Lost Highway, David Lynch’s first overt experiment in divergent, parallel narrative strands, was also his first film about his present, as opposed to his past. Leaving behind the manicured lawns, cheery dispositions and festering collective subconscious of Small Town America, he moved on to the remote affluence of the Hollywood Hills, imagining Los Angeles as a lurid, illusory dreamspace, where a culture of performance has seeped outward from the movies and occupied all facets of life. This theme bloomed with gruesome elegance in Mulholland Drive, perhaps his most complete disquisition on the perils of playacting, in which the city is cast as a place peopled with sinister lingering ghosts, fantasies of past and present communing amid an eerie nocturnal landscape.
Darkened Room is the direct follow-up to that film, a short work which feels like a small fragment dislodged from the conceptual space of its complex predecessor. First appearing on Lynch’s website a few months after Mulholland Drive’s release, it’s still floating around unrestricted on YouTube, a sketch that reprises the film’s prevailing ideas in miniature: blondes and brunettes, roommates that may be a bit more, dreams, performances and tears, not to mention a thick pall of ambiguously defined dread. Yet there are important differences as well. Where Mulholland Drive built an entire patchwork backdrop around its fable of a starry-eyed outsider consumed by the dark side of the dream machine, Darkened Room is visceral and immediate, offering no recourse from its specific vision of personal collapse.
The film is short enough to lay out its entire plot with ease. A Japanese woman, shot in quasi-Webcam fashion, states simply that she has a friend, who’s in a darkened room, crying. Lynch then offers a medium shot of what appears to be the woman, captured from across said room, her knees curled up into her chest, features unclear aside from the trail of melted mascara beneath her eyes. The film holds here for a while, capturing her tears, flashes back to the Japanese woman for a bit, then slides into an uncomfortably angled, downward-facing close-up of the girl. She speaks, either to herself or the camera, until the focus shifts again, with the unexpected appearance of another woman, framed in a doorway with a man standing behind her. The woman emerges from her bedroom to berate the crying girl, the two of them shot in dominant and subordinate fashion, the blond sunk low on the couch, the brunette towering above her, offering a withering dressing down that ends on a tone of sarcastic resignation.
The whole thing seems pointless, and in response it’s easy to accuse Lynch of fuzzy dilettantism, of releasing formless, purposefully confusing material that leans too hard on a sense of artily-conceived mystery. But baffling works like Darkened Room are an essential part of the director’s process. Laying out ideas through the act of staging them, he in effect chronicled the waning days of his life as a director, devoting a solid ten-year period to exploring the nexus between artificially classed acts of performance and their real-life counterparts. The off-kilter structure offers another permutation of this theme, and another instance of oppressive cinematic disintegration, the series of gradually zooming reverse shot close-ups that close out the film presaging the stifling intimacy of Inland Empire, which offered further documentation of the innate horrors of performance. A trifle of a movie that still manages to be acutely unsettling, Darkened Room functions as a passage between what may be Lynch’s greatest film and what might be his last, a snapshot of private dissolution that evokes crisis on both sides of the camera.