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Lynch / Rivette. Les filles du feu: “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” and “Joan the Maid”

Comparing a film by David Lynch with one by Jacques Rivette, paired by a new retrospective series in New York.
This article accompanies the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s dual retrospective of the films of Jacques Rivette and David Lynch and is part of an ongoing review of Rivette’s films for the Notebook, in light of several major re-releases of his work.
“I have no idea what happened, I have no idea what I saw,” said Jacques Rivette after seeing Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. “I left the theater floating six feet above the ground.” Disclosure: like Rivette, I too have never seen Twin Peaks. But I do own a television.
In both Joan the Maid (1994) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), paired together by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the outcome is never cast in any doubt: a young girl will be murdered, whether on a pyre in a medieval castle courtyard or in a sodden den in the forest. Laura Palmer is senselessly killed by her abusive, invidious father. Joan is murdered by the English, for affirming her constitution and rejecting the tortured contract she made with her zealously sadistic hosts. The movies were both marketed, two years apart, as the unseen paths that lead two heroines to well-mythologised points of gruesome departure—one depicting inner voices and visions (the demons, the levitating angels) and the other, pointedly, not.
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The unusually linear, grounded Joan the Maid—where Rivette effects an order of dutiful straightforwardness, the only reoccurring (or self-perpetuating) situations, otherwise a Rivette staple, being Joan’s trudges from battle to antechamber to bed—makes for quite the contrast to Lynch’s wild, apoplectic film. Upon release, the latter was criticised for all manner of reasons, not least of which was its single-minded focus on a character who had existed as but a flashback or a cadaver in the original show. Yet, like Joan, described almost as often as seen, Laura ultimately remains a legend—at arm’s length. In her near mid-point introduction, the book-clutching walk down the Halloween-like tree-lined street, the stride through the school corridors, past rows of lockers and shuffling bodies, the glissading fades upend any hope of identifying or identification. Even as you later come to empathise painfully with her manic desperation and suffering, the intensity of Sheryl Lee’s performance, coupled with Lynch’s resistance to entirely assimilating her point-of view, transform Laura into a mysterious object.
In Rivette, mysticism takes the form of a collapsing log in the fireplace, startling a room full of squires and maidens watching Joan march past them with the Dauphin. As with Laura Palmer, our relationship to Sandrine Bonnaire’s Joan flits between extremes of identification: alternatively, as the hero of an epic we’re watching unfold in detail and with transfixed diligence—a character leading us through the film as if to battle, our timid gaze like that of an outside admirer in the flanks—and as an impossibly close subject for our sympathy (Laura haunted by apparitions in her bedroom, Joan by salacious night-watchmen in her prison cell). Joan’s sudden bursts of laughter, like the two sharply contrasting hemispheres of Sheryl Lee’s performance, both extremes of placidity and frailty, are always startlingly vivacious,1 even though Rivette reminds us time and again of her inexperience and proximity to an illiterate childhood. When Joan sees the carnage of battle for the first time, stumbling back to camp like a zombie, she sobs, “Horrible. So horrible.” This sense of Joan growing aware that she’s in over her head, just as Laura appears to us at the start of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, builds until we hear her final cry from up on the pyre. In a sense, the near 6-hour movie, like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, is really just about hearing a girlish laugh become, over the course of a few short years, a shrill scream that pierces a nest of rising ash and bowl of almond-like flame.
1. One often sees these Renoirian moments of levity—giggling, slapping, crowing—in Rivette’s lugubrious history films, as if to remind us that the main narrative is but a theatre that others, often secondary characters, Joan excepting, are watching with bemusement.
