Lost Highway: Suppression of Reality in Lynch Angeles

Lynch Angeles

Many miles away from Lynchtown lies the dreamy city of Lynch Angeles. Lynch Angeles is a city where dreams become reality; a city where people can reinvent themselves; a city where people can go to forget about their troubles. This fantasy world of obfuscated dreams, obsessive desires and subverted narratives, is rooted within the films Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001). Both films are narratives of fantasy that play with the spectator’s expectations, subverting and recreating them in cyclical constructed realities. They explore issues of fantasy and desire, as well as the suppression of reality in relation to explore this fantasy, through the dream narratives that are cemented into their cinematic cities.

The fantasy worlds of Blue Velvet and the dream world realities that drove the narrative of Twin Peaks, have joined forces in Lynch Angeles, entrenching themselves within Lynch’s cinematic worlds and completely controlling the narrative.

This pair of articles on Lynch Angeles, intend to explore how the beautiful darkness of Lynch Angeles, like the beetles under the wholesome Lumberton of Blue Velvet, exposes the dark underside of the Hollywood “dream factory”.

This first article on Lynch Angeles will discuss Lost Highway, noting how its narrative disruptions explore the suppressed versions of reality within the subconscious of its protagonist, Fred Madison, cementing his fantasies within a new cinematic reality.

Spoilers ahead!


“I like to remember things my own way…How I remember them. Not
necessarily the way they happened” – Fred, Lost Highway (1997)

The main conflict within Lost Highway is Fred’s struggle between his own fantasy world and the encroaching traumatic reality world, in which he has horrifically murdered his own wife. His fantasy is constructed to avoid the grim reality of what he has done, and the construction of this fantasy is heavily foreshadowed by both Fred himself, and his dreams. In the scene within the bedroom of Fred and Renee, where two detectives are investigating a potential break-in following the arrival of the first of a number of threatening videotapes which shows the couple asleep in bed, the detectives ask if there is a video camera in the house. Renee replies saying “no, Fred hates them”, leading Fred to admit “I like to remember things my own way”.

This statement is a precursor to the realisation of Fred’s avoidance of reality, portraying him as a fantasist before his fantasy becomes the narrative of the film. Furthermore, the fact that he hates video cameras and privileges an individual memory over a documented reality reinforces this point, but also signifies the mystery videotapes as vehicles for reality to disrupt his world of fantasy. The videotapes that appear on the doorstep of the house become increasingly more threatening, the footage showing an increased encroachment upon the safe space of Fred and Renee’s home. These videotapes suggests an initial outside threat to the safe interior of the home. The final videotape received subverts this assumption and displays that the true threat lies within the home, as the footage shows a grainy image of Fred kneeling over Renee’s dismembered body. The videotapes serve as ‘technological instances of Fred’s mental state’ that reveal the uncanny threat of Fred’s ‘violent jealousy and murderous rage’ within the domestic space of the home (Mactaggart).

This subversion of uncanny narrative expectations, swapping the outside threat with the inside, allows the spectator to become aware of the ‘performative twisting of Fred’s mental state’ (Mactaggart). Fred’s discovery of the reality is as a spectator, and thus he is placed alongside the spectator, as his fantasy home is disrupted by the truth of the narrative.

lost highway
Videotape footage of Renee’s death, Lost Highway (1997)

Fred’s home as a setting for his fantasy is reinforced by the return of the Lynchian trope of the red curtains within the space of his bedroom. The imagery of the red curtains foregrounds the dream worlds of Lynch into the reality of Fred’s domestic space. His home is therefore a space in which dream fantasies can be acted out in reality, and this is exactly what happens within the space, his dream of killing Renee becomes reality. Following a disappointing sexual performance with Renee in which he is emasculated, Fred is reminded of the dream he had the night before in which he darts violently towards Renee after entering the bedroom via the same route as the footage on the camera. He recounts the dream as the images play out, remonstrating that the woman in the dream wasn’t Renee: “it wasn’t you. It looked like you, but it wasn’t”. This dream is a dark foreboding of what Fred will inevitably do to Renee; the red curtains are an entrance of this dream into reality, as they are in Twin Peaks; whilst Fred’s declaration of “it wasn’t you” cements his inability to grapple with the fantasy/reality of the murder of Renee.

Fred’s nightmare reality- Lost Highway (1997)

Lynch’s dream world enables Fred to live out the reality of what happened through a safe medium of fantasy. The dream world exists within Fred’s living space, allowing him to remember things his own way, and enabling him to  avoid the reality of guilt until it is thrust upon him via the footage of the final videotape. The relevance of the videotapes is expanded later in the film, as they become synonymous with the porn industry of Renee’s past. Mr Eddy/Dick Laurent offers a “porno” videotape to Pete in the second half of the film, visually cementing this association. The fact that this dream comes directly after Fred’s sexual under-performance with Renee, highlights that the murder fantasy/reality is driven by a machismo jealousy and hatred of Renee’s promiscuous past.

