[Pete and Alice are having sex]
Pete: “I want you!”
Alice: [whispers in his ear] “You’ll never have me.”
– Lost Highway
Of all the terrifyingly true things David Lynch has said, this rings the loudest bells for me: “Sex is a doorway to something so powerful and mystical, but movies usually depict it in a completely flat way…” He’s dead right. Despite the ubiquity of sexual imagery and objectified women, sex is still one of our biggest taboos, and its representation in mainstream and even much independent film still so unsophisticated, so uniform, so unlike the experience and diversity of the real thing.
Lynch’s strange, disorienting, and often downright creepy take on sex – a background but essential part of his trademark – is set to haunt our screens and psyches again with the new iteration of Twin Peaks, written and directed by the man himself, to start shooting in September for the Showtime network.
Back when The Simpsons Movie lampooned the Disney stereotype of on-screen sex, it revealed a more far-reaching series of instantly recognisable conventions. Homer and Marge find themselves alone in a timber cabin in the snowy mountains of Alaska. As night falls, Homer presents Marge with a bouquet of flowers, but as he goes to draw the curtains, in flies a magical crew of tiny forest animals drawn in a typical early 20th Century Bambi-like style, who take it upon themselves to tastefully undress husband and wife. As the parents take each other’s hands and approach the bed, the camera steers away from them to the innocent menagerie of birds and baby deer. As a cartoon mockery, the scene rings true, partly because in the animated canon, The Simpsons is antithetical to Disney, and partly because the scene’s critique applies beyond cartoons – so much sex of film is purely and politely euphemistic. The way in which soap operas like The Bold and The Beautiful present sex is equally ridiculous – typically, a white man and white woman, hairless from the eyebrows down as The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort might say, embrace before a log-fire on a leopard-print rug, red roses in the foreground just out of focus. Next thing you know, it’s morning and we’ve cut to a scene of ruffled pastel bedsheets.
But again, this kind of scene rings true beyond the soapie format – think how many cinema sex scenes have been timidly evoked in this way, a dominant alpha male leaning over a submissive and adoring woman invariably wearing matching lingerie (yet another silly cinematic conceit. Women readers – think about this, how often do you actually wear matching lingerie?), the next-morning scene involving the woman in her man’s shirt bringing him a cup of fresh coffee as he wakes. Of course, censors have historically conflated onscreen sex with porn. But filmmakers have missed something too. Cinema’s coming of age during a time of censorship and before the 1960s and 70s women’s and pride movements demands for sexual equality and openness has made a mark; perhaps we are still in the shadow of that early censorship culture. When was the last time you saw someone smile or laugh or be playful or kind in a film sex scene?
The problem is not that sex in cinema lies squarely in the realm of fantasy. Maybe that’s as it should be, and the world of fantasy on film is a key reason that the medium seduces all of us: cinema is something that keeps our inner worlds replenished. The problem is that much cinema lazily recycles one, repeating fantasy, limiting and ill-fitting of the multitude of sexual experiences that we’ve all had. We’re not seeing fantasy, we’re seeing cliché. The adjectives people use to describe Audrey from Twin Peaks, one of the most prototypical and sexy Lynch women, best exemplifies the weird clichés we attach to women on screen: nymphette, temptress, vixen. Audrey’s sexiness is so dream-strange, so internalised, so disinterested in others’ approval and so not about conforming to a stock-standard ‘SEXY!’ female image – think of her dancing, alone, on tiles of the Double R Diner – it’s as if people just couldn’t get a handle on it.
Lynch’s great skill has always been to imbue the fantastically banal with the fantastical taboo, to paint the home as a hostile place – indeed, that’s how David Foster Wallace so astutely explained the very term ‘Lynchian’. Lynch himself has said that “the house is a place where things can go wrong”. This is our first clue about what Lynch’s films say about sex. Because they’re art-films so uniquely of their own genus, it’s easy to forget that they’re also mostly crime films. And in them, sex is almost always central to the crimes committed and the things going wrong. Lynch’s most stereotypically sexy film, Wild at Heart, is also his most stereotypical crime genre film. At this basic level of genre, Lynch entrenches his antithetical stance between sex and love.
