ESSAY: The Battered Woman (On David Lynch)
By Flynn Roddam
As a director David Lynch has created some of the most psychologically complex characters in cinema. While his early works such as “Eraserhead” and “The Elephant Man” consisted of predominantly male protagonists, the supporting female characters have always been as equally captivating. At times even overshadowing the male leads with stranger backstories. With their mysterious nature, wondrous looks, and deviant charms, many of them emulate the conventions of the film noir femme fatale. Through the trajectory of his oeuvre, Lynch has consistently utilized his modern version of the femme fatale, cultivating each character into a unique entity. And today this entity has fully evolved into what can only be described as “the woman in trouble.” As we have witnessed, the women of Lynch’s cinema are often a testament to the hardship that females endure both physically and psychologically. Although his filmmaking style has evolved, one thing that has been consistent is his perception of “the woman in trouble.
“Inland Empire” (2006) is David Lynch’s most recent contribution to cinema; it is also perhaps his most bewildering. Set in a tangled web of stories, we follow Laura Dern in a multi-dimensional narrative. We are first introduced to Dern as Nikki Grace a has-been Hollywood actress who has just won the coveted lead in a movie. Becoming immersed in her characters life, Nikki’s persona begins to disintegrate into an external reality, and by the end of the film she is all at once four different women. The first is Nikki, the second is her film character Susan Blue, the third is a housewife living in suburbia. And finallyher fourth character is The Battered woman whose role is essential to the premise. Although the film exists outside of a cohesive structure, at times seeming convoluted, for Lynch this piece is a deliberate resistance to sense. For the director any confusion can be tied up with the Battered woman. In an interview with writer Greg Olson, Lynch says, “it was about a woman in trouble, a woman who is dismantling, and her emotional and abstract journey back to herself. “The Battered Woman is a fighter,” and at the end of the film all four female characters are liberated from the demons of their psychosis. In order to better understand the Battered Woman and her journey, one must go back in time and analyze the course of Lynch’s female characters. Each one containing elements of the“the woman in trouble.”
Arguably one of the most memorable female characters, not just in Lynch’s work but in cinema as a whole is Dorothy Vallens. Portrayed by Isabella Rossellini, Dorothy is an early rendition of the Battered Woman. Stuck in a violent relationship with Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) Dorothy sacrifices herself in order to save her family. Like the Battered Woman, Dorothy is dominated by an abusive man. Enduring sexual and physical aggression on a daily basis. In Lynch on Lynch, Rodley questions the director on his motives behind such sexual corruption. In simple terms, Lynch explains “ certain aspects of sex are troubling -the way it's used as power for instance.”. However, Lynch points out that just because something is troubling it doesn’t mean it's not around us. In addition, Dorothy’s submissiveness to power leaves her psychologically damaged. Lynch makes this apparent through her relationship with Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan). During sexual intercourse with Jeffrey, Dorothy emulates Frank’s sexual dominance, holding a knife to him as he undresses even repeating Frank’s line “don’t look at me.” Yet as similar as Dorothy is to the Battered Woman. There is a pivotal difference to her and the character in “Inland Empire;” she needs a man to rescue her. While the Battered Woman stands as a metaphorical example of all females, Blue Velvet’s linear structure only allows for two juxtaposed female characters. One is Dorothy, and the other is Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) who’s almost sickeningly sweet persona is the embodiment of purity and goodness. As Lynch further explored the female psyche this format of good vs, evil continues, becoming more intricate in each of his films. The two opposing women are usually distinguishable by their looks as much as their characteristics. And in “Blue Velvet” Jeffrey is attracted to both. However in the end Dorothy’s realm of sexual perversion is diminished while Sandy’s vision of a quintessential world prevails. So much so that in the end Lynch creates an almost literal rendition of her “blinding light of love”dream.
Almost a decade after “Blue Velvet” Lynch’s depiction of a Battered Woman returned with “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.” (1992) We witness a shift in this film, as it is the first that centers on a female protagonist. In addition to his first female-dominated picture, Lynch bought one of his most disturbed characters back to life. With Laura Palmer, it is the first time we are introduced to the internal state of a character rather than the exterior. Radiant on the surface but dying inside, Laura embodies both good and evil.
With her shiny blonde hair and sweet face, she is the girl next door. However, her reality is far from sweet. Laura is every parent's worst nightmare, doing drugs and prostituting herself are just vices she uses to escape an even darker secret. Every day Laura is terrorized by "killer Bob" an evil force from beyond this world, or as Lynch puts it “an abstraction in human form.” ( Lynch on Lynch p178) Bob occupies the mind of Leyland Palmer Laura’s father, using him as a gateway into Laura’s subconscious. In “Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me”, we follow Laura’s traumatic last few days on earth, as she battles her shattered psyche. Laura who waits for Bob to climb through her window at night, is devastated when she realizes that the man who has been raping her all these years is, in fact, her father. This discovery seems to be the last straw for her already fragile state. Similar to Laura’s attacker. The Battered Woman in “Inland Empire” is also stalked by a demonic spirit called “The Phantom.” A dark figure who can mess with people’s minds and disappear at will.” This reoccurring presence from male dominant figures acts as a counterpart to the Battered Woman. In “Blue Velvet” this comes in the literal existence of Frank. However, these figures have become increasingly conceptual over the years. Such as Bob, the homeless man in “Mulholland Drive”, and finally the Phantom in “Inland Empire.” Lynch has pointed out that both Frank and Bob represents masculinity at its most extreme and psychotic form. Like many of Lynch’s films, positive endings often end in death for the protagonist. Death can offer an alternative to the perils of reality, and In “Fire Walk With Me,” Laura’s physical life is ended, but her spirit lives on in an alternative universe.
