(19/03/07) – The writer Arundhati Roy said of her first and, to date, only novel, the Booker prize-winning The God of Small Things, that she couldn’t tell you what it was about. Because, she said, if she could tell you what it was about, she wouldn’t have had to write it. In a similar way I feel that it’s a somewhat reductive task to try to say what Inland Empire is about. Of course, I didn’t write (or direct) it – David Lynch did; but I’m trying to write a review that’s in keeping with the idea of not reducing things to mere words. After all, Lynch has so far refused to provide audio commentaries for his films, and he has often insisted that DVD versions of his work should not carry chapter stops – all of this is to encourage the viewer to immerse her- or himself in the experience of watching the film. And the film, in the act of its unfolding, should be trusted to explain itself.

But not to attempt to convey its plot is to risk painting Inland Empire in some sort of impenetrable light. Yes, it is obscure, very lengthy, post-modernist, complicated, and difficult to follow. But it also has a shape, and a structure, and a story, and a plot, and all those things mainstream cinema is famous for giving its audience. And the movie teases us with these elements, like a rag kept just out of reach. It is in the juxtaposition of its oddness and its ordinariness that Inland Empire achieves its effect.

It’s ostensibly about an actress (played by Laura Dern) who’s cast in a remake of a movie, the first version of which was never completed because the original actors were murdered. Once she begins to film the movie, she starts to become drawn into the story, which is about a Polish prostitute struggling to survive, with an abusive boyfriend and a baby on the way. It develops from there…

Jeremy Irons plays her director, and Justin Theroux (who played a director in Mulholland Drive) is her co-star. With these big-screen presences, as well as the likes of Grace Zabriskie as a menacingly nosey neighbour and Diane Ladd as a blowsy television talk-show host, Inland Empire never relinquishes its status as a cinematic feature film. Against that, the digital video shooting format allows Lynch to cast free of conventional industrial circumstances and make the film with a kind of independence and self-sufficiency usually experienced by painters, sculptors and novelists. Lynch began his career in painting and has spoke of the desire to work like an artist, without studio interference. Given the complex corporate wrangles that sired Mulholland Drive, he presumably found Inland Empire a dream to make.

The DV does, however, threaten to short-change the audience. Much of the sensuality with which Lynch typically invests his visuals has been stripped from the screen, to be replaced by a matter-of-factly scuzzy look which, at first, doesn’t bode well for a three-hour movie, especially one with a story as puzzling as this. But very quickly it becomes clear that this is enabling a different kind of intimacy between viewer and writer-director, in which the former sits rapt while the latter patiently, but with no let-up of momentum, presents his ideas.

And those ideas are, in many ways, a continuation of the themes and preoccupations which Lynch has scrutinised time and again: an essentially innocent central character picking their way through a harsh, surreal and testing environment; an emphasis on desires and the difficulty of fulfilling them in the confines of society; a merging of reality and fantasy into a new experience of the world. Dern’s stricken actress in Inland Empire shifts from the palatial razzamatazz of Hollywood to the snow-speckled wastes of a poverty-stricken existence in Poland (filmed in Lodz), assuming, at various points, the identity of the character of the film-within-the-film, but all the while searching for something, something like a point of arrival.

Those familiar with Mulholland Drive especially will see the clear concern in Inland Empire with the ordeals actresses (must) go through to create and sustain fictional characters, and with the exploitation of these lovely beings by the decadent financiers. But Lynch does not roundly condemn Hollywood: he has professed a love for it, and his portrayal of film-industry glamour and sickness is attentive and compassionate. Inland Empire‘s lovely being, Laura Dern, is brilliant, and her sympathetic presence anchors the movie in some sort of emotional reality. Whatever we feel or don’t feel about the movie’s aesthetics and complex plotting, we feel constant and extreme fondness for her.

And what do we feel for Lynch? That he has squandered 35mm – and the glories he achieved with it (think the Victorian England of The Elephant Man, the enchantment and nightmare of Blue Velvet, the journey of Lost Highway, and the dying dream of Mulholland Drive)? That he has backed off into wilful marginalisation, as if with scorn for his very success? Not at all. That digital video shooting gives Inland Empire the flavour of an art installation, as well as a low-budget, independently-made feature. It tells a story and at the same time it offers a meditative experience. I sat there quite trance-like for three hours while my mind ranged over the movie, the themes, individual moments, thoughts about my own life, my own search for a point of arrival. It was a quite pleasant way to spend the afternoon – far more thought-provoking than most movies around. I have a feeling it’s something about redemption and solving the past. It does feel long – but I imagine it will take on greater cohesion with another viewing. If Lynch is an artist then this new film is not a departure or a failure, it is his latest work of art.

Inland Empire is out in the UK now.