It begins with Eraserhead. While his first feature is free of the violent sexual imagery of later Lynch, there’s a strong sense of sexual anxiety in the woes of its protagonist, the baffled father Henry Spencer. The surprise arrival of his mutant baby is what forces Henry to marry his girlfriend Mary X, and all his other encounters with women confuse and hurt him, from Mary’s mother’s attempt to kiss him, to his impossible longing for the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall. A scared, stunted sexuality is background, yet dominant, in the film, to the point that writer David Skal has described its portrayal of “human reproduction as a desolate freak show, an occupation fit only for the damned”. When Lynchian sex is not outright fearful, it is just plain bewildering.
A desolate freak show. From Eraserhead, the pattern is set – the best Lynchian sex is illusory or the product of an ill-fated relationship. Why is the most joyful sexual relationship in his films – Lula and Sailor’s in Wild at Heart – the least convincing? Why are the purest romantic relationships in his work – Dale and Anne and Ed and Norma in Twin Peaks – the least sexual in terms of what we as viewers see, and the least physically expressed? Why are the most authentic and explicit sexual relationships in his films the most destructive and traumatic? Why is Lynchian love and romance so hopeful and Lynchian sex so hopeless?
Sex is never simple, nor are the messages of Lynch’s films. He has always been disinterested in the traditions of linear narrative and more inclined to follow mood, imagery and rhythm in music and editing. Indeed, his move into filmmaking was predicated by a frustration with the still images he was creating at art school in Philadelphia. Where his debut film seemed to spring fully formed and without precedent from some other planet, Lynch’s short films give us the biggest clues as to what the man is really all about: they are moving images in the purest sense – paintings brought from stillness to life. The mood sustained across his films has much in common with that of the 20th century’s titan painters Luc Tuymans and Gerard Richter: that same everyday violence thing, that same disturbed energy. Where Tuymans and Richter’s violence is soft, latent and located in historical interrogation (Tuymans’ deceptively anodyne and monochromatic work Gaskammer  is all the more shocking for the revelation of the subject matter in its title), in Lynch’s work the eeriness always manifests directly in evil, with an accompanying sexual encounter, in the home and in dreams. The title of Lynch’s 1966 short art film, “Absurd Encounter With Fear,” says more than anybody has ever said about Lynch’s work – is there any richer, pithier summation of the feel of his films, of his typical depiction of sex and the strange muddy feelings that surround our experiences of it? The message we get from his films is that sex is scary and there’s no such thing as ‘just sex’.
What’s more, Lynchian sex is mostly abusive, manipulative and humiliating – either non-consensual or barely so. His female characters are rarely murdered without being raped first. Laura Palmer’s young life is ruined by sexual abuse derived from within her family. Most of the sex in Blue Velvet is completely power-mad – almost never on equal terms, and with pleasure derived from humiliation. The whole story might even be summarized as Jeffrey (Kyle McLachlan’s) sexual awakening via trauma – the innocence he experienced with Laura Dern’s Sandy can never be truly recovered. Dennis Hopper’s Frank and Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy use their bodies as weapons of control: the most sexualized characters in the film are leading the most fearful lives. The same goes for the central couple in Lost Highway. Played by Patricia Arquette and Bill Pullman, they are married but strangers to one another, their crucial sex scene starting off creepy and ending downright murderously. Perhaps this is why Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote that Blue Velvet leaks a sense of “disgust” about sex. “Without its irony, Blue Velvet, resembles the lurid, confused imaginings of a sheltered 12-year-old boy wondering about sex between his parents; with the irony it can be taken as something more grown-up – the cynical scoffing of an adult at his own puerile notions.” In Mulholland Drive, Naomi Watts’ character’s relationship with Laura Harring’s seems almost straightforwardly adoring. Their sex scene early on in the film is not played for easy objectification – it seems to really mean something to them both. Later, the identity-switch between the characters is revealed and we realise the earlier sex scene is a fantasy with no real-world bearing at all: the worst kind of broken-hearted sex.
