she is afraid of what she looks like,” said Rossellini. “She wanted to look like a doll — perfect — to hide her madness.”

The director’s fascination with small town decay would flourish in his most iconic pop culture moment — the TV series Twin Peaks — and with it, he introduced a whole new gallery of Lynchian females. The very image that launched the phenomenon — Sheryl Lee’s teenage Laura Palmer, serene, wrapped in plastic, dead — was quintessential Lynch: the angelic face obscuring an evil that coursed through the quaint backwood. “Radiant on the surface but dying inside,” he would say of his star corpse.

Like a damn fine cup of coffee and hot cherry pie, preppy girls in snug sweaters and plaid skirts — Sherilyn Fenn’s bad girl Audrey, Lara Flynn Boyle’s ingenuous Donna — are just the spark to the subliminal sexual fire. “These girls are authentically dreamy,” said Lynch, in his willfully obtuse manner, “and they’re just jam-packed with secrets.”

Around the same time, the zeitgeist merchants tapped Lynch’s unlikely appeal. His commercials for Calvin Klein’s Obsession, Armani’s Gio and later, YSL’s Opium suggest the female identity crises of his most challenging period. In “Who is Gio?” a mysterious actress eludes the paparazzi to transform into an other self, vanishing into a strange underground nightclub where her fraying life-force is restored.

Two sides to every girl. The mysteries of love. And then things get weird. Really weird. With Lost Highway, Mullholland Dr. and INLAND EMPIRE, Lynch plunges us into a full-blown panorama of multiple personality flux, daring audiences to decipher his disturbed women — or, as he might prefer, “feel” the atmosphere of their trauma, as one would process the random essence of a dream.

Patricia Arquette enters Lost Highway as an angular brunette only to morph into the bleached-blonde object of Bill Pullman’s schizoid dementia — a make-believe that also crumbles. In Mullholland Dr. Naomi Watts is a delusional actress who reconstitutes herself as a cornball hopeful — or is it the other way around? — just as Laura Harring’s slick superstar Rita succumbs to an amnesia that fuses the two women in a struggle against Hollywood’s manipulation. Evoking Hitchcock’s blonde-to-brunette riddle of Vertigo and the imagined stardom of the faded Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. (one of Lynch’s favourite films), it’s the point at which the director’s exploration of split personality achieves rapturous watershed.

If Mullholland Dr. whet the appetite, then INLAND EMPIRE was the main course. Here, Laura Dern’s petrified actress is the sum of so many parts: “A woman in trouble”, as Lynch’s synopsis bluntly asserted, haunted by the curse of a doomed production that transports her into a terrifying labyrinth of her own imaginings. She’s Alice and the Queen of Hearts, threading that path toward redemption that comes from facing her deepest fears.

And that’s the thing — for a director sometimes accused of subjecting his female leads to unspeakable horror, there is ultimately hope in the confrontation of their contradiction. Love, beauty and fatalism coexist in Lynch’s women, and in doing so they comprise a compelling whole. “I’ve always liked both sides,” Lynch once said. “The more darkness you can gather up, the more light you can see too.”

August 2008

Originally published in RUSSH

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