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Alex W. Bordino

Fictional worlds constructed within fictional worlds, or metafiction, have admittedly become overused in contemporary cultural production, though they nevertheless serve as a form of postmodern social critique. Patricia Waugh defines metafiction in linguistic terms, drawing from its long-standing tradition in literature, as a means toward questioning the arbitrariness of language:

Language is an independent, self-contained system which generates its own ‘meanings’. Its relationship to the phenomenal world is highly complex, problematic and regulated by convention. ‘Meta’ terms, therefore, are required in order to explore the relationship between this arbitrary linguistic system and the world to which it apparently refers.[1]


For Waugh, “metafiction sets up an opposition to language,” challenging its ability to present objective facts about the real world, which serves as “the basis for a potentially constructive social criticism.”[2] David Lynch’s 2006 film Inland Empire constructs several layers of metafiction, which, in their multiplicity, are more radically transgressive than the typical film-within-a-film scenario. Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), an actress who at times transmogrifies into her character, a lower-class prostitute named Susan Blue, experiences a trans-diegetic journey by literally becoming her character in the film within the film, On High in Blue Tomorrows. Although the film seems to devolve into an endless spiral of incoherence as Nikki/Sue’s existential crisis exacerbates, we can taxonimize five metafictive layers, or diegetic worlds, established by Lynch:

  1. Nikki’s unconscious reality

  2. The primary storyline—Nikki and Devon acting in the film On High in Blue Tomorrows

  3. The diegesis of On High in Blue Tomorrows

  4. A red light district in Poland

  5. The Rabbits (apartment 47)

The obfuscation of Nikki’s existential self (1), her material reality (2), and the diegetic world of Sue in the film within the film (3), along with the historically, geographically, and netherworldly spaces of Poland (4) and apartment 47 (5), illustrate hidden truths and histories that exist in conjunction with what appears superficially. Through these metafictive layers, Lynch disrupts time and space, self-reflexively deconstructing cinematic conventions, while aligning this deconstruction with the penultimate triumph of a female heroine over the Hollywood system. I argue that, through metafiction, Nikki’s journey serves to disrupt patriarchal authority and reverse the male gaze associated with traditional Hollywood spectatorship.


Nikki, Before and After

In order to demarcate the metafictive layers, I will outline each as they progress autonomously throughout the film. For example, layer 1, Nikki’s unconscious reality, only appears at two moments. It begins as we see Visitor #1 (Grace Zabriskie) approaching Nikki’s Gothic mansion early in the film, and returns just prior to the end credit sequence. I refer to this diegetic layer as Nikki’s unconscious reality. Like a subject dreaming, Nikki appears to passively lack volition as the Visitor insists on truths that Nikki is reluctant to accept. And we literally see the exact same image of Nikki turning her head to see herself at the end of the film, as if this layer of her reality exists outside of temporal restraints. The Visitor insists that there will be a murder in On High in Blue Tomorrows, a film that Nikki has auditioned for, despite Nikki’s assertion that it is “not part of the story.” The insistence by the Visitor indicates that she is correct and Nikki is not, as if Nikki had misread the script, or, the more likely scenario, that the Visitor is able to see what the film will become in the future, which, as we come to learn, will include a murder, the murder of Nikki’s character, Sue. In other words, the character of Visitor #1 is able to transcend temporal boundaries, indicating that the conclusion of both films—On High in Blue Tomorrows and Inland Empire—is predetermined. My use of the term “unconscious” draws from psychoanalysis, particularly the Freudian/Lacanian model that positions identity as something absent, not based on a linguistically determined notion of “self.” Lacan more elaborately illustrates how the unconscious self is the real self, as opposed to the symbolic and imaginary constructions of the physical and linguistic worlds around us.[3] Reading layer 1 in this way clarifies that in these moments it is as if Nikki has transcended the imaginary and symbolic worlds and gained access to her unconscious, thus positioning her in an atemporal state of looking at her material self as she has changed over the course of the temporal film.