The videotapes are not just vehicles of reality into the fantasy world of avoidance that Fred has created, they are also reminders of his hatred, anger and feelings of sexual inadequacy that caused the traumatic reality he is so desperate to evade.

mr eddy lost highway
Mr Eddy/Dick Laurent offering a videotape- Lost Highway (1997)

Fred’s Furthered Fantasy

The transformation of the middle-aged jazz saxophonist Fred, into the twenty-something car mechanic Pete, signifies the implementation of Fred’s fantasy home-world onto the outer reaches of Lynch Angeles. Fred’s ‘very literal metamorphosis takes Lost Highway out of the realm of the purely psychological, into the subjective reality of the fantastic and surreal’ (Woods). The physical change in protagonist and narrative has come as the result of Fred’s willingness to avoid and correct this reality whilst living out his fantasy through the skin of another resident of Lynch Angeles.

Fred’s expansion of his fantasy world into the cinematic reality that surrounds him begins when he is sat in his prison cell, awaiting the death penalty for the murder of Renee. He is visually shaking and in distress, he looks up at the light above his cell, there is a sudden surge of electricity and strobe lighting and then darkness. There is then a shot from Fred’s point-of-view, in which the camera is in a car heading down the dark highway from the opening credits of the film, the car then stops at the side of the road and we see Pete standing there, illuminated by the headlights. More strobe lights, fog and blurred images of Fred writhing in pain on the floor of the cell, issue the metamorphosis of one into the other. Pete now sits in the cell, with a facial wound which has been inflicted from Fred’s consciousness entering his mind. Fred has become Pete, and his fantasy of escaping the confinement of his prison cell has become a reality as he is wearing another man’s skin. Fred’s obsessive avoidance of his reality has led him to the “lost highway” of consciousness, where he finds Pete, a conduit through which he can live out his fantasies in the real world. This is the most explicit representation of Lynch’s fantasy worlds foregrounding themselves into his cinematic realities. Fred’s fantasy has metamorphosed both him and the narrative of the film.

Fred’s metamorphosis into Pete- Lost Highway (1997)

Pete lives out Fred’s fantasy relationship with Renee’s double Alice: his youth allows Fred to live out his sexual fulfillment with his wife and also to attempt to save her from her association with Dick Laurent and the porn industry. Patricia Arquette, who plays the twin roles of Alice and Renee, sums up her role and the main theme of the film: ‘I play two different interpretations of the same woman… I think it’s about a man trying to recreate a relationship with a woman he loves so it ends up better. Fred recreates himself as Pete, but the element of distrust in him is so strong that even his fantasy turns into a nightmare’(cited in Woods).


Renee/Alice- Lost Highway (1997)

The doubling of characters, like in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, has superimposed the worlds of fantasy into Lynch’s cinematic reality once again. In the case of Lost Highway, the doubles expose the fantasy narrative embedded within the real world narrative, which would otherwise be deemed as nonsensical or within the realms of the supernatural. The disruption of this imagined reality occurs again, causing Pete to inevitably transform back into Fred and confront the traumatic reality he has been avoiding.

As with the earlier disruption of Fred’s fantasy, Pete’s loss of grip on the fantasy world is heavily foreboded, this time through soft focus shots and references to the soundtrack. Pete turns off the jazz saxophone music that is playing in the garage he works in, saying that he does not like it. The music reminds him of his true identity as the saxophonist Fred. The soft focus shots signify Pete’s loss of grip on his own reality, the camera refocusing and blurring the image to replicate the struggle between his reality and Fred’s fantasy. The reality of Fred’s situation is being foreshadowed once again, and the revelation of this reality comes later in the film on the lost highway of the opening credits, provoked again by the same triggers as Fred’s first reminder of his murder of Renee. The trope of the video camera returns, as do the machismo feelings of jealous rage cause by Fred’s sexual inadequacy.

Lost Highway soft focus
Soft focus in Lost Highway (1997)

Pete’s reality completely unravels when he travels down the lost highway with Alice, after he helps her murder and rob one of her industry friends. They stop by a cabin and make love in the desert where she whispers in his ear “you’ll never have me”, after this he transforms back into Fred. This utterance mirrors the feelings of masculine inadequacy that triggered Fred’s initial jealous rage that caused Renee’s murder. Alice is the dangerous and manipulative shadow-self of Renee, representative of her dark past in the porn industry, and when this realisation comes it triggers Fred out of his fantasy and into reality. Alice disappears, Fred gets dressed and enters the cabin at the side of the highway which has been foreshadowed many times in the film, and in there he finds the Mystery Man waiting for him.


