Words by Darren TYNAN
David Lynch is the driving force behind the psychological thriller Lost Highway, and his idiosyncratic directing style propels a dark, intriguing and ultimately terrifying journey into the heart of masculine identity.
For those familiar with the latter films in Lynch’s repertoire (Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire), it is at no surprise that Lost Highway is a challenging concoction of film aesthetics. Lost Highway is an artistic meditation fuelled by pensive symbolism, subtle allegories and a non-linear narrative structure.
Despite the relentless ambiguity and moments of surreal confusion (albeit enjoyable) which are somehow conducive to the plot, the multiple threads of the film are woven around the enigmatic character of avant-garde saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), who embarks on a journey into the treacherous core of his own sexual anxiety and inadequacies.
Many of the scenes in Lost Highway are explorations of what academic Nicholas Marino refers to as the ‘three metonymic facets of masculinity; body, identity and power’, and there is a sense of dread and uncertainty which binds these facets together within the film.
Lost Highway first offers a glimpse into the main character’s psyche with a series of vignettes which inform the audience of his sexual shortcomings. Fred suspects his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), has had an affair, and after the crushing realisation of infidelity sets in, his ultimate lack of virility and disempowerment results in psychological torment and despair.
There is an emotive scene in which Fred is unable to sexually fulfill his wife, and Lynch displays the entwined bodies as a symbolic device, illustrating gender identity in relation to this sexual tension. Juxtaposed with the ebb and flow of their bodies, an eerily ominous soundtrack creates a tone for the scene and signifies the patriarchal dread which the main character is confronted with. Here, Lynch invites the audience on a portentous expedition into the vulnerable aspects of Frank’s masculine identity.
The cause of Fred’s vulnerability is his inability to adequately have an intimate relationship with his spouse. Subsequently, Fred’s failures result in disillusionment, his future is seen to be foredoomed and his sanity becomes questionable as he revels in his inadequacies.
Fred’s internalised feelings of worthlessness are displaced and directed toward his spouse, and he is driven to explosive behaviour as the result of his own abjection, subsequently murdering Renee. Then there’s this complete shift in the film’s progression… there really is no point explaining it as you’ll find out when watching it, but suffice to say there are two seemingly separate narratives that Lynch blends together in a unique way.
Fred goes into state of repression as he attempts to deal with his own psychologically traumatised condition. Symbolically, Fred is protecting his masculine identity by repressing what academic Andreas Philaretou refers to as his ‘physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual weaknesses and shortcomings’.
There is a considerable ambivalence as to whether or not Fred commits murder in a violent frenzy of delusional identity crisis, a kind of ‘psychogenic fugue’ or split-personality disorder. It could also be interpreted that Frank’s dubious mental condition occurred directly after his heinous actions. Whatever the case, the reality of Renee’s demise is overridden by Frank’s denial and the aspects of masculine power and identity are interlinked.
The themes and allegorical representations in Lost Highway resonate within a masculine space, the anxiety-fuelled phantasmagoria of Lynch’s work operates as a terrifying yet intriguing exploration into the portentous aspects of masculine identity. Perhaps the muffled screams of sexual anxiety in Lost Highway are haunting, albeit they are thoughtful, and effectively heard.