Visitor #1’s arrival does not mark the beginning of the film but rather occurs after a prologue introducing us to layers 4 and 5. The prologue will be discussed later, but it is important to note that it begins with a Lost Girl (Karolina Kruszka), presumably enslaved into prostitution, watching a television program that briefly includes Visitor #1 approaching Nikki’s home. Todd McGowan insists that this diegetic split between the Lost Girl and the ensuing story of Nikki marks a distinction between reality and fantasy, the latter in a sense being conjured up by the Lost Girl, and the invocation of cinematic/televisual metafiction as the embodiment of that fantasy implicates Hollywood as the producer of such fantasies.[4] This is a useful lens for examining Inland Empire if we consider fantasy as a layer of reality, one that is distinct from reality but may implicate it, or physically connect with it, as Nikki and the Lost Girl kiss in the final moments of the film. In turn, fantasy serves a self-reflexive function. The Lost Girl as a spectator serves as a self-referential acknowledgment of our own spectatorship. Viewing her spectating reinforces our own position as spectators. Therefore, a strict dichotomy between fantasy and reality is problematic. Her reality is also our fantasy. What then is our reality? And how do we distinguish the multiple diegeses that Lynch presents us in terms of being either real or fantasmatic projections? Lynch frames his film by addressing these superficial distinctions and ambiguously posing these questions to the audience.

The break between layers 1 and 2 occurs when Visitor #1 indicates that tomorrow Nikki will be sitting across the room. She points, Nikki turns her head, and we see her the following day receiving a call from her agent informing her that she has been offered the role in On High in Blue Tomorrows. There appears to be a diegetic separation here, not merely a cut to a later moment in time, since Nikki from yesterday (layer 1) is able to view the scene tomorrow (layer 2). The Nikki depicted in this later scene is strikingly different, more childish and less mild-mannered than the bourgeois woman seen previously. As I have thus far argued, the encounter with Visitor #1 occurs outside of physical reality, where Nikki exists as her unconscious self, looking in on her material existence as a Hollywood actress. Approximately two and a half hours later in the film, we observe what is virtually the same shot of Nikki turning her head to the other side of the room. Here the shot is slightly longer, and Nikki now sees herself sitting alone confidently. We might insinuate that this layer exists separately from most of the film and that these two moments—Nikki first seeing herself as an aspiring starlet then seeing herself as an empowered woman—exist consecutively and not 150 minutes apart. Therefore, Lynch destabilizes the notion of cinematic runtime.

Nikki’s encounter with Visitor #1 begins as an innocent introduction to her new neighbor who lives in a house that is “difficult to see from the road.” Nikki politely claims that she thinks she knows where this house is, but her uncertainty, and the Visitor’s insistence on its difficulty to see, questions the verisimilitude of the house’s existence, which in turn makes the Visitor not only eccentric but also utterly mysterious. Where did this individual come from? Why is she visiting Nikki in a world where, as Nikki mentions, it is rare to introduce oneself to one’s neighbors? Ultimately we discover her purpose to have something to do with the film Nikki has auditioned for. The conversation’s polite tone shifts to hostility when the Visitor discovers that Nikki’s husband is not involved in her film, or perhaps more accurately, Nikki is not aware of his involvement. This information motivates the Visitor to recite a tale about a little boy who, when he goes out to play, gives birth to evil. A variation on this tale, according to the Visitor, involves a girl “lost in the marketplace as if half-born.” As we later discover, Nikki will get lost in the marketplace, allegorical to the capitalist market of Hollywood, and discover a passage in the alley behind the marketplace, which, as the Visitor continues, “is the way to the palace.” These two tales not only foreshadow a situation Nikki will encounter but also inscribe specific gender associations; men have created evil, women are lost and half-born. However, women may find the way to the palace through a metaphorical birth canal that is difficult to unearth but nevertheless remains ancillary to the capitalist marketplace.

But what is perhaps most striking about these two instances of layer 1 is the presence of Nikki’s husband, Piotrek (Peter J. Lucas), in the earlier scene only. Here Piotrek is standing at the top of a staircase gazing down menacingly as Nikki and her friends celebrate the good news. He is clearly in a position of power and likely of greater social standing than his partner, who is well known but still seeking star status. It is noteworthy that he looks at the women but they do not look back. He not only possesses the power of the gaze but also is physically positioned above them. Additionally, his dissatisfaction upon viewing this scene indicates that he does not support Nikki’s career ambitions. We do later discover that he is concerned about potential infidelities with Nikki’s co-star, Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), an attractive young womanizer. Indeed, when Piotrek confronts Devon later in the film he refers to Nikki as “bound” to him. But I’d suggest that his dissatisfaction is linked more to an institutional disruption, not a personal affair. Nikki’s success in On High in Blue Tomorrows threatens his patriarchal dominance. And Piotrek’s absence in the final scene illustrates that the overbearing husband, and his leering gaze, no longer “binds” Nikki.

