David Lynch: Misogyny and Sexual Violence

Posted March 27, 2012 in Film Features

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Who would be a David Lynch heroine? They inevitably suffer some sort of misadventure or violation, be it suicide (Mulholland Dr), sexual assault (Wild At Heart), domestic abuse (Blue Velvet), inflicted drug addiction, rape and murder (Twin Peaks; Fire Walk With Me) – and indeed, often his works, including those above, contain a mixture of some and all of these things. The great director has a singular “way of seeing” which transforms banal reality and Americana into something altogether more disturbing, dysmorphic and dream-like: just as he straddles cinematic conventions of reality and a surreal, transcendental filmmaking style, so too does he operate in the liminal space between commercialism and artistic credibility. His films often feature female lead characters, but do they privilege a female perspective? A close analysis suggests a rather(or feminine), as evidenced by his portrayal of violence, particularly sexual violence, against women.

Twin Peaks, arguably the director’s most lasting contribution to contemporary culture and best work (indeed, the original TV series one might describe to one’s friends as “great television” telling them how much you think they’d like it), in which the investigation of the rape and murder of local high school student Laura Palmer (played by Sheryl Lee) by the FBI and local police leads to the uncovering of supernatural forces of evil, spirits and demons, is notable in this regard: throughout the series, we never experience anything through the victim, Laura’s eyes. Twin Peaks is a mystery pieced together through the memories of those who knew Laura Palmer, artifacts of her life, and the frequent invocation of the supernatural.

The feature film which followed the series, Fire Walk With Me, seems to address this issue of visibility and perspective, featuring as it does Laura in the central role. But it is in Fire Walk With Methat Lynch’s misogynistic attitudes towards the rape and sexual assault of women come to the fore in a more direct and disturbing way. In it, much is clarified about the rape and murder of Laura Palmer by her father Leland. Laura has been raped by Leland since she was 13 years old. Leland is “possessed” by BOB, an evil spirit who feeds on fear, when he commits these acts; Laura sees only BOB but, before the events that lead directly to her death in a train-car in the forest, realises that he and Leland are, and have been, one and the same.

The Leland/BOB dichotomy, which has existed in the audience’s mind as much as it has done in Laura’s, is brought into chaotic focus as a false construction. Leland’s actions are viewed not just as the unspeakable evil born of demonic possession, but as a disturbing sort of retribution, of a hellish paternal discipline. Leland notices Laura’s half-heart necklace at the dinner-table and is upset (worried, jealous, perhaps); that night, he rapes her. Laura has a sadomasochistic group-sex session with two men and another girl in a hut the forest, which Leland sees through the window; after the men leave, he rapes and murders her. If the description of these instances makes for disturbing reading, it is merely a repetition of the content of Lynch’s work. The rape, torture and murder of Laura Palmer ceases to be the result of demonic possession, of simple evil, and begins to take on a dual nature, incorporating or at least implying her responsibility for her tragic end. However, Lynch never peers beyond causal superficiality, lacking the nuanced approach required to morally investigate the evil he portrays. We are left, simply, with a mess of abdicated responsibility, victim-blaming and sexualised rape.

The gruesome rape scene in Fire Walk With Me has a lot in common with Lynch’s other works. In Blue Velvet, the scene in which Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) appears to somewhat enjoy being beaten by Frank (Dennis Hopper); in Wild At Heart, the scene in which Bobby (Willem Dafoe) makes unwanted sexual advances on Lula (Laura Dern), threatening to rape her, until she begins to “want it” – and there are more. In immersing himself in the iconography of American cinema, and thus its ideology, Lynch’s metamorphoses are of a purely superficial nature, his surrealism concealing a fundamental conservatism.

David Lynch is/was a Reaganite, a co-signatory of the letter from Hollywood luminaries demanding the exoneration of Roman Polanski for drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old girl, and he recently ate a woman’s underwear live at an online Q&A.

Words: Oisín Murphy


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