Few films lend themselves to critical reevaluation as well as David Lynch's much-maligned Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Booed at its premiere at Cannes in 1992 (and playing at BAM as part of their “Booed at Cannes” series, which runs through May 23), eviscerated by the popular press during its brief theatrical run later that year, and remembered now with bafflement and contempt, the film's reception and legacy might best be characterized by the infamous words of sworn Lynch defender Quentin Tarantino, memorialized in an interview with Ella Taylor that year: “David Lynch had disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie.”
It's not hard to understand the enduring distaste. Fire Walk With Me is deliberately oblique, even by Lynch standards, asking questions without answers and providing clues to no mystery. Its narrative is split in two, seemingly without reason, a division introduced when our hero is apparently swallowed up by a gaping hole in the center of the picture (a hole he finds beneath a parked RV in America's least inviting trailer park, naturally).
Most gallingly, especially for audiences circa '92, the film purports to be a prequel to perhaps the most beloved cult television series of the decade, though in truth it's more interested in systematically dismantling the mythos and iconography of Twin Peaks than in pandering to the show's fanbase with some feature-length trip down TV-memory lane. The film is alarmingly dark. It isn't especially funny, or quirky, or even much in keeping with the spirit of the series. But in its own singular, deeply strange way, Fire Walk With Me is David Lynch's masterpiece.
It helps to think about genre. Like the series, the film plays in pastiche. Adopting conventions from the police procedural, daytime soap operas, post-war noir, and 1950s melodrama, Fire Walk With Me is a postmodern hybrid in flux, its style ever-drifting and its formal makeup a composite of self-conscious clichés. The purpose of all this appropriation, however, isn't merely to ironize outmoded forms or tropes—as it often is in the work of the Coen brothers—but to embrace those antiquated modes and deploy those old-fashioned tropes in earnest. The film uses melodrama, in particular, to replicate the function and goal of the genre: targeting the veneer of sanctity in the middle-class American home and exposing its hypocrisy and corruption.
If Fire Walk With Me seems like a nightmare, it's the same one reflected in James Mason's descent into suburban madness in Nicholas Ray's classic melodrama Bigger Than Life. And what's scary is that the nightmare is real. Fantasy was always a central, if only implied, component of the classical melodrama, animating the social aspirations and wish-fulfillment of a rising class founded on subjugation and fear. The melodrama sought to undermine the contradictions inherent in an imagined good life, its stories essentially bourgeois dreams inflated to grotesque proportions.
Lynch has worked with this sort of material before. His early coup Blue Velvet, devised as a kind of distorted TV soap, dug up a small town's sordid secrets, suggesting that all seemingly good things have a dark side. But Fire Walk With Me taps into something considerably more terrifying: not only the evil buried somewhere in the quintessential middle-class family, but the evil buried somewhere in all of us, and our capacity for it.
Admirers of Twin Peaks were no doubt disillusioned by this shift toward cynicism. But an important part of what makes Fire Walk With Me so arresting is how it simultaneously reflects and distorts the series. Far from filling out a story or answering lingering questions, is to restore a sort of innocence lost, commendably endowing the show's principal victim, Laura Palmer, with a voice with which to speak for herself. Twin Peaks was defined, more than anything else, by Laura's pointed absence; Fire Walk With Me is defined by her presence, vivid and terrified and alone. The film offers us an opportunity to experience firsthand a character who had existed through the series only as a recreated fantasy, an imagined emblem of innocence and suffering who, like Otto Preminger's Laura, could only be obsessed over in death. In doing so, the film suggests that the pain endured in her life was more important than the intrigue surrounding her death, and we instead come to know not the mystery of what happened by the tragedy of why it did.
And so Laura is present in a film about loss. “For a long time you wouldn't feel anything,” she says, describing what it might be like to fall through space. “Then you'd burst into fire forever. And the angels wouldn't help you, because all of the angels are gone.” Though we do occasionally catch glimpses of those who would try to help her—most of whom, like Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle Mclaughlin), can only do so after she's gone—Laura's sense of resignation is correct. Her fate is sealed. Fire Walk With Me is a prequel to a series whose very concept is the death of the film's hero, which makes its ending a done deal before it even begins. Instead of a struggle against death, Laura's journey here is one of realization and, finally, resignation, not only of what will become of her but of what she's been enduring her entire life—sexual abuse at the hands of her father, Leland. Our knowledge of Laura's fate eliminates any classical suspense, leaving us only with sadness: The film becomes the memorialization of a tragedy already confirmed.
Fire Walk With Me takes the show's loose cluster of supernatural phenomena and reconfigures them as a vulnerable mind's imagined demons, a coping strategy for trauma. If the series is about hunting a literal demon—BOB, a gray-haired man who is said to “possess” Leland Palmer—the film is about realizing that the demon is real. Though in a way these fantastic elements were its bread and butter, the series ultimately suffered, emotionally, by “explaining away” the trauma of Laura's death and by assigning Leland's evil to his demonic alter ego. But the film returns us from fantasy to reality, reasserting the evil in the man himself: Laura's death at the hands of her father becomes a tragedy localized in a recognizable world rather than one happening in the fantasy of fiction. The fantasy becomes figural. A history of sexual abuse becomes real.
Lil (Kimberly Ann Cole) is the central element of the film's first half: Cole (Lynch)'s “mother's sister's girl,” offering deliberately inscrutable signs for the pleasure of our confusion. It's Lynch's way of signaling that there will be no easy answers: we're about to witness a tragedy unfold without explanation, horrors happening that we can't justify or explain. Laura's world is morally confused, and Lynch presents it as basically illegible: the only way he can show us the truth is by articulating it in code, shrouding it in fantasy and mystery and conspiratorial intrigue. It's why the film seems, at times, like a puzzle. The contrasting halves of the film's bifurcated narrative find two worlds crashing together, the first a plane of frustrated desire and inscrutable mystery, the second a void into which a young woman is swallowed up. The procedural elements of the first are fundamentally disconnected from the tragedy of the second, suggesting that, in the final estimation, we can't really on institutions to protect us. They're solving the wrong case.