According to Nochimson, “Nikki’s success is counted neither in industry rewards nor coupledom but rather . . . in the energizing of her life and artistry through inner awareness.”[5] The energizing element is exemplified in the final credit sequence, which depicts the empowered Nikki in her mansion with a group of women, what Nochimson refers to as “a carnival of radiant inner unity.”[6] Noteworthy in this sequence are the presence of a monkey and the presence of a man sawing wood. The former appears to be an intertextual reference to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, a film that established many tropes regarding Hollywood self-reflexivity, and which Lynch has often publicly claimed to be one of his favorite films. In the film, a pet monkey belonging to an aged Hollywood has-been, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), is laid to rest, symbolizing the death of a primitive order, more specifically the death of Hollywood’s silent era.[7] Although the monkey in Inland Empire is alive, this reference nevertheless recalls the theme of a new era in Hollywood being set forth. This moment is also the film’s penultimate feminist catharsis, and it is therefore not coincidental that a man is sawing wood, clearly a destruction of the phallus. Women in Inland Empire abolish Hollywood patriarchy and celebrate this accomplishment in the closing sequence. This occurs as part of layer 1, Nikki’s unconscious, external existence from the other meta-diegetic spaces.         


On High in Blue Tomorrows

During a pre-production meeting, director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) announces, “We’re going to plunge into it”—“it” being the script for On High in Blue Tomorrows, and indeed, Nikki, as well as the spectator, will plunge into it, nearly inescapably. The Hollywood depicted in Inland Empire is a desolate, almost post-apocalyptic, neo-noir landscape. The soundstage being used for the set of Smithy’s house, a locale in On High in Blue Tomorrows, feels like an abandoned post-industrial warehouse that employs nobody other than the two stars, the director, and his assistant, Freddie (Harry Dean Stanton), who needs to solicit money from the stars to pay his rent. With the exception of one incident involving an incompetent gaffer off-screen (the uncredited voice of David Lynch himself), there are no prominently visible crew members. Lynch’s Hollywood is dysfunctional. The system is likely bankrupt and the assembly line is no longer functioning properly, but the stars remain wealthy, though they are ultimately placed in a dangerous position. Director Kingsley discloses the curse of the script, a remake of an earlier film—based on a Polish gypsy folktale titled Vier Sieben (four seven), which we later discover is the Rabbits’ apartment number—that was never completed because the two leads were murdered. I would suggest that the curse of the Vier Sieben script allegorizes the threat facing the star system. The over inflation of the star system positions the stars in a precarious position, synonymous with death, and the inability to complete projects serves to bankrupt the below-the-line creative laborers. It will become the role of Nikki to overcome this threat and deflate the system as it currently operates.

The first instance of diegetic overlap occurs during the shooting of On High in Blue Tomorrows. At first, the spectator may not realize that Nikki and Devon are performing for the camera. This is still primarily layer 2 insofar as the leads are acting for the film and have not yet become their characters. However, these instances of diegetic overlap continue until the boundary between layers 2 and 3 becomes obfuscated. In this particular scene, the camera remains inconspicuously off screen but is eventually revealed to the spectator.[8] In another scene, Devon, or perhaps his character, Billy Side (it is not entirely clear at first), attempts to seduce Nikki/Sue. Kingsley and the camera crew are then revealed as the film cuts to a wider shot. A later scene set in the same location, which we now know is a set for On High in Blue Tomorrows, explicates Nikki’s own confusion between script and reality in her exclamation, “Damn, this sounds like dialogue from our script,” assuming that her dialogue with Billy is actually a real conversation with Devon regarding the fact that her husband, Piotrek, knows about their extramarital affair and will kill Devon. We subsequently witness Nikki/Sue and Devon/Billy engaging in sexual intercourse for the first time. Piotrek voyeuristically looks on from the doorway, indicating that this is not On High in Blue Tomorrows. However, what the viewer does not yet know is that Piotrek is identical to Sue’s husband, Smithy, in the film within the film. Devon/Billy refers to her as Sue, and there are no cameras present, indicating that he has taken on his metafictive counterpart. This scene is significant in its position as a gateway between layers 2 and 3. In a confused state, Nikki/Sue refers to the scene in the alley behind the marketplace, which she claims was shot yesterday but will actually occur tomorrow. Nikki/Sue’s illogical temporal explanation is actually quite rational if one amalgamates the diegeses of layers 2 and 3 and considers them concurrent at this particular moment; the scene in the alley was shot yesterday in layer 2 but has not yet occurred in layer 3, which further points to the fabrication of non-linear shooting schedules.

