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A Gift from Ingmar Bergman to David Lynch: Troubled Psyches

If one could choose a major recurrent theme in Ingmar Bergman’s film, that would be, undoubtedly, a troubled psyche. Bergman has been exploring the human psyche from the very beginning of his film career, which lasted for nearly six decades. His mastery over probing the deep layers of human’s soul has greatly influenced the American film-makers, particularly David Lynch.

David Lynch has repeatedly acknowledged Bergman as one of his favourite film-makers of all time; however, it seems it is more than that. Known for his weird, eerie dreamlike films, Lynch, too, shows an immense enthusiasm in digging up the soul and mind of his fictional characters. Of course, this soul reaching is rooted in his what he figuratively calls is fish catching; “Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and purer. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.” Lynch, similar to Bergman, attempts to push his bottom where repressed desires and malicious darkness lie. Therefore, reading Lynch through a Bergmanesque filter will contribute to an expanded understanding of Lynch’s aesthetics and visual and thematic proximity of these two great film-makers.

Bergman’s influence on Lynch is so substantial and profound that one could claim that Lynch is the surrogate figure of Bergman in American cinema, but much darker and more sinister. Exploring the disquieting side of the psyche of both his characters and their dwelling town, Lynch attempts to show the hidden layers of American life, borrowing Roland Bathes’ idea of demystification, he demystifies the American dream and reveals its hideous and dreadful spirit.

Mulholland Drive could be taken as the greatest reverence of Lynch towards Bergman. There are several similarities between Mulholland Drive and Persona. Persona is a psychological drama revolving around the relationship between two women, Elizabeth Vogler and Alma. The former is a successful actress who is hospitalized for a nervous breakdown with symptoms of “muteness and a near catatonic lassitude” and the latter is the pretty young nurse who is in charge of her care. These two characters through some mysterious process exchange identities. The issue of identity crisis and transformation also echo in Mulholland Drive, an amnesiac brunette (Laura Harring) and an aspirational blonde (Naomi Watts) with shifting identities. Bergman displayed the mysterious identities of his characters in two ways. The first is through the mirror exercise where the initiator and responding character are almost impossible to pin down and the second one is the metamorphosis, a process of transformation of the characters. The idea of flux identity is similarly expressed in Lynch’s film. The wounded and traumatized brunette who is unable to remember anything including her name after taking shower she picked up a name, Rita, from the poster of Rita Hayworth on the bathroom wall through the mirror shot. Later in the film, Betty put on a blonde wig on Rita’s head in front of the bathroom’s mirror and then said: “You look like someone else”. It seems that Betty perpetually provides an identity for Rita and she passively adopts it. The question of identity reaches its climax after the lovemaking of Rita and Betty in bed. It’s where Lynch imitates what Bergman did in Persona: merging the faces of the two female characters in one shot. Unification of the faces of characters in these two films is considered a really important turning point of narratives.

After Rita and Betty visual and physical coupling, they enter into a mysterious club known as “Club Silencio” where the Magician performs on stage. The show is all an illusion, La Grande Illusion ever! The world where living, Betty, and the dead, Rita, are so close to each there that is impossible to distinguish which is which. Betty’s trembling in the club is an exact echo of what the magician, Albert Emanuel Vogler played by Max von Sydow, did in The Magician (1958), “He calls you down, he calls you forth, beyond the dead, the living, the living dead.”  Rita, Betty and the Club Silencio are the precise reflections of these concepts, respectively.

The surrealism of Mulholland Drive could be traced back to the weird visual and narrative composition of Hour of the Wolf (1968). Mulholland Drive could be separated into two parts: Betty’s dream and after her waking up. So does the Hour of Wolf. The first part is quite realistic, whereas the second part is filled with surrealism qualities which is the reflection of the disturbed psyche of the protagonist. Painter Johan Borg (von Sydow) is haunted by demons and images of his former lover, Veronica Vogler (Ingrid Thulin). The parallel plot could be found in Lynch’s film and narrative. Betty is an artist like the Johan Borg and her life is haunted by her former lover, Rita, who left her to joined the young director, Adam Kesher (Played by Justin Theroux). Projection of demons and wild beasts in Hour of the Wolf corresponds with the weird characters of Lynch’s film such as the dead man behind the café which through the technique of surrealism could be best pieced together.

Given these facts, Lynch is the heir to the psychic world of the Bergman’s worldview in America. The green light of the American dream which beckoned J. Gatsby is now turned into a green-eyed troubled spirit feeding upon itself and its surrounding world. Betty, the broken doll of dream factory of Hollywood, encounters the rotten soul of Hollywood and by her own volition she walks beside it, hire a hitman to kill her ex-lover and in the end, commits suicide herself. While the troubled psyche of Bergman’s characters is the result of lack of spirituality and faith, the characters of Lynch’s films are not related to any spiritual metaphysics, in a sense they are the victims of the larger rotten dream, a dream that in the end reveals itself to be nothing but a dreadful nightmare.

Ebrahim Barzegar

I am 33, unmarried. I have MA in English Literature from Guilan University, Iran. Cinema is everything to me. My thesis for MA is Metafiction, Intertextuality and Ontology in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire.