Cinema’s dark, mesmerising dream life

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How many countries are there in the human mind? The title of David Lynch’s Inland Empire refers to an area east of Los Angeles, but since that area is irrelevant to the movie we know what “inland empire” really means.

It means the mind. That continent. That imperium. That expanse of broad-flung colonies, most of them at war with most of the others. How do you make a film about such multitudinousness? It is the old Lynch nettle, avidly grasped. Inland Empire, like Twin Peaks, Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, is about the impossibility of storytelling, which is of course a story in itself. Here is a three-hour narrative about narrativelessness that is its own narrative.

After half an hour you may be climbing up the wall. An hour, and you may be applying for admission to a mental clinic. (Not another scene in which Laura Dern, a film actress playing a film actress, spooks herself by exploring the “inland empire” that lies behind the soundstage housefronts, an empire apparently including Poland.) Two hours and you will, if you have a soul, fall violently in love with this film’s psychedelic implacability, its lyrical madness.

It starts as a comedy streaked with menace. Is there really a gypsy curse on the script Dern is remaking with British director Jeremy Irons, one that killed its actors when previously filmed? Dern gets an early warning from her Polish-American neighbour Grace (Twin Peaks) Zabriskie, who drops in on her in a scene so hootingly scary, so delectably guignol, that you will want to go straight out and put extra locks on your front door.

Soon the depicted movie studio is an Alice-style wonderland where infinities lie behind the paste and canvas, where actors with rabbit heads enact a canned-laughter sitcom, and where what used to be central-eastern Europe seems now to be part of unmapped LA. It is surely clear that the secondary meaning of “inland empire” is the blazing foundry of European folklore that lies inside Hollywood itself, that “outer” empire founded by transatlantic Jews and gypsies.

It is also obvious that Ms Dern is giving the performance of her life: a far-out marathon of emoting and visible inner wrestling, whose close-ups suggest a sequence of Francis Bacon portraits wired for animation, speech and screams.

Here are some hints for the harassed viewer. Do not lose patience. Do not throw yourself at the screen in despair, as a mosquito might throw itself at an incinerator-light, even if during longueurs you are tempted. You must not miss Harry Dean Stanton’s cameo as Jeremy Irons’s stooge, deadpanning non-sequiturs in a tomb-like chant. (The idea of a “sequitur” in a Lynch film is, of course, a deep, deep joke.) And it is vital not to miss the violent climax on Hollywood Boulevard, in which the Avenue of the Stars is presented as a street where whoring, murder, score-settling, identity theft and satanic transaction take place. Much, if you think of it, like the real Hollywood Boulevard.

But that is show business, isn’t it? Lynch is on the money, with both his questions and his hinted answers. For who ever thought Hollywood and the dream life of cinema were innocent? Who ever believed they were not created by a long-term arrangement, at once damning and Faustianly aspirational, between the devil and the deep human mind?

In The Good German the Steven Soderbergh/George Clooney team is back, pickaxing away at the interface between art and entertainment. The men who brought us Solaris and the Oceans movies stop at nothing to postmodernise old cinema. They must have read T.S. Eliot on the cultural importance of tradition. Or else they are intravenous film addicts, jabbing themselves with cinemania and infecting other people at full moon.

Their new film mimics the look and sound of a 1940s film noir. Translating The Third Man’s conspiracy plot to partitioned Berlin (Clooney doing Joseph Cotten, Cate Blanchett doing Alida Valli), the film is all style, skimpy substance and a script – about the second-world-war victor nations divvying up the top German scientists – that might have been done by monkeys at typewriters.

For 20 minutes it is droll, guilty fun. Soderbergh replicates the headlong, tabloid energy of an austerity-era Hollywood movie, all black-and-white titles, brassy music and eye-searing stock footage. Tobey Maguire is a brief pleasure as a soldier on the make. But once the plot hits cruise speed, all is lost. Clooney wears too much intelligence to convince as a Berlin Holly Martins. Blanchett, sporting a fright wig and fright accent, delivers kitsch one-liners in a Dietrich contralto. And when the characters gather on a misty airfield for a last-reel parting, we realise that even Casablanca has been mugged and overpowered so that it can serve in the harem of Higher Plagiarism.

Mere weeks after Beatrix Potter, Jane Austen wanders into the area marked “biopic hazard” in Becoming Jane. Here unprotected British authors succumb to American casting (Anne Hathaway of The Devil Wears Prada as Jane) and speculation about unchronicled passions. Did the young novelist love budding Irish lawyer Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy)? If so, was it returned?

Viewer, you will learn more than you knew – indeed more than anyone knows – in a film stronger on pretty acting and photography than verified history. This England is drenched in pastoral grace, with gold or amber light spilling through every orifice. London is a series of gilded, glowing tableaux. Here love can burgeon even amid the frosty reproofs of Ian Richardson, masterly as Lefroy’s uncle. (“Do I detect you in irony?” he says to Jane, silencing the dinner table at a stroke.)

But would a girl so tunnel-focused on romance have developed a panoramic social vision, let alone a literary genius? Hathaway gives Jane a cheeky radiance and hint of wit, but the moist, large, puppyish eyes win out. Those and the screenplay. Jane is scripted to seem so dumb with love she must even be supplied, by Lefroy, with the opening sentence for Pride and Prejudice. “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” the lad throws off about something trivial. Thereupon a light goes on above Jane’s head. Suddenly the greatest social comedy oeuvre in the English language has begun to build its giant incandescence.

An Austen movie portrait needed more tartness: tartness like that in Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding. The Danish director of Open Hearts and Brothers, with her regular writer-collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen, serves a sweet-sour story of emotional and dynastic conspiracy. Is the young charity worker back from India (played by Mads Mikkelsen, James Bond’s snake-pouted nemesis in Casino Royale) being inveigled into a family plot – sinister and momentous – by the multi-millionaire husband of his ex- girlfriend?

As the scheming plutocrat, Rolf Lassgard has the film’s show-role and commands its elements like a Prospero. A bluff, vulture-eyed, chestnut-mopped Machiavel – a kind of Al Gore gone feral – he can cajole, threaten and storm in quicksilver alternations. The film is irresistible with this actor on screen. Without him, it is a more like a soap opera made with deluxe unguents and slithery skill.

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