It is noteworthy that Piotrek’s dominating gaze is prevalent throughout this transition from Nikki’s world to Sue’s meta-diegetic world. As a voyeuristic spectator, Piotrek looks on at the adulterous lovemaking, unbeknownst to Nikki/Sue and Devon/Billy. Several scenes later, Sue finds herself on the set of On High in Blue Tomorrows, looking on at Devon and Nikki practicing lines, a scene witnessed earlier in the film in which an intruder enters the soundstage and mysteriously vanishes. We now know the intruder to be Sue! In an attempt to hide among the set pieces, she notices Piotrek staring at her. This is the first instance that she acknowledges his gaze and looks back, but this action frightens her so much that she retreats into the doorway of her character’s house. The set piece is not an actual house but becomes one as Sue enters. It is this precise moment that the full shift from layer 2 to 3 occurs, and it is not coincidental that it is instigated by the recognition of Piotrek’s gaze.

Laura Mulvey has famously argued that Hollywood cinema is constructed with a specifically male spectator in mind, objectifying female bodies on screen for the pleasure of the male gaze and coercing the female spectator to possess that point of view.[9] Lynch uses Piotrek’s gaze to reveal this tradition and encourage the viewer to embody his gaze uncomfortably, as a self-reflexive acknowledgement that the cinematic gaze is male-dominant. And it is no coincidence that the diegesis of On High in Blue Tomorrows becomes reality after Piotrek’s gaze is acknowledged by the gazed-upon female body. Sue’s recognition of this gaze provokes her to seek sanctuary in the diegesis, and her immersion in the diegetic world serves to shelter her from the realization that she is being looked at. The fact that it is the gaze of Piotrek—the overbearing husband who controls the economic status of their bourgeois home while also attempting to control, or bind, his spouse—confirms that this gaze is both male and patriarchal.

Layer 3 does not begin here, however. In fact, several scenes earlier in the film we discover Billy’s wife, Doris Side (Julia Ormond), in a police station confessing that she has been hypnotized and will kill someone with a screwdriver. In the linear narrative of On High in Blue Tomorrows, this event should occur much later. But as we plunge deeper into layer 3, we find that the linear trajectory of the film within the film is rearranged by the linear trajectory of Inland Empire, thus exacerbating Sue’s confusion. As Nikki later asserts in her consultation with Mr. K (Erik Crary), “I don’t know what was before or after. I don’t know what happened first, and it’s kinda laid a mind fuck on me.” But Sue’s confusion can ameliorate the viewer’s confusion if we recognize these events as cognitively layered. Here Lynch positions mental processes, in this case Nikki’s memory, in non-linear terms; that is, memory, unlike conventional cinema, can lay a mind fuck on us by disrupting our linear perception of reality. Filmmakers like Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais, whose temporal narratives unfold cognitively, not chronologically, also illustrate this. The fragmentation of temporal moments in the film within the film forces us to acknowledge that they could conceivably be rearranged otherwise by the filmmaker, which demonstrates the constructedness of cinematic time while also asserting its ability to achieve something closer to cognitive temporality.

Sue’s story unfolds rather mundanely, quite the opposite of her Hollywood starlet counterpart. Sue is abused by her husband, presumably forced into prostitution, and reflects on male assault stories in her consultations with Mr. K. Through her role as the savior, Nikki/Sue is charged with the task of altering the script to include a murder, the self-sacrificial murder of herself as Sue, to liberate the others and, consequently, her own self as Nikki. Sue’s death by screwdriver on Hollywood Boulevard offers a sacrifice for Nikki, while simultaneously portraying the grotesqueness of Hollywood. As Kingsley and the camera apparatus are revealed, Nikki emerges from the dead body of Sue, reborn through Sue’s hardships. The experience of literally becoming Sue allows Nikki to synthesize this persona, and the years of patriarchal oppression it represents, with her own, thus empowering her to destroy the Phantom (Krzysztof Majchrzak) and free the Lost Girl.


Red Lights and Rabbits

Like layers 2 and 3, layers 4 and 5 are inextricably fused and buttress the first three layers in a self-reflexive manner. The film’s prologue begins with a record player and voice-over describing a radio program, “Axxon-n, the longest running radio play in history.” Alanna Thain describes the record player “as a composited interface that connects Dern’s character to the Lost Girl. Mediums of recording open channels across space and time.”[10] Robert Sinnerbrink makes a similar argument vis-à-vis time; that is, how media records temporal moments and can later conjure up those moments, thus complicating our rational notions of time: “Gramophone needles, movie cameras, DV cameras, even the strange camera obscura using cigarette and silk screen that we see later in the film; all of these devices make possible this haunting capture of an absent present, this ghostly presence of the past.”[11]