Mr. Small, “Yet, like Joan, described almost as often as seen, Laura ultimately remains a legend—at arm’s length.” I’d like to quibble a tiny bit with the idea that Laura remains at arm’s length in Fire Walk with Me— the entire second movement following Cole’s disappearance and Coop’s bridge-sequence in Philadelphia can only be parsed through Laura’s psychological development, which requires a discomfiting identification with her, even though I would agree that our identification is never direct or complete. We can see this formally in Lynch’s uncharacteristic use of close-ups. A great deal of the film puts the camera directly on Laura’s face, (we nearly make eye contact with her, particularly during the conversation about falling through space in Donna’s living room,) an aesthetic choice that binds us to her suffering as well as opens the film to analyses of Hollywood iconography etc etc. Fire Walk with Me seems to be Lynch’s rebuff to late Hitchcock (I’m thinking mostly of Marnie, here) and Lolita. It’s a chess problem contra Nabokov’s. We’re mostly estranged from the Humbert figure, who Lynch has carrying out his fantasy of drugging Mrs. Haze to have his way with Lo, and forced to empathize with a raped child. The intense focus on Laura’s face and its reflection in various mirrors is a double confrontation: it challenges our desire to suck pleasure from a victimized, amoral blonde, and functions as an empathy test. Her state of mind inflects everything about her half of the film, and if we can’t quite make the leap into her unmediated point of view, it’s because the figures of Bob and Mike block our access. They’re audience surrogates, split into the two traditional approaches to voyeurism: the compulsion to “taste through [another’s] mouth”, and the desire to rescue someone from a trauma for which we bear some responsibility. For other reasons I’ll address below, it’s crucial that Mike arrives at the boxcar too late. Laura is already gone, and our desire to see her saved is a consequence of our guilt for finding pleasure in her dilemma. (Leland’s transition from Bob to distraught father after the dinner scene is another way Lynch works out that theme.) I said that we can only parse the second half through Laura’s development. What I mean is that Laura progresses from self-effacing nihilism to an acceptance of her life and the possibility of love. This is our ideal, though not exclusive, path through Fire Walk with Me as well. Donna’s refusal to let Laura suffer alone effects me more intensely every time, and their trip to the Bang Bang is the central episode of the film. The Log Lady is the first person capable of reaching Laura as if she were personally effected by her abuse. She shakes her from a narcotic slumber, basically awakening her to the reality of other people, through which she begins to find herself. She had to pass through the dissociation of dreams (the picture frame) before beginning to fall back to earth and into the orbit of moral responsibility. The dada nihilism on display in the “I am the Great Went” sequence can be read as Laura’s struggle to repress this self-knowledge. Only the speech acts (including gestures) that have to deal with sex are intelligible, like “And what a Muffin you got.” We’re introduced to Ronette, who’ll assume Donna’s place in the boxcar. It’s only when she sees Donna in danger of being raped that she can’t fully deny the reality of her trauma and she rushes to save her friend. Afterwards we get Mike’s assault on Leland’s car, the brutal violence when she and Bobby try to re-up, her horrific confrontation with the truth, and finally the murder. If we see the fantastic elements of Fire Walk with Me’s narrative as having their source in Laura’s psychology, then it’s possible to interpret the Angel and Ronette’s escape as functions of Laura’s compassion. Ronette prays to be saved (and I’m still not comfortable with the content of that prayer, particularly the bits about being “dirty”) and Laura, filled with love for her, sacrifices herself to Bob and Mike, who throws the ring into the car to complete the ritual, so Ronette can live. She doubles the move Lynch makes in the final Red Room scene, and the move available to us as an audience. Laura’s laughter and tears, the floating angel, return to her the childhood she was denied by Leland, and which we’ve denied her, too. If Laura can’t be saved, and if we can’t inhabit her consciousness any more than we can jump into the minds of other people in our lives, than the only good option afforded to us is to love her, to weep for her, to try to understand her anxiety and pain. We can choose empathy, and I think that’s one of the primary things Lynch tries to do here. At least, it’s the thing which moves me about the film so deeply, and why I’ve now seen it 6 or 7 times. Anyway, I’m sorry that this comment has grown much longer than your write-up! I was at the Walter Reade screening and was troubled by the reactions of some viewers, so I’ve been thinking about the film incessantly. Thanks for the coverage, and looking forward to more! -Ben
Errata: “… and the desire to rescue someone from a trauma…” Mike’s role is more complicated than I indicated here. He’s not actually concerned with saving Laura. What he shouts at Bob behind the logging truck gives us a clearer picture of their beef: “You stole my corn!” Mike’s relationship to Laura is also predicated on nourishment via her suffering, but removed by one or two steps. He lusts after the pleasure of clucking one’s tongues at tragedy. As it stood, my explanation couldn’t account for his motivation to give Laura the ring. “Only the speech acts… that [deal] with sex are intelligible…” And death, re: Jacque’s mimed suicide. “If we see the fantastic elements… [as derived from Laura]…” Of course, there are plenty of things that resist being collapsed into a psychological analysis, and I wouldn’t want to ignore one of Lynch’s key narrative innovations (worked out more successfully in Mulholland Dr., Lost Highway, etc.) Like the blonde woman’s body in the first movement of MDr., there’s plenty to upset our critical baskets in FWWM. -Ben

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