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CINEMA: Return of the Lynch mob

Ever since `Twin Peaks', David Lynch's career has foundered. Dennis Lim asks if his new film marks a return to form
If a film-maker is only as good as his last film, then for the past five years David Lynch has been in pretty bad shape. Fire Walk With Me, the movie prequel to his Twin Peaks TV series, was unveiled at Cannes in 1992 to all but unanimous scorn. The backlash against this "genius naif" (as Pauline Kael called him) was so resounding that Lynch's new film, Lost Highway - which opened last Friday in the States - is being seen by some as his final shot at critical rehabilitation. Yet the film itself is marked, not by trepidation, but a giddying, liberating sense of irresponsibility. Kinky, sensuous, disturbing and untroubled by earthly logic, Lost Highway leaves the viewer baffled and seduced in equal measure. This is not the work of a director playing safe.

Lynch, who trained to be a painter, is one of cinema's great expressionists: an expert in finding the exact visual and aural textures for sinister, barely communicable moods and sensations. This talent has never been more apparent than in the first half of Lost Highway: virtually wordless and peculiarly electrifying, it exists in a vacuum of dread. Fred (Bill Pullman) and Renee (Patricia Arquette), the main characters, live in a sparse, shadowy house in what is probably Los Angeles. Paranoia and malaise plague the couple; the source of their problems, it is implied, is a malevolent dwarf (Robert Blake), a conflation of Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks's evil Bob.

Fred eventually kills Renee (or does he?) and is consigned to Death Row, where, one night, he metamorphoses into a teenager called Pete (Balthazar Getty). After he is released, Pete begins a relationship with Alice, a gangster's moll and porn starlet, also played by Arquette. So Alice, who looks like Renee, is sleeping with Pete, who - osten- sibly - used to be Fred. The film becomes a tangle of alter-egos; a tangle which Lynch and his co-writer Barry Gifford resolve not by picking apart the threads, but by pulling the knots tighter. The story ends by folding in on itself, its energies compacted into a heart- stopping (and literal) implosion.

It will be a disgrace if a work of art this vital, fearless and intuitively brilliant fails to find an audience. But an obvious commercial difficulty is one of definition: part murder-mystery, part noir pastiche, part existential horror-flick, the film can either be seen as a study in psychosexual pathology, or as a tale of an acute identity crisis.

Lynch has always been difficult to pin down. More than most of the independent film-makers who came after him, he has displayed at various points in his career both a refusal and an inability to cater to anyone's desires but his own. His first feature, Eraserhead, made over five years on hardly any money, was released in 1977 and initially shunned (Variety called it a "sickening, bad-taste exercise"). Set in an industrial wasteland populated by tragic grotesques (a bouffant-haired Kafkaesque hero, a pustulent monster-baby, a puffy-cheeked woman who lives in a radiator) the film was a true original, and success on the midnight-movie circuit spawned a cult around it. In 1981 Lynch directed The Elephant Man, with John Hurt as the disfigured John Merrick. Fusing the spectral quality of Eraserhead with the grace and humanity required by the storyline, Lynch made what remains his most straightforward (and sentimental) film. Seven Oscar nominations later, he was suddenly a serious Hollywood player. It didn't last long.

George Lucas asked him to direct Return of the Jedi, but he opted instead to film Frank Herbert's sci-fi novel Dune (1984), under the auspices of Dino De Laurentis. Herbert's scrambled plot and mus-ty prose proved problematic, and the finished product - further mangled by studio cuts - was incoherent and often nondescript, a muddle of mismatched sensibilities. Lynch's next move was to retreat to small-town America - a move that paid off. Steeped in the horrors of the familiar, Blue Velvet (1986) rattled audiences as few films have done. Reinventing its karaoke-bland, Bobby Vinton title- song as a macabre signifier of suburban rot, it was a dark coming-of-age movie, with Kyle MacLachlan's character learning scary things about his picket-fenced community - and scarier things about himself. A generation of upstarts was duly inspired: the lip-synching and ear-slicing scenes in, respectively, My Own Private Idaho and Reservoir Dogs are explicit homages.

With Twin Peaks, Lynch invited the TV masses into Sleepytown, USA; within weeks, they were hooked, obsessing over who had killed homecoming queen Laura Palmer. The series lasted two seasons, growing increasingly compromised and lazy, but always still yielding small, subversive pleasures not normally associated with US network TV.

By this time, the word "Lynchian" was being widely used as a catchphrase for all things creepily surreal, creepily ironic or creepily banal. Yet it wasn't only his imitators, but also Lynch himself who diluted the connotations of the term. In 1990's Wild at Heart, a funny, gory road-movie with Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern (and a controversial winner of the Palme d'Or), the weirdness was, of course, Lynchian - but it also seemed routine and somewhat disingenuous. So the critics were itching to attack - and then, with Fire Walk With Me, Lynch gave them all the ammunition they needed. Unintelligible, cynical and borderline-inept was the consensus. Unusually for this director, even some of the performances were flat-out awful - but there were also haunting, lyric passages, and more than a few moments of lucidity.

Lost Highway is undoubtedly a return to form, and the kick in the rear that American movies have needed for some time. The spooky supernaturalism of Twin Peaks remains, but it is rendered here with a force and clarity worthy of Blue Velvet. This could be crunch time for Lynch, but it's doubtful that he is terribly concerned. Regardless of what the film world thinks, David Lynch does what he wants to; and regardless of what he does, the film world needs him more than he needs it.

! `Lost Highway' opens in Britain later this year.