This particular Axxon-n broadcast features a scene “continuing from the Baltic region, a gray winter day in an old hotel,” consisting of an older man enslaving a young Polish woman into prostitution. We next see the Lost Girl watching television in what appears to be the same room, likely the same woman from the previous scene, though this is not entirely clear. This space constitutes layer 4. The television displays layer 5, a family of human-sized rabbits, based on Lynch’s 2002 film Rabbits. The Rabbits appear as nothing more than a dubiously comedic television sitcom viewed by the Lost Girl. Canned laughter is invoked as one of the female rabbits inquires, “What time is it?” The arbitrariness of this laughter highlights the Rabbits’ association with lackluster American television, and the fact that this particular question goes unanswered further positions the notion of time as ambivalent and arbitrary. The Lost Girl does not conform to the mass audience’s inane laughter but instead appears utterly disturbed, enough so that she is often forced to tears, and she is seen almost exclusively in close-up, augmenting the viewer’s empathy through proximity. The Rabbits exist in a diegetic metanarrative that is patriarchal, heteronormative, and positions women as domestic workers. The Male Rabbit has returned home from work while the two female rabbits have seemingly been home all day to take his calls and iron clothes. By responding to the canned laughter with shock and tears, the Lost Girl provides an alternative gaze to this hegemonic cultural text, one that rejects both its superficial laughter and also, arguably, its normative representation of gender roles.

The film does not return to layers 4 and 5 until Nikki becomes Sue. After discovering a red light in Smithy’s house, the group of prostitutes transport Sue to the streets of Poland. Light, notably red light in this case, often acts as a liaison between worlds. The record player, superimposed with an image of the Lost Girl as she explains how to burn a hole through a piece of cloth with a cigarette in order to reverse time, returns to function as a medium for Sue and the Lost Girl to communicate. Sue later performs this trick in order to reverse time. However, as Thain observes, what is seen through the cloth hole is not the traversal of time but simply more cloth:

A hole is burned in the silk that functions like an optical device to frame space, while duration (the burning cigarette as
an alternative to metrical clock time) literally burns a passage through rationalized time; however, this frame doesn’t hold
as a window onto the world. Instead, the silk is folded over so that what is framed and highlighted is the texture of the silk
itself, a doubling of perception that screens passage. The texture of the screen itself is made visible, as a cinematic time
machine that doesn’t look out onto a represented world as through a window, nor reflects a world as in a mirror, but instead shows us a secret coherence and connectivity of texture. What Susan seeks to see in those instants is what cannot be
represented directly, but which comes to us through the figure of the interface—the figural quality of audiovisual media.[12]

In other words, the simultaneity, and atemporality, of the meta-layers depicted in the film is difficult to observe phenomenologically and can be assisted through the intervention of media. This media could be electricity, recorded sound, or cinema itself, all of which can both deceive and unearth truths otherwise hidden by direct, material human experience. Inland Empire asserts that Hollywood is hegemonic and sexist. But it also asserts that the way to transgress this is through media, in Nikki/Sue’s case through the production of the film On High in Blue Tomorrows. Inland Empire demonstrates how media can be used to empower women through communication, and ultimately the construction of multiple and overlapping diegetic worlds serves that purpose.


Synthesis and Reversal

The notion of layered realities is present throughout Lynch’s oeuvre. For example, the opening sequence of Blue Velvet (1986) depicts a picturesque suburban landscape juxtaposed with the grotesque underworld of dirt and insects. A similar process of layered realities is present in Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001). Anna Katharina Schaffner contends that these films, as well as Inland Empire, “constitute a thematic trilogy,” all of which involve the splitting of the self and the splitting of temporal and spatial unity.[13] In Lost Highway, When Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) transforms into the younger, more virile Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), the former enacts his fantasy of being able to sexually satisfy his discontent spouse, Renee (Patricia Arquette), who takes on the persona of Alice (also played by Patricia Arquette) in the fantasy. According to Žižek, “By this direct confrontation of the reality of desire with fantasy, Lynch DECOMPOSES the ordinary ‘sense of reality’ sustained by fantasy into, on the one side, pure, aseptic reality and, on the other side, fantasy: reality and fantasy no longer relate vertically (fantasy beneath reality, sustaining it), but horizontally (side by side).”[14] A similar process is elucidated in Inland Empire and made clear at the start. The five diegetic layers that I have outlined can be identified and differentiated, but ultimately their non-linearity and obfuscated boundaries illustrate their synthesis; that is, the perceptual distinction between reality and fantasy, reality and mediated diegesis, is problematic, and in fact these are various layers of reality that overlap and interact with each other.

