Lost in Darkness and Confusion: Lost Highway, Lacan, and film noir

Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) is suffering from a crisis of personal identity. Fred is a typical film noir hero, inhabiting the doomed and desolate world of Lost Highway, characterised by an excess of sexuality, darkness and violence. However in Lost Highway Lynch has pushed the usual Oedipal themes and stylistic elements of film noir to the limits by portraying the world through the eyes of Fred Madison – a misogynist schizophrenic.

To understand Fred’s condition, and the complex non-lineal narrative of Lost Highway, Lynch’s film can be de-coded by using the psychoanalytic methods developed by Jacques Lacan. Lacan’s mirror stage theory developed the idea of three distinct but overlapping orders of human identity – the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real. They influence each other and work together simultaneously to give most individuals a stable relationship with reality. However Fred Madison has come unstuck and the three orders have become quite distinctly separate, leading to the creation of three versions of the same story with Fred represented by three different persona. The start of the film features Fred in the symbolic order, the middle part of the film has Fred transformed into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) during the imaginary order, and the final part of the film has Fred possessed by the Mystery Man (Robert Blake), representing the real order.

Direct reference to Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) reveals that the filmic space of Lost Highway is that of Fred’s mind. Kiss Me Deadly, like Lost Highway, is set in Los Angeles, and portrays civilisation on the brink of disaster. Every character in Kiss Me Deadly is selfish, violent and opportunistic while the city is lit and shot to emphasise its darkness, superficiality, and materialistic nature. The image at the start of Kiss Me Deadly is that of Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman) running down a dark night’s road. She is the only moral character in the film and her flight symbolises her fall from grace which ends in painful death. The journey down the road of Kiss Me Deadly represents the increasing speed at which society is heading out of control. By the end of the film, a nuclear device, the ultimate achievement of society, has been released and a beach house, symbolising the city and civilisation, is obliterated in its outward explosion. The decadence and immoral values of civilisation have ripped the world apart in a devastating apocalypse.

In Lost Highway the forces that destroyed civilisation in Kiss Me Deadly are internalised in Fred’s mind. While the highway in Kiss Me Deadly feature characters and vehicles from the film, hence distancing the audience as spectators, the highway in Lost Highway is shot from a first person perspective. It is the audience who are being thrust down the dark, endless highway as the film opens introducing us to the space in which the film is located – Fred’s head. Then there is darkness followed by Fred’s head filling the screen, being lit as he draws on a cigarette. The subjective highway has led to Fred’s head, and that is where Lost Highway is set. The beach house from Kiss Me Deadly also features as the house in the desert where the Mystery Man supposedly exists. However rather than exploding in an apocalypse of social and sexual obliteration, it is filmed exploding in reverse – beginning in the chaotic mess of destruction the featured at the end of Kiss Me Deadly and imploding to reform as a structure representing Fred’s mind.

Lacan’s notion of the three orders of the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real are a development of his mirror phase theory. None of the three orders are necessarily more true than the other, but they need to be properly aligned in order for the individual to be present in the stable human world (Bowie 1991: 111-112). The imaginary is the order of mirror-images. It is the dimension of experience where the individual seeks to dissolve their otherness by becoming their counterpart. Through the imaginary, the individual repeats their relationships with the external world of people and things, to desperately create an imaginary ideal self, what Freud called the ego. The imaginary links inner and outer mental acts, having the effect of resisting the development of the self (Bowie 1991: 92). The middle section of Lost Highway exists in the imaginary order, where Fred relives his life through the ideal identity of Pete Dayton.

The symbolic order is where the subject, distinct from the ego, comes into being. The symbolic exists in the realm of language, the unconscious and an otherness that remains other. Their is no concrete existence in the symbolic order, since it is constantly moving and gives meaning that is inter-subjective and social. The symbolic order does not allow the subject to keep to themselves since everything depends on the subject finding meaning in what is around them (Bowie 1991: 92-93). The first part of Lost Highway takes place with Fred still in the symbolic order, since he appears to interpret the world around him with more cohesion than later in the film.

The order of the real is a constant threat during both the symbolic and imaginary sections of Lost Highway and comes into full effect during the final section of the film when Pete has transformed back to Fred, but now aligned with the Mystery Man. The real lies outside the symbolic process and can be found in the mental and material world. The real is that which cannot fall into the signifying dimension (Bowie 1991: 94). The real presents itself as that which does not cohere to the symbolic order. It manifests in the form of the trauma and determines all that follows despite appearing to be accidental (Lacan1977b: 55). The real is what seems impossible to the individual. The real cannot be coded and hence fall in the symbolic, and therefore it cannot be mirrored to fall into the imaginary.

Fred’s three visions of the world are due to an unstable relationship between the three orders. Although the symbolic has priority over the imaginary, the imaginary does aid the symbolic in its process of understanding the external world (Bowie 1991: 99). However in Fred’s case the imaginary has taken over the real to such a dangerous extent that he imagines himself to literally be another person. This collapse of identity is due to the intrusion of the real. In the real, “the network of signifiers, that our being exists in, is not all that there is, and the rest of what is may chance to break in upon us at any moment” (Bowie 1991: 103). In other words Fred cannot identify or realise the forces of violence and paranoia that have been produced within him, leading to a breakdown of the symbolic, leading to a confused and disturbing encounter with the real, which is all that seems impossible to the individual. However this split into three orders originated, long before the audience joins Fred, in his childhood experience during Lacan’s mirror stage.