“Mulholland Drive” (2001) is Lynch’s second to last film, and certainly his most critically acclaimed. Lynch once again utilizes a complex female characters. However, unlike “Fire Walk With Me” or “Blue Velvet”, Lynch’s theme of good vs evil in the self, is taken much further. This time we are introduced to four women. In the first half we are introduced to Betty Elms (Naomi Watts ) a bright eyed blonde, from “Deep River, Ontario; arriving in Hollywood to pursue an acting career. When Betty discovers the amnesiac Rita (Laura Harring) in her aunt's bathroom they soon become fast friends. The pair go on a film noir esque journey to discover Rita’s true identity, but in the process Betty re discovers her own. In the first half of the movie, the characters find themselves in bewildering situations. Yet once the mysterious blue box is opened halfway through, it is the audience that find themselves bewildered. Although one can never truly interoperate Lynch’s exact motives for the women in this film, it seems to be less about the story, and more about the characters interior emotions. Naomi Watts, who plays both Betty and Diane Selwyn tells Olson her interpretation of the story. The earlier parts of the film with Betty are Diane’s fantasy of how she wished things were. A sunny interpretation of how life should be. “whereas her world is dark and crumbling around her.” (p.595) While Betty’s cheery disposition is reminiscent of Sandy Williams, her true self Diane Selwyn is very much on par with the jaded Battered Woman.
Although each of Lynch’s films are truly unique there are many similar attributes between “Mulholland Drive”, and “Inland Empire.” For instance, both have multiple narratives, both stories partially evoke the harshness of Hollywood and its unforgiving nature to women. In addition both films present entirely separate actresses who are also considered extensions of the female protagonist. In “Mulholland Drive”, Diane is Betty. However, we could also argue that Rita is an extension of her fantasy self. This becomes evident in the scene where Rita puts on a blonde wig, and the two women are truly a pair. In “Inland Empire”there is a similar discovery when after killing “The Phantom” Nikki rescues the “lost girl” in the hotel room (Karolina Gruszka). “the lost girl” is shown sporadically throughout the film as she sits in an eery bedroom watching an unsettling sitcom about rabbits. In rescuing the “lost girl” at the end of the film, Nikki is freeing herself as well as the other three characters. The audience is finally able to make some sense of the plot when we see the lost girl reunited with her family and come to realize that she is, in fact, the real Susan Blue. As for Diane Selwyn, it does not end well. Her failures eventually catch up with her. Presumably having carried out her hit on her lover Camilla, Diane is left with nothing but her frightening hallucinations. Like the Phantom scene in “Inland Empire” Diane is backed into a corner and unable to escape. Diane reaches to find a gun, but instead of shooting the demonic grandparents chasing her, she kills herself, at least that is what we are lead to believe. In “Inland Empire” Nikki shoots “The Phantom” who transforms into a disorientating version of her. Facing the self, seems to be a major component for Lynchian female protagonists, and the core of “Inland Empire.” Nearly all his females are stunted by their own self-loathing. Each of these women tied together by their shame and self-condemnation.
As the credits roll over “Inland Empire” we are back where we started, in Nikki Graces living room. It was there that Visitor #1 (Grace Zabriskie) a seemingly pleasant neighbor unleashed an evil curse on Nikki when she tells her “A little boy went out to play. When he opened his door, he saw the world. As he passed through the doorway, he caused a reflection. Evil was born.” (Inland Empire). From that moment on this evil that Zabriskie speaks of becomes Nikki’s fate. Therefore ending the story where we begun seems to be highly symbolic. The curse has been lifted and Nikki has confronted her evil. The “unpaid bill” has been karmically paid. If “Inland Empire” is Lynch’s darkest film, the first half is juxtaposed by its highly positive ending, at least for “the woman in trouble.” We witness a bevy of prostitutes, Nikki, and even Laura Harring. United as “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone plays loudly. Another emblematic reference to freedom, as the female characters exuberant the lyrics when they sing “power.” This scene is a liberating celebration of women, not just in “Inland Empire” but in all of Lynch’s films. If “Inland Empire” becomes Lynch’s definitive film, then the last scene serves as a redemption for all that “the battered woman” has endured.
1. Rodley, Chris. ( 2005) Lynch on Lynch, revised edition. Published by Faber and
Faber. New York.
2. Olson, Greg. (2008) David Lynch Beautiful Dark. Published by The Scarecrow
Press. United States.
3. Wood, Robin. (1979) The American Nightmare. Festival of Festivals. Toronto.