Was it by coincidence or design that David Lynch’s Lost Highway was distributed by Janus Films, their logo which opens the credits the two-faced Roman god “of transitions, passages, beginnings, and endings,” emblematic of the dual nature of the characters in the film, some actors (perhaps) playing two characters, some characters (perhaps) played by two actors?
Identity and secrets recurring themes of Lynch’s – John Merrick’s statement that he was a man rather than the mere animal others saw him as, the safe suburbs of Lumberton where worms squirmed beneath the perfect lawns, the lumber town nestled between the peaks of White Tail Mountain and Blue Pine Mountain where doppelgängers beyond the portal of Glastonbury Grove in the Ghost Wood – it was on the Lost Highway that duality most specifically manifested for the first time.
Lynch’s second “road trip” film, Sailor and Lula were Wild at Heart but their interrupted journey had a destination while Lost Highway is twisted like a Möbius strip, opening and closing on the same shot of endless road at night as the centre marking flashes by so fast the divisions blend into one in the same way that jazz musician Fred Madison and mechanic Pete Dayton shift from one to the other, their lives wrapped around the beautiful and mysterious Renee Madison and Alice Wakefield, two women with the same face.
While it is the story of Fred and his wife Renee (Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette) which is presented first, is that to say that is the correct place to start? Sitting alone in the dark, smoking, brooding, monosyllabic, Fred doesn’t react when a voice on the door intercom tells him that Dick Laurent is dead, his life when he is not playing saxophone silence other than the echoing hollowness of his home where shadows move at night in pairs.
Renee communicating with her husband as sparsely as Lynch does with his audience, the only emotion she shows is fear when they summon the police to report the anonymously delivered videotape which shows them sleeping in their bed; Fred saying it was shot without their knowledge or consent and that he does not own a video camera: “I like to remember things my own way… not necessarily the way they happened,” perhaps the most significant line in the film.
When Renee is murdered, despite claiming to have no memory of the deed, Fred is convicted and sentenced to death; awaiting execution, alone in his cell suffering from blinding headaches which threaten to overwhelm him he becomes Pete (Balthazar Getty), an innocent man who is released and returns to work at the garage where his sinister customer Mister Eddy (Robert Loggia) introduces him to his beautiful girlfriend Alice (Patricia Arquette, now blonde).
And what of the “Mystery Man” (Robert Blake) who can apparently be in many places at once, including the burning beach house? Is that fire symbolic of destruction, rebirth, as with the phoenix, or a doorway, as in Twin Peaks? Any deal with the devil comes at a cost, whether it be negotiated with the Mystery Man or “Dick Laurent,” and reneging on the debt will exact a penalty; perhaps Fred did not bargain a pardon from his fate, only a reprieve.
Or are all these false interpretations? Sharing common thematic and geographical space with the film some regard as Lynch’s masterpiece, Mulholland Drive, Mister Eddy’s tailgating incident occurs on that winding road through the Hollywood hills, opening the possibility the two films could be regarded as companion pieces; that later film experienced through the eyes of a woman, do the answers to the mysteries here lie not with the men but with the woman who links them?
Renee not giving the appearance of a bibliophile and with no books evident in their apartment, Fred knew his wife lied about staying home to read, and while her alter-ego Alice plays little girl lost she manipulates anyone who can be of use in order to get what she wants, Mister Eddy, Pete and ill-fated partyboy Andy (Michael Massee). Is Lost Highway rather the story of a woman who tried to reinvent herself to escape abuse and trauma, presuming something as facile as a solution even exists?
A worthy if confounding addition to the Criterion Collection, their new edition of Lost Highway is a 4K digital restoration supervised and approved by David Lynch accompanied by the 1997 documentary Pretty as a Picture: The Art of David Lynch, running eighty minutes with a further fourteen minutes of outtakes, a forty-three minute reading of the chapter from Room to Dream relating to the conception and production, and other archive promotional material and interviews, extensive, informative, but not necessarily illuminating.
Lost Highway will be available on Blu-ray from Criterion from Monday 31st October