I did a pretty massive writeup on the film after seeing it for the first time, but after a second viewing last night, things are a lot clearer and I think I can fill in some of the gaps lacking in my original analysis.
More generally, I'll just say that this film is not as hard to get as people make it out to be. It's not an abstract bunch of random scenes, though you could just read it on that level and enjoy it that way. The quote I'd apply to this film is "If everything means something, everything means nothing." You could read every single element as a piece of a carefully constructed narrative world, comprehensible with thorough analysis. Or you could just read it as a message from Lynch's subconscious, given meaning only by what we see in it, not from anything inherent in the film itself. Watching it again, it's clear that things are structued in a specific way and you can find meaning in the film.
I said it back when the film first screened, but I'd imagine Lost Highway and even Mulholland Dr. must have seemed completely incomprehensible to the first bunch of viewers. It was only through critical work that a consesus emerged that helped people to understand the movies. This film is the same way, initially critics are puzzled, but as more people see the film, particularly on repeat viewings, it will become more and more clear. I don't think the film will ever be as accessible as Mulholland Dr., but it will be easier to watch and understand. I got a much clearer view of everything the second time through, and it felt much more cohesive, less random, less schizophrenic.
The critical element I missed on my first viewing of the film was 'The Phantom.' Struggling to keep track of who was who, I didn't follow this guy through the movie, and it turns out that he's one of the critical figures. The Phantom follows in the tradition of BOB or the Mystery Man, a figure with some kind of extradimensional power, an embodiment of evil itself who menaces our heroine. Nikki first discusses The Phantom in one of her monologues, she also mentions that he has a sister who has one leg, a figure we'll see crop up later in the film.
I would argue that The Phantom is the 'ghost in the machine' of the Blue Tomorrows story, he's the one perpetuating the curse and destroying everyone who comes into contact with the script. He draws them into the world of the story and imprisons them there. For the Polish Woman, this is literal, she is trapped in Room 47, and I believe 47 was the name of the original Polish script. Nikki's imprisonment is not so literal, she is not trapped in a room, she is trapped in the world of the character, unable to escape and return to her own life. As the movie goes on, things get worse and worse for the character, her initial love affair with Billy goes bad when he rejects her from his house.
It's difficult to figure out how the film works because everyone is playing different characters, and there's a lot of blurring with dreamlogic. However, one thing I didn't catch on the first viewing was the fact that Julia Ormond played Billy's wife. So, at the end of the film when she stabs Sue, it could be that she'd gone insane after hearing about the affair, and driven to kill Sue for that reason. So, the scene at the police station could actually take place after the stabbing. Or, it could be that she went insane, checked into psychiatric counseling, broke out, then stabbed Sue. Alternatively, she could reflect Sue's guilt about having an affair with Billy in the first place.
'Blue Tomorrows' is clearly a melodrama, so it would make sense that the affair within would go wrong and lead to destruction for all people involved. In the Polish story, we see that Julia Ormond has stabbed someone, possibly the main Polish woman, though I'm not sure about that. The whole middle section of the film takes place within the universe of the film, something that I think is critical to understanding what happens there. Sue's affair with Billy made her pregnant and that caused her the problems with her husband. Julia Ormond stabs her where she does precisely because it will kill her child. As a side note, I absolutely love Dern's performance in the street scenes, so incredibly raw.
This street scene is meant to parallel the opening scene with the Polish woman reduced to prostitution. In both cases, the women cheat on their husbands and are made to feel like whores. Their guilt winds up driving them to actual prostitution. I feel like the gang of girls hanging around with Laura Dern are her conscience, embodying her fear of what she's becoming. They also have access to some kind of supernatural energy, the only ones to cross between the Polish storyverse and the American storyverse.
Throughout the film, we see scenes from the Polish version of the film, a parallel universe version of the events with Sue. If you look at them that way, it's much easier to understand what's going on because it's one story, just split between the two characters. However, there's still one scene that's somewhat perplexing, the 'seance' scene. Here, the husband goes to a bunch of people and they seem to channel his wife. I would argue that this is her real husband, seeking his lost wife, he hears her, but cannot make contact. In the real world, the husband does love the Polish woman, as evidenced by their loving embrace at the end. So, this scene may take place in a reality where he's trying to save her from imprisonment in Room 47.
