Encroached upon by ineffable, macabre horror that blends reality and dreams, there is a moment of pure beauty which exists outside the oppressive, suffocating grip of the surrealist fugue state that is David Lynch’s Lost Highway. It’s when Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) sees Alice Wakefield (Patricia Arquette) for the first time. Pete had only just recently woken up from a strange dream. Or was it a dream? He had suddenly found himself sitting alone in a jail cell, every guard at a loss as to how the delinquent 24-year-old could have been swapped out in the night for convicted wife-murderer and jazz saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman). Yet there was Pete all the same, just as scared and confused as the prison guards who had no choice but to free the innocent man who was decidedly not the man who was supposed to be sitting in that cell. But the moment that Pete shares with Alice at the auto garage he works at operates like a dream within a dream—or another nightmare in disguise.
Pete returns to his life as best he can, but he can’t quite shake the feeling that something is off. There are flickers of the night in the jail and the murky events preceding that seem to pepper reality, traces of the dreamworld that have somehow seeped into real life. The world does not appear to Pete as it once did, as it had before the strange night when a man named Fred Madison seemingly ceased to exist, ceased to ever have existed at all, and became someone new, someone who was already very much alive. Before Pete enters the film, Lost Highway starts off as Fred and Renee Madison’s story. Denoting it as such does something of a disservice to the true nature of the abstract work, but in the simplest terms, Fred and Renee (also Arquette) are an L.A. couple plagued by a series of VHS tapes being sent to their house. The footage on the tapes point to someone stalking them, someone who is progressively getting closer, filming both the outside and inside of their home. At the same time, Fred is experiencing visions of a white-faced Mystery Man (Robert Blake), whom he eventually meets at a party thrown by Renee’s friend Andy (Michael Massee). Like a harbinger of doom, Fred’s ghoulish encounter with the Mystery Man leads to delivery of the final tape: Renee’s dismembered body. Shortly thereafter, Fred is sentenced to death for his wife’s murder. That’s when Pete comes in.
Thus, like being lured into a trap, the closest that Lost Highway comes to offering a morsel of convention is when Pete enters it, as he tries to assimilate to the life he thought he once knew. Pete is an auto mechanic who occasionally does work for Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), a mobster who also happens to go by the name Dick Laurent—a name that appeared to Pete in his dream as Fred Madison. One day, following Pete’s appearance in the jail cell, Mr. Eddy arrives at Pete’s garage in need of some tune-ups done on his Cadillac. When he drops off the car, he brings his mistress Alice Wakefield, a blonde bombshell dream girl. The film’s femme fatale. When Alice sees Pete, when Pete sees Alice, the two of them lock eyes and can’t bear to let go. Suddenly, the world stops spinning for Pete Dayton. Everything starts to slow down, and Lynch enacts his most beautiful needle drop in a film suffused with them. Lou Reed intonates a guitar-twanging cover of “This Magic Moment” by The Drifters, while the camera slowly follows Pete’s gaze on Alice as she leaves the car, her gaze returned back to him. That’s it for Pete. His fate has been decided.
The sequence is incredibly provocative—eyes suffused with desire, longing and the knowledge of the danger that will come with acting upon their urges—and also a little funny. It’s a recreation of that textbook, lovestruck meet-cute; the kind of scene you might see in a film on the decidedly opposite end of the spectrum to a film like Lost Highway. (Side note: The opening guitar of the song, the sudden slo-mo and the locale always loosely evokes, for me, the scene in The Royal Tenenbaums when Margot gets off the bus and sees Richie for the first time). But it exists in Lost Highway all the same, stuck out from the rest of the film like a sore thumb. A magic moment that slices through the uncanny normalcy into another pure, unfiltered dream, like a dream within a dream within a dream. But as with much of Lynch’s work, it’s the kind of scene which is loaded with more than the implications of love at first sight. It is instant, idealized romance free of perversions, the kind of love that is less real, and more treacherous, than Pete’s waking nightmare. Playing with conventions of the noir, Lynch first positions our femme fatale like a fairytale dream girl, before she leads Pete right back down the rabbit hole and into the peril of unreality. But as the scene ends, we fade out into the ominous tones of Angelo Badalamenti’s score. The dream is over. Was it ever real?
It’s somewhat pointless to try to uncover the true meaning lurking underneath Lynch’s seventh feature, a purposefully inscrutable puzzle box and horror-noir riff which has been compared more favorably to a Möbius strip than a conventional narrative. Lost Highway is best watched, absorbed and experienced rather than fussed over as to its true intent (as could be said of any Lynch film), allowing oneself submission to its avant-garde whims rather than resisting them. However, Lost Highway’s intentionally impenetrable nature led some critics at the time to feel that the film is a true exercise in style over substance, betraying the emotional depth that Lynch had previously displayed with a film like Blue Velvet. Roger Ebert wrote that Lost Highway is “an empty stylistic façade” and that the film is “about design, not cinema.” Is deigning to bend conventions of the cinematic format not still cinema? The film is a wildly engrossing and disturbing subversion of the medium as moving art, one which only further cemented Lynch as an artist interested in pushing different media to different extremes. He toys with form and narrative, mingling sound and visuals masterfully to create a disturbing work of art which is intent on abusing its own audience, forcing them to forgo pretensions about how film and story should operate.
And so, toying with cinematic standards, Lynch plays with the meet-cute. Rather than a positive omen portending the trajectory of passionate fictional romance, Alice Wakefield embodies the same harbinger of doom for Pete as the Mystery Man did for Fred Madison. Since Lost Highway as a film disorients our expectations of narrative storytelling structure, so too does Lynch mess with our expectations of safe, archetypal narrative devices. Somehow, the “This Magic Moment” scene becomes less real, and more terrifying, than the eldritch horror of the rest of the film. Because the scene is a mirage mean to lull Pete into a false sense of security, like his part in the story that seemingly aligns the closest to reality until, well, it doesn’t; lulling the audience into believing that, perhaps, the nightmare of the film, and of its confounding structure, is over. Of course, it never was. It was all a dream.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.