“You’ll never have me”- Lost Highway (1997)

Pete’s reality/Fred’s fantasy completely unravels when he travels down the lost highway with Alice, after he helps her murder and rob one of her industry friends. They stop by a cabin and make love in the desert where she whispers in his ear “you’ll never have me”, after this he transforms back into Fred. This utterance mirrors the feelings of masculine inadequacy that triggered Fred’s initial jealous rage that caused Renee’s murder. Alice is the dangerous and manipulative shadow-self of Renee, representative of her dark past in the porn industry, and when this realisation comes it triggers Fred out of his fantasy and into reality. Alice disappears, Fred gets dressed and enters the cabin at the side of the highway which has been foreshadowed many times in the film, and in there he finds the Mystery Man waiting for him.

The Mystery Man- Lost Highway (1997)

The Mystery Man is a dream world character who Fred has met at the party in the beginning of the film, he says he met Fred at his house asking “don’t you remember?” and foreboding the dangerous secret lurking within Fred’s supposedly safe homestead.

In this second instance he disrupts Fred’s fantasy completely: Fred asks where Alice has gone, and the Mystery Man answers: “Alice who? Her name is Renee… If she told you her name was Alice, she’s lying”. He then holds up a video camera to his eye, recording Fred
and saying “And your name? What the fuck is your name?”.

“Where is Alice?”- Lost Highway (1997)

Fred’s fantasy as Pete has been shattered by the Mystery Man, he holds up the visual representation of reality that exposed the truth at the start of the film, causing Fred to see things as they are and not the way he likes to remember them. The Mystery Man both enables and exposes Fred’s fantasy: he is a fantasy character controlling the narrative, allowing Fred to avoid the truth to inevitably revel in the trauma that follows the untangling of Fred’s dream world, and the revelation of Renee’s murder. He is a malevolent manifestation of Fred’s suppressed trauma in his dream world, injecting reality to turn it into a nightmare world and feed on Fred’s turmoil and suffering. His malevolence pierces the fragility of Fred’s fantasy, showing his inability to escape from the real world.

The inescapable cycle of fantasy/reality

The ending of the film returns to the beginning, exposing the cyclical narrative of the entire film. “Dick Laurent is dead” is the first and last line of Lost Highway: the first instance is heard through the intercom of his home by Fred, and the second is Fred saying this line into the same intercom from the other side. The return to the beginning highlights a narrative temporality which is impossible to comprehend in reality; Fred has talked to himself, enabling his own fantasy from the beginning after he has already lived through the fantasy he has started. This cyclical narrative displays the symbiotic relationship between the two worlds of fantasy and reality; they are both entrenched within the cinematic reality of Lynch Angeles and its narrative.

The beginning of the end, “Dick Laurent is dead”- Lost Highway (1997)
The end of the beginning, “Dick Laurent is dead”- Lost Highway (1997)

Like the worlds of light and dark within Lynchtown, the worlds of fantasy and reality exist within each other. The reality of Fred’s trauma is inescapable even with his own self-enabled fantasy, he is stuck in a cyclical loop of psychological destruction. The spectator and Fred ‘are frantically driving down his/their own lost (psychic) highway, without a clear end in sight’ (Mactaggart). Lost Highway explores the suppression of trauma through psychological avoidance: fantasy characters and Lynchian dream tropes expose these opposed worlds in the film, but its cyclical narrative transforms the opposition of fantasy/reality into a destructive loop.

This destructive loop can also be considered as a social comment of the dark world of pornography in L.A, it is a past that Renee/Alice can never escape from, like the avoidance of the past which drives Fred’s fantasy. The worlds of fantasy and reality become blurred, and the viewer becomes Fred, stuck in a narrative cycle of truth and untruth, not knowing what is imagined and what is real.

The tropes that caused the narrative blurring of fantasy/reality in Lost Highway would be furthered in Lynch’s next film Mulholland Drive, highlighting the two as twin films of traumatic repression.

Mulholland Drive would take the theme of repressed trauma to the next level, and plunge the viewer deeper into the beautiful dark of Lynch Angeles.


Texts referenced

Mactaggart, Allister, The Film Paintings of David Lynch: Challenging Film Theory,
(Bristol: Intellect, 2010)

Woods, Paul A, Weirdsville USA: The obsessive universe of David Lynch, (London:
Plexus, 1997)

PS. Remember kids, drive safe!

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