David Lynch’s latest film, “Lady Blue Shanghai”, is a 16-minute advertisement for Dior. Apparently Lynch was given creative license to create any story as long as it featured Marion Cotillard, the bag, a blue rose and Old Shanghai – relatively minor constraints for Lynch. However, it might have been a nice change if Lynch had used this opportunity to depart from his usual directorial persona (as Jørgen Leth did when presented with arbitrary constrains by Lars von Trier in The Five Obstructions). Nevertheless, this conventional Lynchian (if that’s not an oxymoron) drama still has its pleasures.
This project also probably isn’t such a stretch for Lynch. In “David Lynch Keeps His Head” David Foster Wallace catalogues “the Renaissance Man-ish things” completed by Lynch as side projects, which have probably grown extensively in the past 14 years. (Though he does not mention Lynch’s contribution to Lumiere and Company, which might be, along with his previous commercials, the closest precedent to this project.)
Here, Cotillard stars as Lady Blue on her first visit to Shanghai. The film opens with her entrance into a hotel lobby. Without speaking to anyone, she gets on an elevator, which she rides to her floor, the corridor of which she walks down until arriving at the entrance to her room. In anyone else’s film, this would be as uneventful as it sounds, but in this case, the deliberate pacing, as well as the soundtrack, a steady drone of dark noise, defamiliarizes the scene and identifies it as Lynchian. The use of a handheld digital video camera to shoot the film further defamiliarizes the images, which are glossier and more polished than in Inland Empire (the first project for which Lynch used digital video), but still rawer than 35mm film.
As she approaches the door, she hears victrola-era music mysteriously playing from behind the door to her room, which she cautiously enters. Finding no one inside, she turns off the music (the source of which is a rather antiquated radio). However, turning off the music triggers a storm of flashing lights followed by the appearance of the Dior handbag, emanating a cloudy, hazy, swirling light (another image repeatedly used by Lynch throughout his career, especially in shorter projects, like Lumiere).
She phones the front desk clerk, who sends two stoic and incredulous security guards to her room. When they arrive, the bag is still on the floor in the middle of the room, but it is no longer emanating the cloudy light. Finding no one in the room, they proceed to question her about the events surrounding the object. She provides exposition as to her reasons for being in Shanghai (business), the events of her day (lunch with a friend, visit to the Pearl Tower, which, she says, invoked a feeling of déjà vu).
Her recollection is visualized as a flashback, the primary image of which is a shaky, blurry point-of-view shot traversing a bridge in Old Shanhai, punctuated by cuts to other uninhabited Shanghai locales (balconies, stairwells). The narrative then takes us from a room that appears to be Shanghai’s version of the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks in which she begins a romantic rendevous (with a character to whom we’re never properly introduced), which is interrupted by goings-on in the city into which they escape by running to the top of the Pearl Tower. The man says, “I can’t be here. I told you. I wish I could. It’s all very beautiful,” and more nonsense. Each confesses their love for the other, and the man gives the woman a blue rose before fading out.
Cinematic time and space return us to the hotel, where Lady Blue refocuses her attention on the handbag, which now seems to possess added meaning for her. She goes to the purse, opens it, finds the blue rose, which she places such that only the blue petals are visible outside of the purse. Then, still plaintive and kneeling on the floor, Lady Blue clutches the purse and rose to her chest as the film fades out – a tableau that probably brought the marketing team at Dior to orgasm in the screening room.
The security guards don’t seem to understand what any of this means. Neither do I. But it’s fun to watch anything new by Lynch even if it is a project that runs dangerously close to seeming like a derivative attempt by a film school student to make something Lynchian. Many great artists reach a point when they seem to be imitating themselves. However, there are distinct elements here that have not been previously used in Lynch’s work. The couple’s run through Old Shanghai visually seems to simultaneously superimpose time-lapse and real-time cinematography.
If this work is a non-vital, very minor entry to Lynch’s oeuvre, it does confirm a gradual and subtle redefinition that has been taking place to the notion of “Lynchian.” In 1996, David Foster Wallace, provided a nice definition of the term:
AN ACADEMIC DEFINITION of Lynchian might be that the term “refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.”
Though far from the first to address the contradictions of existence, through projects like Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, Lynch provided a new visual and narrative vocabulary to refer to this other, more hysterical reality, this violent realm of the real lurking beyond the world of idyllic appearances and surfaces.
If the word sick seems excessive, substitute the word creepy. Lynch’s movies are inarguably creepy, and a big part of their creepiness is that they seem so personal. A kind and simple way to put it is that Lynch’s movies seem to be expressions of certain anxious, obsessive, fetishistic, oedipally arrested, borderlinish parts of the director’s psyche, expressions presented with little inhibition or semiotic layering, i.e., presented with something like a child’s ingenuous (and sociopathic) lack of self-consciousness.
However, beginning with Lost Highway, which Wallace was “reviewing” (but had not seen) when he wrote the passages above, Lynch’s focus has shifted. The macabre is no longer surprising or shocking (in his work or, really, in general). Throughout the truly great Los Angeles Trilogy (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire), Lynch begins to experiment with the spatial and temporal dynamics of cinema itself to suggest new ways in which the macabre is perpetually contained within the mundane, and, more importantly, how the repressed past and the variable future are perpetually contained in the actuality of present.
In some ways, the virtual travel of remembrance and hope are so ineluctable in the structure of “Lady Blue Shanghai” that Lynch can focus his narrative attention on the love story itself, a sentimental turn seemingly far removed from the Lynchian of the 1980s but certainly not that far removed from The Straight Story. That is, Lynch’s films now expand and contract, rather than shock, during and after their viewing. We’re left to share in the protagonists’ sense of wonder and longing.
Roger Ebert ignorantly dismissed Lost Highway as “an empty stylistic facade” and suggested the film is more about design than cinema, partly, I believe, because he failed to recognize this strategic shift – that Lynch has become more interested in providing direct images of time rather than representing it through its psychological affects. That is, Lynch’s recent projects now tend “towards a perception as it was before men (or after), it also tends towards the correlate to this, that is, towards an any-space-whatever released from its human coordinates” (Cinema 1: The Movement-Image 122). Lady Blue, like many of Lynch’s recent protagonists, subtract themselves from their immediate surroundings to develop a deeper and more engaged connection to the real.
In some respects, “Lady Blue Shanghai” suggests a rather conventional love story encountered in media res but told in a rather unconventional (or updated Lynchian) fashion. I once saw a Doug Aitken video installation featuring characters waking up in hotel rooms and other unfamiliar places. This ad feels like an extended version of one of those segments in which Lynch delves further into one of the character’s travel life. Like Aitken’s work, here the city emerges as a tangible place of memory and anxiety, as opposed to Lumberton and Twin Peaks, which served more as places repressing psychological and emotional trauma.
That the film is an (rather overt) advertisement, does not really detract from its appeal. Lynch is regularly mentioned in definitions or lists describing post-modern, and his capacity to undermine (or at least ignore) the boundary between fashion and art is constantly on display. If he still struggles to bring art cinema to a commercial audience, why not bring a commercial audience to art cinema? Plus most of us can’t really feel a sense of being manipulated into watching a 16-minute commercial, because most of us are never going to buy the $2000 handbag.