This leads us to the Phantom. As I said before, he is the malevolent force that locks our heroines in the destructive loop of the story world. There's a very fairy tale feel about the idea of the cursed story, like this guy has put this script out there to entrap people in a spiral of suffering and evil. Perhaps he is like the Man from Another Place in FWWM, getting nourishment from the Garmonbozia (pain and suffering) of others. Certainly this script puts the main characters through an awful lot of pain and suffering.
We see The Phantom in a number of scenes, generally moving through the background, but his most critical appearance is near the end. After Sue 'dies,' Nikki returns to the filmset, but she still seems possessed by Sue. She wanders into the theater, where she watches herself projected on the screen. Here, she is confronted with the fact that despite the director calling cut, she remains trapped in the world of Blue Tomorrows, perpetually locked on the screen, unable to return to her own life. This is a state parallel to the Polish Woman.
She moves through some hallways, gets her husband's gun, then goes out and encounters The Phantom. She shoots at him, then, in perhaps the most horrifying moment in any film ever, he stares back at her with a grotesque version of her face. I don't know what it is about that image but it's very, very disturbing. After this, she shoots him again and seemingly blows a whole in his face, at which point he is defeated and we go to a beautiful shot of a purple burst of light suspended in darkness.
Watching this movie again, I was wowed by the photography. The first half hour is a little shaky, but after that, this is absolutely beautiful. The closeups on digital have a clarity and urgency that just isn't present in film. I think we're so used to the textures of film it lost the magic, and the rawness of this DV brings back some of that mystery. It is a striking, and yes, beautiful, film.
So, her defeat of the Phantom frees her from the spell of the cursed movie. Nikki wanders into Room 47 and frees the Polish Woman from her imprisonment. I feel like Nikki is transferring the freedom she received to the Polish Woman through that kiss. And, side note, why can't the Polish Woman have a name? Does anyone know if she does? After being freed, they both are able to return to their homelives, and much like Blue Velvet, the good feels that much better after an excursion into possible darkness. This is a return to optimism after the only hope in death finales of FWWM, LH and MD. I love the way Laura Dern looks at the couch and now sees a pure, idealized version of herself, rather than the utterly broken, dirty one she turned into over the course of the film. Her performance here is on a whole different level from most cinema acting.
To summarize, Nikki is an actress who signs on to appear in a film that is cursed. As she works on the film, she gets caught up in its spell and finds herself trapped in the characters' life, forced to endure a spiralling series of awful experiences. Concurrent with this, a Polish woman has reached the end of the spiral, and is trapped in a hotel room, crying, thinking about what she's lost. Nikki, as Sue, goes through a symbolic death, and the film's story ends. Yet, she remains trapped in that world. She confronts The Phantom, the extradimensional being responsible for the evil in the story, and kills him, thus freeing herself and the Polish Woman to return to their lives.
This leads us into the bravura end credits sequence, one of the most fun scenes in any Lynch film, and also one with some tie backs to what happened previously. Earlier in the film, Sue, in her monologue, said that The Phantom had a sister with one leg. That is the woman we see at the end, who says sweet. Earlier in the film, one of the girls says "Sweet," I would argue that indicates that both the girls and the woman are extradimensional beings, only these ones are not devoted to evil, as the Phantom is. In Twin Peaks, we see a number of characters who just seem to exist, not serve good or evil specifically. The girls cannot help Laura Dern, rather than they convey messages, much like The Man From Another Place or the Giant.
The woman with one leg is clearly tied to the blue haired woman from Mulholland Dr., both stating a word to close out the film. My reading of the final word is that after all the awfulness, Laura Dern's character is just happy to be in this world, all she can say is "sweet."
From there we go over to a woman in a blonde wig with a monkey, this is Niko, the woman referenced earlier in the Asian girl's monologue. Is this monkey the same one seen in FWWM? Do they exist in the same extradimensional universe? It's quite possible, I would argue that this scene takes place in a world like the red room, that is why the Laura Dern we see is dressed in the pure, ethereal dress, it is a moment of transcendence beyond the concerns of mortality. I don't think she's died, rather I think she's experiencing a moment of happiness after her great ordeal. There, Niko can exist as this star idea, rather than as who she actually is. Niko is basically doing the same thing that Diane did in creating Betty in Mulholland Dr., making a successful, happy alter ego to cover up her actual painful existence.