The program about Rabbits that the Lost Girl watches on television concludes when the male Rabbit exits the room to investigate a sound. He finds himself in another room that transforms from layer 5 to layer 4 as he disappears and the Phantom and Janek (Jan Hencz) appear. This early sequence indicates how transparent the borders are between what appears to be real and what appears to exist as metafiction or conjured-up fantasy. And the Lost Girl’s world is itself metafiction, an Axxon-n radio broadcast, so these layers seem to produce a mise-en-abyme of infinite possible diegeses. Likewise, temporal boundaries are challenged. This sequence appears to not take place in the present (presumably some time during radio’s earliest days) but will inevitably intersect with the contemporary journey of Nikki/Sue.

Sinnerbrink draws from Deleuzian theory to develop the concept of “cinematic thinking,” which consists in a pluralistic experience of various representations as a means toward critiquing modern culture.[15] Inland Empire can be assessed as a manifestation of this theoretical concept: “‘Axxon N.’ is cinematic thinking in action: a topologically linked series of nested narrative filmworlds; a rhizomatic ‘filmind’ or ‘Inland Empire’; the self-consciousness of a corrupted Hollywood tradition, now undergoing its own skeptical crisis of belief.”[16] This seems to be what Lynch is getting at with the film’s title. As we mentally recess inland we discover an empire of seemingly infinite spaces. The convoluted substructures of Inland Empire are thus substantiated as layers of mental activity. This form of metafictive storytelling is not only far more radical than the traditional film-within-a-film scenario but is also constructed by Lynch as a means toward transgressing the traditional roles of female subjects on screen (Nikki/Sue) as well as female spectators (the Lost Girl).

As the film evolves, the semblance of dichotomized boundaries between meta-layers further deteriorates. We see this throughout Nikki’s journey as Sue. She calls the Rabbits on a telephone, sees the Lost Girl through Smithy’s bloody shirt, and visits her next-door neighbor, Crimp, who is in fact the Phantom. One particular scene in Poland demonstrates how the soundtrack can function to obfuscate layers, as The Lost Girl is present but can only be heard, not seen, by Smithy. She exists here through sound but exists at a different meta-layer visually. Upon Smithy’s exit she vanishes entirely, and the three older Polish men rearrange themselves in order to transform into the Rabbits. The conflation of the Rabbits with a diegesis consisting of a much earlier time in Poland, personifies the Rabbits as historically older, perhaps the beginning televisual entertainment, which, like the long-established profession of prostitution, marginalizes women and empowers men. In Inland Empire these layers are synthesized, and the concluding sequence suggests that their deconstruction may serve to upturn hegemonic traditions and inaugurate a new regime.

Nikki emerges from layer 3 upon Sue’s death on Hollywood Boulevard. After exiting the soundstage, she spots her audience, the Lost Girl, while finding herself on screen as Sue. What is realized is not necessarily that she was trapped in Sue’s diegetic world but that through this journey she has retained Sue’s history of misogynistic oppression. On screen Sue approaches the red light in Smithy’s house. This prompts a cut to the theatre where Nikki watches. What is now being presented on screen is Nikki’s gaze, on the one hand implying that her physical reality and the metafiction are not distinct, but on the other hand empowering her to control it. Nikki seeing herself on screen asserts the completion of the reversal of the male gaze. The image of herself playing a prostitute that has suffered abuse her whole life is, throughout the film, not an image to be looked at but to be sympathized with, and ultimately Nikki’s ability to view this image reifies a specifically non-masculine gaze. 

Following the lead of Mr. K, who is in fact an anthropomorphized version of the male rabbit, Nikki rediscovers the Axxon-n entryway, which leads her to the Phantom, whom she destroys. As the Phantom’s face disintegrates, it temporarily transforms into a wild version of Sue, which we witnessed earlier in the film. In effect, through her journey as Sue, Nikki has gained the ability to destroy the entity responsible for the oppression of women while also discovering the wild version of Sue within herself and destroying that persona. Nikki enters apartment 47, where the Rabbits have disappeared, presumably destroyed along with the Phantom. This destruction therefore abolishes the traditions of male-dominated mass entertainment. Nikki takes the stage that the Rabbits once inhabited. Her moment in the spotlight is not a moment of star glory but rather a moment of personal catharsis, which allows her to save the Lost Girl and herself. She has become the image on screen that the Lost Girl views, and for the first time the Lost Girl achieves a symbiosis between what is depicted on screen—an image of a woman that is not sexualized, demonized, or visually oppressed in any way but is instead a confident and powerful star—and her affective response to that representation. In other words, she is able to accept, and no longer resist, what she sees on screen.

