Lost Highway (1997) *** – Seen at the Cinema

One of these films with bits missing. Where you are fated to fail to join the dots the director didn’t put there in the first place. Or so it seems. But when you work it all back from the end appears to make some kind of sense.

But that’s only while you are of a mind, given the directorial credentials, to stick it in the cult category rather than the direct-to-video vault where its companions might be any erotic thriller featuring Shannon Tweed. And that might be appropriate in  another way because this was such a flop on initial release, despite David Lynch’s reputation courtesy of Blue Velvet (19860 and Twin Peaks, that it owes much of its current cult status to rediscovery on DVD.

Mysterious message, mysterious video, mysterious man (Robert Blake) resembling Lindsay Kemp from The Wicker Man (1973). What connects jazz saxophonist Fred (Bill Pullman) and garage mechanic Pete (Balthazar Getty) except the women in their lives, brunette and blonde, respectively, and the fact that the former’s high-pitched music gives the latter a headache.

In fact, sorry to spoil it for you, though you’ve no doubt already seen this, this is really a story told, however opaquely, from the perspective of blonde/brunette Alice/Renee (Patricia Arquette), a commodity du jour looking for a dupe du jour. Because it’s, don’t you know, about a young woman lured into debauchery, forced to strip at gunpoint for gangster Mr Eddy (Robert Loggia), act in porno and become his squeeze, and naturally looking for a way out. Enter Pete, an easy enough snare, just turn up at his garage looking blonde and sexy. Not that Pete in any way resembles the introspective jealous Fred, Pete can make out in the backs of cars with other willing women like Sheila (Natasha Gregson Warner).

Into Fred’s dull life – he doesn’t seem that excited by being an avant garde jazzman and his sexy wife has given up on sitting adoringly in nightclubs gazing at her idol – comes the mysterious trilogy. “Dick Laurent is dead” is the mysterious message. The video contains footage of their apartment, with some footage shot when they were asleep. The mysterious man, unless he’s a ventriloquist, has the mysterious ability to be two places at once and then just turn up, like a subconscious, out of the blue.

That’s not the only switcheroo. At times Fred turns into Pete. And the two women turn up in the same photograph. And nobody seems much alive except when it comes to villainy. The gangster has a neat method of teaching tailgaters the error of their ways and likes his goodies (women) to unwrap themselves in the presence of others.

And it’s a nightmare of sorts, hallucinatory, or at least the characters exist on a surreal landscape. The audience never quite knows where it is. Instead of the usual twists of the thriller genre, this has mind-bending twists. It may make sense, I tried to make sense of it, but I’m not sure that’s necessary and it may even be folly, the whole idea I guess being to go with the flow and just enjoy what the director puts in front of us.

The forced strip sits uneasily in these times, though the beating up of the tail-gater always geta a great audience response, as if of course gangster violence has the imprimatur of Martin Scorsese, and in the world of a lost woman seeking a way out any man, no matter how innocent (Pete refuses loan of a porno video), is there to be used.

David Lynch is one of the few directors of the last 30/40 years to be considered a true auteur, his movies full of strange exotic images, and characters who would not exist outside his imagination, and it was quite rewarding to see that he has at least garnered an audience for I saw this in the largest cinema in a triple-screen arthouse and it had attracted a sizeable audience.

Peak enjoyment for the head-scratching fraternity, red meat for arthouse hounds, it certainly has the Lynch trademarks in camerawork and music and the parcelling up of the illicit into digestible fragments.

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