Lost Highway (1997)
Director – David Lynch
Genre – Drama/Surrealist Film
Themes – Murder/Seduction/Desire
Bill Pullman – Fred Madison
Patricia Arquette – Renee Madison/Alice Wakefield
Robert Loggia – Dick Laurent/Mr Eddie
Pete Dayton – Balthazar Getty
Robert Blake – Mystery Man
Andy – Michael Massee
Ever since making his cinematic debut, Eraserhead (1977), a David Lynch film has, almost exclusively, tended to examine the dark and disturbing depths of the human psyche, questioning the very nature of human experience with distinctive narrative techniques and idiosyncratic visual aesthetics. Lost Highway is no exception in this respect, but it is also a film that is often overlooked as an entry in the Lynch canon. It was originally considered a commercial failure, generally misunderstood due to its dense and seemingly impenetrable narrative composition, and as a consequence has been somewhat ignored. Sure, at first sight it appears to be a straightforward noirish mystery, in a similar vein to his most celebrated feature Blue Velvet (1986), but once the initial storyline is underway Lynch throws away many of the expected noir conventions and then plunges the viewer into a far more complex form of spectatorship. Only the French director Luis Bunuel (Un Chien Andalou/L’Age D’Or) has previously explored the unconscious anxieties and desires of his characters states of mind so consistently throughout his career, with his unique style of surrealism. But, whereas Bunuel rejects any formal narrative structure, Lynch prefers to tease his audience with more familiar and recognisable forms before completely turning any preconception on its head. This is precisely what occurs in Lost Highway and, to some extent, would explain its cool and muted reception upon initial release.
Centring upon the disintegrating relationship between Fred and Renee Madison (Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette) Lost Highway begins with the puzzling message Fred receives via his front door intercom, “Dick Laurent is dead”. This line bookends the film neatly, setting up the mystery and providing its closing coda, and was an idea Lynch based upon a real incident that occurred at his own home. Mysterious videotapes then begin to arrive on the doorstep, initially only showing the exterior of their house, which is strange enough, but eventually Fred, to his and our confusion, views himself gruesomely murdering Renee. The event and the appearance of the mysterious tapes are never fully explained in the film, an occurrence that could be attributed to Lynch’s belief that not everything in life can be fully explained, so why should a film be any different. But also knowing that Lynch, at the time, was fascinated with the OJ Simpson case that dominated the media may ultimately provide the necessary key to truly understanding why the remainder of the story is then constructed in such a way. Consider if Simpson did in fact murder his wife, then how could he continue to sustain a normal existence with the knowledge he possessed? Fred Madison’s situation and character can therefore be seen as very similar. Trying to understand the complex way that the conscious/unconscious mind functions, and what it will create in order to disguise the knowledge of its own violent actions, is something that intrigues Lynch greatly. If the viewer is able to recognise the visual cues, signifying the breaks from reality, within the film it may at least allow them to unravel many of the threads, reorganise the events and see what is essentially a surrealistic exploration of the survival instincts of the human mind.
Even with some prior knowledge at your disposal Lost Highway can still be a confusing experience since many of the characters have split identities (a regular theme in a surrealist film); Fred is also Pete Dayton, Renee is also Alice Wakefield and Dick Laurent is also Mr Eddie. Knowing this will help account for Fred’s strange disappearance in his prison cell (after his arrest for Renee’s murder) and Pete’s perplexing entrance, but it is an event that may well completely throw the casual viewer and would significantly hinder any meaningful interpretation as a result. Furthermore, whereas Fred represents the violent and disturbed aspects of his personality, Pete represents a desire for innocence and is used as a rejection of Fred’s own guilt (which inevitably resurfaces later). Still here? Good! Another key character is the mysterious, white-faced stranger, who Fred meets at Andy’s party (after firstly appearing superimposed on Renee’s face, following a nightmare). He could either be regarded as a malevolent figure, to offload the blame upon, or another facet of Fred’s fragmenting personality. It’s well worth getting to grips with these thematic aspects now as Lynch would later employ similar multiple personality narrative devices for the more recent, though nonetheless convoluted, Mulholland Drive (2000). The split personalities of Renee and Dick Laurent are somewhat easier to comprehend though, as their relationship is not only a constant (whatever their persona) but also the reason for Fred’s initial behaviour and his resurfacing guilt when he becomes Pete. You almost get the feeling that Fred Madison is doomed to remain forever in a terminal loop, never fully able to cope with the guilt of what he has done to the woman that he loves.
Visually, Lost Highway resembles many other well-known Lynch work; besides those already mentioned Wild At Heart (1990) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). The familiar saturated colours and low-key lighting is continually present, as well as the moments of intense brightness to highlight not only the narrative contrasts but also those of the characters and their obsessive desires. Oblique camera angles and long takes are particularly reminiscent of the minimalist mise-en-scene present in Blue Velvet, with the Madison household even echoing the cold, seductive environs of Dorothy Vallen’s apartment. In almost every respect Lynch presents a timeless feel to the film, not only making it difficult to successfully locate the exact era the events occur within but, ultimately, unsettling the already unconventional viewing experience even further.
If the complexity of the narrative does give you a headache as severe as its central character suffers, or in extreme circumstances a nosebleed, you could always choose to immerse yourself in its intriguing soundtrack whilst the action takes place. Sound is almost as important as the visual aspects in a Lynch film, setting the mood, tone and pace of the scenes. For Lost Highway he even went so far as to film sequences whilst listening to the intended music. Apparently he had waited many years for the perfect opportunity to use This Mortal Coil’s “Song To Siren”, which provides the recurring theme that signifies the desperate and doomed love that Fred feels for Renee. Lynch’s regular musical collaborator Angelo Badalamenti teams up with, ex-Magazine bass player, Barry Adamson, and Trent Reznor, from Nine Inch Nails, to provide a suitably atmospheric original score. Elsewhere, the soundtrack also makes some good use of songs by David Bowie, Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson (who also makes a cameo in the film) and Rammstein.
The 2 disc Special Edition contains interviews with David Lynch, Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette, as well as a making of featurette. It’s compulsive viewing, and available now.
Tyler Durden – tMx 23 – 02/06