When David Lynch’s film Wild at Heart was awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1990, it was applauded by many, but booed by most. Two years later, his film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was booed by nearly everyone at its Cannes premier. Replete with gratuitous violence, excessive profanity, and bizarre soap opera style acting, both are at best difficult to watch and at worst entirely repulsive. However, with enough effort and an acceptance of the more abstract nature of the narrative, it is possible to enjoy Lynch’s films as the darkest kind of satire, or at least for their entrancing cinematography and settings.
David Lynch often treads the vaporous line between narrative and avant-garde, encouraging his actors to exaggerate their emotions and actions while interspersing the plot with strange, dream-like sequences and unrealistic people and events. Wild At Heart is no exception, beginning abrasively with Sailor (Nicolas Cage) brutally murdering a man attempting to assassinate him while fake blood splatters the screen and his girlfriend Lula screams incessantly. This sets up the rest of the story as bizarre mixture of gore, sex, bad southern accents, and Elvis Presley, that might make more sense if watched while inebriated. After accepting the complete lack of logic, the film is actually fairly hilarious, with Cage saying lines like, “This is a snake skin jacket and for me it’s a symbol of my individuality and my belief and personal freedom,” and running on top of cars to declare his love by singing “Love Me Tender.” Meanwhile, the plot is fairly simple, and yet still confusing because the narrative is strewn with random flashbacks and surreal non-sequitors, such as Lula’s mother smearing her entire body in red lipstick. It’s hard to tell what is symbolic and what isn’t because everything is so abstract, and although the content is mostly ridiculous, Lynch often stumbles onto more serious topics, such as sexual abuse and mental illness. As a result, the film is often uncomfortable and disturbing to watch, but rather than outright boos, it’s more deserving of spattered applause and stunned silence.
Surprisingly disconnected from the television show with which it shares half a title, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was more of a disappointment. Intended as a prequel to the show, the film depicts the last few days of Laura Palmer’s life before her tragic and iconic murder. However, while the television series manages to tread the line between humor and sincerity, the film goes too far into sensitive topics without any semblance of tact. Laura Palmer is a young girl destroyed by sexual violence and drug-abuse, but Lynch’s portrayal merely exploits her even more by flashing her exposed body at every opportunity and depicting her constantly in hysterics rather than actually establishing her character. Instead of addressing a serious topic in real terms, Laura devolves into a bizarre blend of sex symbol and misguided teen who spends half her time sobbing and the other half snorting cocaine. Although the entire film builds to the murder, instead of tragedy the actual event registers as nothing more than repulsive and nonsensical. The entire television show is built around solving the murder and attempting to find meaning in the loss and abuse of an innocent life, but the film actively does the exact opposite by deluding the plot with meaningless sex, violence, and bizarre surrealist images of the show’s red room and its regular inhabitants, including the midget, the man with one arm, and Bob, the vindictive spirit possessing Laura’s father. It is possible to interpret this lack of meaning as Lynch’s own criticism of how society views and demoralizes the victims of sexual violence, but the method he uses is so inaccessible that it is hard to grasp or even notice. The film was even more ineffective and frustrating because too many of the plot lines and characters from the television show were ignored and unaddressed despite their significance in the story. It almost would have been better if Lynch hadn’t tried to make a prequel and instead let the film become more of the experimental spin-off that he clearly wanted it to be.
Ultimately, these two films are uncomfortable to watch because it feels as if Lynch can’t decide between shock value and addressing real issues, particularly that of sexual violence. He hides behind the explicit instead of making anything of actual substance so that the films become little more than a series of mind-numbing images, each attempting to shock the viewer more than the last. However, perhaps by exposing the emptiness of our culture and depicting its darkest aspects without finding any meaning or hope, he is actually making a statement almost as challenging as his films. Either way, both Wild At Heart and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me are hard to stomach and even harder to take seriously, and compared to the artistic sensibility of Eraserhead or the intricate plot-layering of Inland Empire, they fall short of the Lynch’s other work.
Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me screen today at BAM.