The evidence is stacking up: most of the key Lynch women have never known happiness in their sex lives. Except for Lula Palace Fortune – Laura Dern in Wild at Heart, Lynch’s on-the-run lovers’ pulp film that borders the genres of melodrama and crime. Lula is forthright and liberated – in love and in bed with her man Sailor (Nicholas Cage). But if the happiest sex in the Lynch body of work belongs to the couple in Wild at Heart, then the most flatly depicted sex also belongs to them. Their sex scenes are mostly in divey motels and surrounded by the dialogue like, “You got me hotter than Georgia asphalt,” and “Man, I had a boner with a capital O”. Nonsense! Again, when it comes to sex that’s not borderline clinically insane, Lynch reverts to the same flatness he criticizes. It just doesn’t feel real. Where’s the interiority, the complexity? Lynch chickens out. He can’t depict romantic sex without pulpy irony. Only when Lula is threatened by a sociopathic crime lord, only when sex is disturbing, does the film convince. Bobby Peru (peak Willem Dafoe) extracts the deepest shame possible from her, by making her plead for him to fuck her. “Say it!” he hisses, “I’ll tear your fuckin’ heart out, girl!” (The quietest voice is always the most intimidating one.) She finally whispers “Fuck me,” as he sexually assaults her, and he finally reinforces his own power by faux-rejecting her: “No, thanks, I don’t have time today!…Don’t cry, everything will be ok.” Without her Sailor, she is powerless, and it is awful. Even without the intrusion of Bobby Peru, Lula and Sailor’s chemistry follows the Lynchian rule of leading to bloodshed and trauma. Even their final happy reunion is cloaked in the visual language of illusion: it rings hollow. It’s oddly opposite to Twin Peaks, in which sexual violence is counterpointed with a buttoned-up sexiness among the female characters. Unlike Lula, Audrey, Norma, Donna and Shelley are not overtly sexualized; they’re all about pleated skirts and cable-knit jumpers, wavy bobs and small-town diner uniforms, full brows and defined lips – a quiet, romantic view of women without the complexity of actual sex thrown in. Sexiness without the sex. Hence Agent Cooper’s description of Audrey: “I entered only to find Audrey Horne, an astounding eighteen-year-old woman—though tonight, she seemed much more like a child to me.”
And yet, from Lynch’s public interviews, there’s no way you could surmise the man has a pessimistic worldview – he’s all about transcendence and higher consciousness and inner fields of endless joy. Perhaps the key to understanding Lynchian sex lies in the remainder of his earlier quote about the flatness of most cinematic sex: “…Being explicit doesn’t tap into the mystical aspect of it either in fact, that usually kills it because people don’t want to see sex so much as they want to experience the emotions that go along with it. These things are hard to convey in film because sex is such a mystery.”
The apparent need to find a new way to depict sex in the first part of the quote gives way to a need to shun it – just as Eraserhead’s Henry Spencer is both fascinated and terrified of sex and the feelings it forces. Instead, sex in the Lynch universe becomes totally caught up in the madness of America rather than its possible liberation. While romantic love is asexual, sex becomes the source and the result of horror – sex and love are divorced, and the world divided into innocents and psychos. Life is simpler that way. It seems to me that just as he derided identifying Laura Palmer’s murderer as “killing the goose that was laying golden eggs”, Lynch wants a similarly avoidant approach to positive sex on screen: going for opacity and evasiveness to retain the mystery. And that’s where the impasse arrives: that’s how Lynch’s films can have such an optimistic vision of love, and a troubled vision of sex. Which could be the most Lynchian paradox of all.
Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and artist, published in Bright Wall/Dark Room, Guardian Australia and Indiewire, and the author of Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia's Film Distribution Problem (Platform Papers, 2013).