The City of Absurdity Lost Highway
a film by David Lynch
Driven to the edge of the mind

A bizarre fantasy from David Lynch

By Quentin Curtis
The Daily Telegraph, August 22, 1997

AN EASY question to start off with. Name the director. A voice on the front-door intercom announcing that an unknown man is dead. Videotapes delivered through the door showing the couple who own the house asleep. Love-making sequences that appear to have been shot from between the man's shoulder blades. A man with a white pierrot face who seems able to be in two places at the same time. A smooth-suited thug with a temper like a pit-bull terrier's. A man's head smashed into a glass table, blood billowing out, as a porn film plays in the background.

If your answer was Merchant Ivory, have another go. The menace and mystery, the surreal shooting style, the obsession with sex, death and perversity - it could only be David Lynch. And on a weirdness scale of one to 10, Lynch's new movie, Lost Highway, scores about a 45.

It starts accessibly enough. Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette play a couple, Fred and Renee Madison, who are drifting apart. Their crimson- walled, art deco-ish apartment is sparsely furnished; their conversation all Pinteresque pauses and aching distance. Then the video arrives and the man with the white face seems to be both with Fred at a friend' s party and in Fred's house at the same time (he makes Fred ring him at home from the do). Then Fred is arrested for Renee's murder and sentenced to death. Then one morning Fred vanishes from his cell, replaced by - or probably more accurately, turning into - Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). Dayton is promptly released and has an affair with both Renee and her exact double, Alice (also Arquette), who's also the mistress of a heavy called Mr Eddy (Robert Loggia). Then it gets a little confusing.

So what does it all mean? Lynch's answer to the question is to evade it, insisting (rightly, if conveniently) that to over-analyse his work is to run the risk of stealing its soul - we murder to dissect his murder. But the odd thing about Lost Highway's mystery is that its solution is straightforward to the point of simplistic. An interview with Lynch in the film's published screenplay (Faber pounds 7.99) reveals that Arquette explains the movie as the story of a man who murders his wife, suspecting her of infidelity, and then fantasises an imaginary life, which also turns sour because of her.

In other words, the second half of the film is Fred's fantasy, the result of his stressed-out delusions (the end credits roll over David Bowie's I'm Deranged). At its best the movie is a visual poem about desire and jealousy. "You'll never have me," the Arquette character (Renee, Alice, someone else looking the same - I can't quite remember) says towards the end. The movie is about those desires that can't be quenched - the hunger to possess another person - and how they distort the mind. It's easiest to understand the film by thinking of it as taking place in Fred's anguished mind. If this explanation sounds too neat to be true, I have to admit that it rather unravelled in the last 20 minutes, leaving me reflecting that there might be other mysteries to plumb.

But it's safe to say that no other director could have made such a film without slipping into absurdity or obscurity. That's not to declare Lynch's movie a total triumph. He is a visionary film-maker, with the mind of a Fellini, but his imagination outruns his skill. For all his bravura surrealism, it's clear that Lynch (who co-wrote the film with Barry Gifford, on whose novel Lynch's Wild at Heart was based) is limited as a writer. His dialogue doesn't crackle; his characters don't develop. Since his heyday with Blue Velvet (to some the best American film of the Eighties), Lynch has gone out of fashion. One of the reasons is the rise of a generation of directors, most notably the Coens and Quentin Tarantino, who have borrowed a part of his vision and improved on his writing.

Lynch's gift is for mood rather than drama, mystery rather than resolution. Yet there is no hint of charlatanism. He is a true artist, and Lost Highway always commands attention because you sense that its creator knows precisely what he is doing. Lynch's cinema fills in the gaps that Hollywood leaves open. So, Lost Highway is a murder mystery in which we don't see the main murder - but we enter the mind of the murderer. The movie is a riposte to Hollywood. Its funniest scenes involve a couple of baffled cops (the broader one looks like a tank wearing a toupee) who come to investigate the mysterious videotape. It's Lynch's way of showing the trusty cop film to be out of its depth.

Like all Lynch films, Lost Highway is ultimately a journey into the mind of David Lynch, an extraordinary jumble of not quite sorted or connected images. It is a fun, scary, wacky place to travel once in a while - just so long as you take a return ticket.

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© Mike Hartmann