The tagline for David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006), which he has avowed is his final film, is a four-word fragment: “a woman in trouble.” However simple, the phrase hypnotically evokes the sinister, insoluble mysteries that have been at the core of many of his ten features and especially in Twin Peaks, the cult 1990–91 TV series that Lynch created with Mark Frost, a new season of which premieres on Showtime this Sunday. Though the latest installment of the program has been (as you’ve probably heard) shrouded in its own secrecy, with no episodes made available for preview and all cast members required to sign NDAs, Twin Peaks 2017 will undoubtedly return to that theme: The first two seasons, after all, revolve around finding the killer of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee, who’s also scheduled to appear in the latest TP iteration), the homecoming queen who cryptically communicates clues from another, cerise dimension.
Laura Palmer’s namesake is Laura Hunt, the beautiful, murdered (though not as deceased as we are first led to believe) ad executive in Otto Preminger’s 1944 film-noir paradigm, Laura; the phantom Park Avenue saloniste is played by Gene Tierney and serves as the movie’s structuring absence, just as Laura Palmer does in the series. Like most of Lynch’s projects, Twin Peaks 1.0 and its movie prequel from 1992, the savagely received Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which recounts the last week of Laura Palmer (played by Lee in the film too), are heavily imbued with noir’s defining moods: menace, sexual terror and thrill, suspicion. But Lynch’s work further destabilizes this already unsettling genre by following the elusive logic of dreams — or, more accurately, nightmares. Yet while the plots in the Lynch corpus are often nonlinear, they are always emotionally intelligible, the result of the director’s tremendous compassion for his abject heroines. Haunted and haunting, Laura is one in an eminent line of imperiled protagonists. Here is a guide to some of her predecessors and descendants in Lynch-land, the province of garmonbozia — “pain and sorrow,” in Twin Peaks speak.
Dorothy Vallens and Sandy Williams, Blue Velvet
Lynch’s fourth feature, released deep into the Reagan presidency, is the one that most directly anticipates Twin Peaks. Both ingeniously plumb the discordances inherent in American myths, like that of idyllic small-town life. Similar to the TV show, Blue Velvet exists in a bizarre present never quite untethered from the past. The 1986 movie also establishes one of Lynch’s trademark motifs, a noir hallmark that he would explore in Twin Peaks and beyond: the dichotomy between an inscrutable (sometimes immoral) brunette and a virtuous blonde. The raven-haired enigma in Blue Velvet is Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini, in her first major role in English), an alluring, fragile nightclub singer deeply in thrall to Dennis Hopper’s nitrous-oxide-huffing sociopath. Besotted with Dorothy, and determined to protect her, is Kyle MacLachlan’s college-age amateur sleuth Jeffrey Beaumont, the character a rough draft of the FBI agent the actor would portray on Twin Peaks.
As Jeffrey’s part-time accomplice (and soon-to-be sweetheart), Sandy Williams — the golden-maned high schooler played by Laura Dern, here in her first of three films with Lynch — stands in pointed contrast to Rossellini’s damaged chanteuse. We first see sunny Sandy emerging from total darkness, a radiant vision in pink and white — she seems to embody a dream she later describes to Jeffrey, one about robins and “a blinding light of love.” Dern, herself a teenager at the time, delivers the line brilliantly, balancing sincerity and detachment as she recapitulates her reverie. Another Dern line, both banal and foreboding, could also be the de facto motto of Twin Peaks: “It’s a strange world, isn’t it?”
Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn and Rita/Camilla Rhodes, Mulholland Drive
Twin Peaks, which features Sheryl Lee playing not only dead (and blonde) Laura Palmer but also her dark-haired cousin, Maddy Ferguson, was among the first Lynch works to take up what would become another abiding interest, one hinted at in the show’s title: doubling. That device would itself be doubled in Mulholland Drive, Lynch’s unsurpassable, shattering romance from 2001, which had its origins in an aborted TV series of the same name. In this bifurcated film, the ebullient, flaxen-haired actress-hopeful Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), who rescues and becomes enamored with the brunette amnesiac Rita (Laura Elena Harring), may or may not be the dreamed-of, ideal self of the wretched character who replaces Betty in Mulholland Drive’s final thirty minutes: Diane Selwyn (also Watts), so undone by her breakup with Camilla Rhodes (Harring again) that she hires someone to kill her.
Beyond these central uncanny duplications, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive are both soaked with tears; they may be the wettest entries in Lynch’s filmography. Several episodes of the TV show’s first season feature stunned, sobbing characters, grieving for the beloved slain teenager. But the Lynch oeuvre reaches its lachrymal apex in Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio, where Betty and Rita weep inconsolably during Rebekah del Rio’s crushing a cappella performance of “Llorando,” a Spanish-language version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” The scene occurs shortly before the two women transform into their shadow selves — before Betty and Rita vanish, their fate nearly as grim as Laura Palmer’s.
Nikki Grace/Sue, Inland Empire
More personae-multiplying occurs in Lynch’s last film, to even more terrifying effect: Laura Dern plays an actress named Nikki Grace, who begins to merge with Sue, the character Nikki is portraying in a sodden Southern gothic; throughout the three-hour Inland Empire, Dern seems to take on additional personalities, whose referents are never quite clear. This “story of a grave identity crisis,” per the apposite précis of Dennis Lim, author of David Lynch: The Man From Another Place, is set in motion by a visit from Nikki’s Mitteleuropean-accented neighbor, who is full of bizarre parables and prophecies. The ominous oracle is played by Grace Zabriskie, another Lynch veteran; as Sarah Palmer, Laura’s mother in Twin Peaks (a role Zabriskie appears to have reprised for the new season), the actress gives one of the most sustained performances of convulsive anguish in any medium. But the most distilled depiction of horror in Inland Empire emerges from the ghastly grimace that creeps across Dern’s face during one of the many deranging moments of existential free fall. It is a look not unlike the bare-fanged glower of Laura Palmer, speaking from beyond the grave — the SOS of a woman in trouble.