I really love Laura Haring's appearance here. It's so clearly just a bonus for Lynch fans, and that's what makes it great. This scene is just an excess of cool stuff, and her expression is great when she blows kisses to Laura Dern and Nastassja Kinski. The hopping monkey with strobe light is pure Lynch, and one could argue both he and the carpenter tie in with the extradimensional characters of FWWM. Plus, that song just tears it up for the finale, say what you will about the previous three hours, that last minute, where the song goes very quiet, then comes back for the climactic ending with the camera tracking back from Laura Dern through the singers is a great final moment. And, even after three hours, I was wishing the film would just keep going. It's such a wonderful world to get lost in, I didn't want it to end.
So, that's what I got out of the second viewing. Let me now address a couple of points from the comments on my first post.
One thing that seemed like a major detail is the element of "evil being born" and "a murder", indicated by the "new neighbor" lady in the beginning. Later on we find out that the Polish woman's son perhaps died. I'm thinking maybe his premature death was the result of an abortion, since we see the screwdriver being plunged into Sue's stomach as well as Julia Ormond's character. We also have the image of the woman in the dress(I couldn't really tell who it was) lying on the floor with her mid-section ripped open.
I really wish there was a transcript of Grace's speech, I listened closely, but there's so much in the film, it's tough to remember exactly. I suppose the boy who goes out and brings evil could be The Phantom. He would seem to be the source of all evil in the film, and that sort of supernatural birth would be fitting.
As for the son's death, that death happens in the storyworld, in real life her son is fine. So, I would agree that it's likely an abortion, or perhaps her husband beating her forced her to have a miscarriage. Sue also lost her son, which goes along with what I'd mentioned in my original review, that Nikki seems to tap into something in the Polish Woman's actual life through this script. The Polish Woman actually seems to live in the house that Laura Dern inhabited as Sue. In the case of the Polish Woman, her actual life seems to have much more in common with her role in the film. I'll need another viewing to figure that out exactly though, I feel like it's definitely there, I just need to see how the scenes are structured again
I think the critical thing is that both of their experiences represent their worst fears. For Nikki, it's that her cheating with Devon will ruin her marriage and plunge her into poverty and prostitution. She seems to lack confidence in her own ability to be a successful actress, and that's likely why she married such a wealthy man. If he rejects her, she loses the security and her fear is she'll wind up out on the street. This also ties in to her fear of being a whore, if she did marry for money, she would already see herself as a kind of whore, and that's why she imagines herself hanging out with those girls.
For the Polish woman, the great fear is being separated from her husband and child. She sees her cheating, forced upon her by the script, separating her from him, leading to the death of her son and sexual enslavement in Room 47. However, she is ultimately freed from that entrapment and returns to her family.
As for the identity of the woman on the floor, I'm not sure, I'll have to look out for that on the next viewing.
It's my thought that the Japanese homeless woman is speaking about herself - or herself in a symbiosis with the Dying Degraded Sue - much like the Julia Ormond character with a screwdriver sticking out of her gut was speaking, irrationally, of herself - or of herself in a dying and involuntary symbiosis with and invisible and God-likely powerful Nikki Grace.
There's certainly parallels between Nikki/Sue and Niko. I think it again is about Sue/Nikki having to confront her own worst fears, the idea that she was just putting on this role of a movie star, like Niko wears the wig, when in reality both of them are dying whores. The screwdriver in her gut would tie in with the hole in Niko's vagina. If we read it as Julia Ormond targetting her uterus, both Nikki/Sue and Niko would lose their ability to have children, and the possibility to find the domestic bliss that Lynch's characters seek. I'm not sure if the Japanese woman herself experiences this, it's unclear why she's sitting out on the street, though if she is homeless, then that would tie in with Sue's ultimate fear. In both this film and Mulholland Dr., Lynch uses homelessness as the worst fate for actresses, to be completely spit out the system and wind up a bum on the street.
Ultimately, all the women in the film seem to be on a spiral towards the streets, where they find prostitution and death. This is likely a result of the Phantom's influence, by destroying him, she frees all of them from that spell. And the Japanese woman is definitely a part of this.
There's so much in this film, if you've seen it, definitely comment, I'd love to discuss it more and expand more on exactly what Lynch is doing.