Vanishing point

David Lynch's new film, Lost Highway (18), fills Adam Mars-Jones with dread and wonder ...
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The Independent Culture
Lost Highway is a Mobius strip of mystifying narrative, a story with two sides but a single surface. A man sentenced to die in the electric chair for the murder of his wife escapes justice - of the worldly kind - when a prison warder doing his rounds finds a quite different man in his cell. David Lynch and his co-writer, Barry Gifford, don't condescend to explain the impossibility. The film simply stops being the story of Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), jazz musician and jealous husband, and becomes instead the story of his substitute Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), auto mechanic tempted into an affair by a gangster's girlfriend. The strongest connection between the stories is that the murdered woman and the temptress, Renee and Alice, are both played by Patricia Arquette. It is suggested they may be sisters, or in some less than obvious way the same person.

With Lost Highway, Lynch may finally have shaken off the millstone masterpiece Blue Velvet. His work since then has been erratic: some of Twin Peaks on television was wonderful (the Lynch-directed first episode, for instance) but the big-screen spin-off, Fire Walk With Me, was a witless self-parody; Wild At Heart was relentlessly feverish in style but tried rather too hard to reproduce the mixture of the perverse and the wholesome that had seemed so inevitable in Blue Velvet. The new film is highly strange, but in a new way.

It starts with a kinetic title sequence that will recur in modified form a number of times: a night-time road rushing towards the camera so fast that the viewer's suspension is severely tested, an infinity of road metal unreeling drunkenly into the headlights. The film proper has for the most part a strongly contrasting rhythm, an ominous leisure. Lynch has purged his film language of mannerism, and casts a spell with a minimal technique, flawlessly carried through. The corridor in Fred's house becomes a menacing void into which he slowly melts as he walks away from camera.

However stridently bizarre, Lynch's past films have made claims on an audience's sympathy, but in Lost Highway strongly charged tableaux take place at a consistent remove from any emotional nudges. In the film's first sequence, Fred is evidently in a state of nervous tension, pulling deeply on his cigarette and hesitating to answer the doorbell. When he does press the "Listen" button of the entry-phone, he hears a voice say, "Dick Laurent is dead." There's no context for this information beyond what the viewer chooses to provide, reflexively dealing out cards from the film noir deck of well-thumbed intrigues and revenges.

Even at the crossover point of the plot, the irrational substitution of one person for another on Death Row - a typically notional place of incarceration, perhaps the only prison in the movies where no other inmates are seen or even heard - the point of view is opaque. Is it that Fred wakes up in another man's body, or that Pete comes to consciousness in an impossible place with no knowledge of how he got there? Have the two men been spliced together somehow? The event is a disorientation any way you look at it, but the viewer undergoes a double dose of slippage, not knowing how much carries over from the earlier part of the film.

Lost Highway remains an experience of dread and wonder, but the dread and wonder float free of context in a way that is highly unusual. David Lynch is clearly some sort of surrealist of Americana, but his distinctiveness lies in how deep a layer of reality he contradicts, and how much is unchanged on the surface by his underminings. In daily life all our thoughts and actions are based on the assumption that two things cannot occupy the same space and that one thing cannot be in two places at one time. The first principle is violated when Fred and Pete coincide in a prison cell, the second when a mysterious man looking like a figure of Death from a Bergman film meets Fred at a party. This is Death with a mobile phone in place of a sickle, who challenges Fred to ring his own home number. It is Death also who answers.

Much of Lost Highway is very funny in Lynch's deadpan way. The film is relatively light on dialogue, but what there is tends to be gravely preposterous, shot through with significant silences. Asked by a policeman whether he owns a video camera, Fred says, "No", and adds, "I like to remember things my own way."

A pause, then the policeman asks, "What do you mean by that?"

The closest thing to a comic set-piece is a sequence where Mr Eddie (Robert Loggia), the gangster who has taken Pete under his wing, gives him - and a motorist who has unwisely overtaken him - a demonstration of what road rage can really be like.

As the plot begins to turn full circle, resemblances emerge to a film by Lynch's successor to the title of World's Coolest Film Director, Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. There's the same mixture of trashy situations and post-modern manipulation, and in Patricia Arquette's twin homages to Lana Turner a variation on the femme fatale similar to Uma Thurman's (they're both women kept by powerful gangsters who tempt men into trouble). The difference is that Lynch, unlike Tarantino, is a dissenter from Hollywood's religion of excitement at all costs. In Tarantino, everything is finally offered up on the altar of adrenaline.

Lost Highway has as many points of correspondence with an art film such as Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique, in which again identity was obliquely explored by way of a narrative about one soul in two bodies or two souls in one. But finally Lost Highway explores the genre of film noir in much the same way as Kubrick's The Shining explored the horror film, with a distance that becomes in time more compelling than the hysterical identification which is usually compulsory. On the other hand, there were those who regarded The Shining, and will regard Lost Highway, as a disappointment rather than an exercise in disorientation and anti-climax, not so much a dissection of audience expectations as a big-budget shaggy-dog story

`Lost Highway' is on general release from tomorrow