When the two women ultimately make contact, they kiss, which Gonsalves asserts to be a way out of heterosexual hegemony.[17] But this observation may be somewhat shortsighted. The Lost Girl does return to her husband, who happens to be Smithy. I would therefore argue that the nature of the kiss is symbolic and not literal. Furthermore, the fact that their paths ultimately diverge—Nikki makes her way to the palace, while the Lost Girl returns to her working class husband—seems to posit a distinct class binary. According to Jonathan Goodwin:

The film’s epilogue depicts the vehicle of transformation—the actress Nikki Grace—in an enlightened state being ritually
praised by prostitutes, figurants, and other cinematic illusions. The Lost Girl has returned to her, by comparison, drab
reality and is now satisfied with it; but the implicit comparison with the exultancy of Grace’s ascent makes her atonement
and reconciliation seem almost a cruel joke. What the film invites its audience to consider instead is that the Dionysian
ecstasy of Grace’s final surroundings is the true life, if you can afford it.[18]

This is a compelling argument, though I am skeptical of assigning such a polarized relationship between the respective narrative storylines and diegetic worlds of Nikki and the Lost Girl since they consistently overlap throughout the film. However, Nikki’s position is clearly more privileged, so the presence of an economic hierarchy is worth considering. But it is not necessarily Nikki’s financial superiority that distinguishes her from the Lost Girl and allows her to experience “Dionysian ecstasy.” In fact, the final achievement of reaching the “palace” is more symbolic (enlightenment) than material (economic wealth). This is particularly evident if we consider this sequence as Nikki’s unconscious reality (layer 1). And Nikki’s prostitute cohorts, whom we may associate with Sue’s economic class, get to experience the same enlightenment. In fact, Nikki’s empowerment occurs through the act of temporarily denouncing her economic privilege. But it is important to note that Lynch is not asserting a Marxist ideology in this film. The way to the palace might involve submitting to the marginalized status of a lower class temporarily, but this is also inaugurated through the alleyway behind the marketplace, a locale that is clandestine but ancillary to the system of capitalism.

The reversal of the male gaze is achieved not through revolutionary means but through the creation of a work (in this case a film) through the same structure that established that gaze (the Hollywood film industry). Working within this alternative, not utterly radical, form, Inland Empire is also careful to not problematize heteronormative unions entirely. The Lost Girl happily returns to her husband. That is her “Dionysian ecstasy.” And although it may be disturbing that she returns to a husband who resembles Piotrek, the evil patriarch, it seems more plausible to consider Smithy as Piotrek’s benevolent doppelgänger. Indeed, the bifurcation of dual identities, malevolent and benevolent, is a consistent trope throughout Lynch’s oeuvre, most conspicuous perhaps in his recent iteration of Twin Peaks. The fact that the Lost Girl has been released from the imprisonment of the Phantom and happily returns to Smithy, who is equally content with her homecoming, further substantiates his benevolence.



By establishing meta-layers, Inland Empire illustrates hidden truths and histories that exist in conjunction with what appears superficially. In a definitively metafictive style, Lynch implicates the medium as responsible for this revelation. Drawing from the tradition of European Modernism (filmmakers such as Fellini, Bergman, and Resnais), Anthony Paraskeva identifies Lynch’s aesthetic as “digital modernism,” which is more radically self-reflexive than its predecessors as it utilizes new digital technology.[19] For Paraskeva, the self-reflexivity in Inland Empire emphasizes the process of an actor discovering her/his character through multiple potential diegetic variations. Nikki’s journey to discover her character, and thus herself, is inextricably connected to abolishing traditional patriarchal conventions. The film also critiques the social construction of women’s perceived role in society, specifically in Hollywood, and posits a disruption to these hegemonic norms via the medium itself. By opening up these diegetic layers to the spectator, much like the Phantom seeks an opening at the beginning of the film, Lynch performs a transgressive act of filmmaking, one that critiques the conventions of Hollywood film productions—the rather banal content and linearity of a film like On High in Blue Tomorrows—while also establishing a new order that abolishes traditional, male-dominated storytelling and spectatorship.



End Notes


[1]Waugh, Patricia, Metafiction (New York: Routledge, 1984), 3.


[2] Waugh, Metafiction, 11.


[3] See Lacan, Jacques, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Miller, trans.Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1981).


[4] McGowan, Todd, “The Materiality of Fantasy: The Encounter with Something in Inland Empire,” in David Lynch: In Theory, ed. Gleyzon (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2010), 384.


[5] Nochimson, Martha, “Inland Empire,” Film Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 4 (2007), 14.


[6] Nochimson, “Inland Empire,” 14.


[7] See Wilson, Scott, “Neuracinema,” in David Lynch: In Theory, ed. Gleyzon (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2010), 1972.


[8] This is notably a film camera, though Lynch rather famously used digital video for Inland Empire. He claimed, “I’m through with film as a medium. For me, film is dead.” See Lynch, David, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity (New York: Tarcher, 2007), 149. The camera used in Inland Empire, a Sony DSR-PD150, is essentially a prosumer camera that does not shoot high definition video. Its current value is under $1,000, as opposed to more contemporary high definition video cameras used on bigger budget productions, such as the Arri Alexa and the Red One, which can cost up to $80,000.


[9] See Mulvey, Laura, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Film Theory and Criticism: Fifth Edition, eds. Braudy & Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 883-844. Also see Mulvey, Laura, “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ Inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun,” Framework 15 (1981): 12-15.


[10] Thain, Alanna, “Rabbit Ears: Locomotion in Lynch’s Inland Empire,” in David Lynch: In Theory, ed. Gleyzon (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2010), 2570.


[11] Sinnerbrink, Robert, New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images (London: Continuum, 2011),145.


[12] Thain, “Rabbit Ears,” 2401.


[13] Schaffner, Anna Katharina, “Fantasmatic Splittings and Destructive Desires: Lynch’s Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire,” Forum for Modern Language Studies (Vol. 45, No. 3, 2009), 271.


[14] Žižek, Slavoj, The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch's Lost Highway (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), 24.


[15] Sinnerbrink, New Philosophies of Film, 5.


[16] Sinnerbrink, New Philosophies of Film, 151.


[17] Gonsalves, Joshua D., “‘I’m a Whore’: ‘On the Other Side’ of Inland Empire,” in David Lynch: In Theory, ed. Gleyzon (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2010), 3436.


[18] Goodwin, Jonathan, “The Separate Worlds of David Lynch's Inland Empire,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video (Vol. 31, no. 4, 2014), 318.


[19] Paraskeva, Anthony, “Digital Modernism and the Unfinished Performance in David Lynch's Inland Empire,” Film Criticism (Vol. 37, No. 1, 2012), 4.




Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. Translated by Claude Gorbman. Irvington: Columbia University Press, 1994.


Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Form. Edited and Translated by Jay Leyda. New York: Harcourt, 1949.


Gonsalves, Joshua D. “‘I’m a Whore’: ‘On the Other Side’ of Inland Empire.” In David Lynch: In Theory. Edited by Francois-Xavier Gleyzon. Prague: Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2010: 3105-3510.


Goodwin, Jonathan. “The Separate Worlds of David Lynch's Inland Empire.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vol. 31, No. 4 (2014): 309-321.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton, 1981.


Lynch, David. Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity. New York: Tarcher, 2007.


McGowan, Todd. “The Materiality of Fantasy: The Encounter with Something in Inland Empire.” In David Lynch: In Theory. Edited by Francois-Xavier Gleyzon. Prague: Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2010: 288-697.


Mulvey, Laura. “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ Inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun.” Framework 15 (1981): 12-15.


———.“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Film Theory and Criticism (Fifth Edition). Edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999: 883-844.


Nochimson, Martha. “Inland Empire.” Film Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 4 (2007): 10-14.


———. David Lynch Swerves: Uncertainty from Lost Highway to Inland Empire. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013.

Paraskeva, Anthony. “Digital Modernism and the Unfinished Performance in David Lynch's Inland Empire.” Film Criticism Vol. 37, No. 1 (2012): 2-18.


Schaffner, Anna Katharina. “Fantasmatic Splittings and Destructive Desires: Lynch’s Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire.” Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. 45, No. 3 (2009): 270-291.


Sinnerbrink, Robert. New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images. London: Continuum, 2011.


Thain, Alanna. “Rabbit Ears: Locomotion in Lynch’s Inland Empire.” In David Lynch: In Theory. Edited by Francois-Xavier Gleyzon. Prague: Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2010: 2336-2711.


Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction. New York: Routledge, 1984.


Wilson, Scott. “Neuracinema.” In David Lynch: In Theory. Edited by Francois-Xavier Gleyzon. Prague: Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2010: 1893-2335.


Žižek, Slavoj. The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch's Lost Highway. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000.

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