The mirror stage is understood “as an identification”, where the subject is transformed by their image in the mirror (Lacan 1977a: 2). When born the infant’s body is incapable of surviving on its own in the world and depends on other people to look after it. Hence during the early part of an infant’s life, they are unable to separate their own identity from the external world around them. It is not until about 6 months into the infant’s life that they see their reflection in a mirror and are delighted by the image that they see of themselves as total form. The infant falls in love with this image of their whole-body (Benvenuto & Kennedy 1986: 54) The reflected image is what the infant identifies as the “I” (Muller & Richardson 1982: 29).

“The mirror-image would seem to be the threshold of the visible world”, however this is an imaginary image of wholeness since the infant is still partly dependant on other people to survive (Lacan 1977a: 3). However this imaginary mastery of their body anticipates their later biological mastery. This initial imaginary anticipation will mark the infants future relation with reality. This is essentially alienation to the infant who realises that their ideal imaginary self is separate from who they really are. The ego is formed at this moment when the infant is alienated from but fascinated with its imaginary image (Benvenuto & Kennedy 1986: 55).

Through the relationship between the subject and reality that is created by the mirror image, there are distortions of the ego’s representation of reality since everything has been filtered through a prism of inversion (Muller & Richardson 1982: 31). The imaginary is the first order that the infant experiences. It is formed on the illusion that the ego has of autonomy, which the subject moves to after feeling helpless, incomplete and insufficient (Benvenuto & Kennedy 1986: 56). The conflict between the actual fragmented self and the imaginary unified body, creates rivalry between the imaginary body and the actual self. This conflict also affects the way the subject identifies with other human beings. Since the infant first discovers themselves as an external image, they will also confuse this external image of themselves with the images of other subjects (Muller & Richardson 1982: 31). Hence the infant not only defines itself from its own mirror image, but by the actions and behaviour of other subjects around it.

Fred suffers from this “paranoiac alienation” since he misinterprets his self with his reflected image, and his reflected image with the image of the other (Muller & Richardson 1982: 33). The result is that he perceives the external world to be an extension of his mind. Hence the house he lives in is a physical manifestation of his conscious. During the party scene when the Mystery Man claims to have been invited inside Fred’s house, he is correct since he represents the evil and violence that Fred has invited into his thoughts. The meeting between Fred and the Mystery Man coincides with Fred’s first impressions of Andy (Michael Massee) who flirts with Fred’s wife Renee (Patricia Arquette), which Fred assumes is proof that Andy is sleeping with Renee. The Mystery Man also claims to have meet Fred before which alludes to Fred’s murder of Dick Laurent (Robert Loggia), which happens later in real time but earlier in film time.

The mirror stage ends once the subject contains the imaginary order as their counterpart, as well as the “primordial jealousy” that results from displacing the ego onto the other (Lacan 1977a: 5). The imaginary order, or ego, leaves the individual with an ideal self that believes itself to be superior, or dominant, to all other people it encounters. However “the ego’s function is purely imaginary, and through its function the subject tends to become alienated…it is an agency organised to misread the truth which comes to the subject from the unconscious” (Benvenuto & Kennedy 1986: 60). Hence “human knowledge is paranoiac because imaginary ego-properties are projected onto things; things have become conceived as distorted, fixed, rigid entities; and things have salience for man insofar as they are desirable to other” (Muller & Richardson 1982: 34). This is why Lacan places so little value of the imaginary and argues against the strengthening of the ego.

Hence once Fred regresses to the imaginary order in memories, not only does he view himself as an ideal person, but everybody around him is also perfectly situated to him. While Fred is middle aged, tired and moody, Pete Dayton is young, healthy and good looking. Pete is the ultimate ideal self for Fred to transform into as he leaves the symbolic order and enters the imaginary order.

While Fred does not seem to have any friends except for his wife Renee, whom he suspects is having an affair, Pete is surrounded by loyal friends, caring parents, and a devoted girlfriend. When Pete’s friends turn up to take him out, Lynch plays on the audience’s expectations of an over cautious parent trying to restrict their children having a good time. However when Pete announces he is going out, Bill (Gary Busey), his father, becomes every teenager’s dream father by enthusiastically responding “Do ya good.” Fred is experiencing sexual problems – when he tries to make love to Renee he collapses and sobs out of frustration and embarrassment. However Pete’s girlfriend Sheila (Natasha Gregson Wagner) is not only attractive, patient and doting, but she is also very sexual when Pete wants her to be, and he has no trouble performing. Fred is a lone musician, while Pete’s occupation as a car mechanic allows him to use a totally different, and possible less unstable, part of the brain. Pete’s boss and workmates are friendly and Mr Eddy (also Robert Loggia) is a generous over tipper who also fulfils every motorist dream when he beats up a tail-gaiter. The world of Pete Dayton is easily the ideal world that Fred would desire. But because it exists only in the imaginary order, it is unstable and gradually Pete becomes more and more disturbed as elements from Fred’s life in the symbolic order begin intruding.

Because the imaginary is false it will eventually collapse leaving the individual in a crisis of identity like Fred experiences. The subject can only be understood as existing in a series of unstable tensions. “The ego might give a feeling of permanence and stability to the subject, but this is an illusion. (Benvenuto & Kennedy 1986: 62)”. In Fred’s case the imaginary world of Pete collapses because the real begins to intrude due to Fred’s feeling towards his wife Renee. In the imaginary world Renee is represented by Alice Wakefield (also Patricia Arquette) who is identical to Renee but her features, such as her blonde hair, are emphasised to make her appear like a classic femme fatale. Lynch deliberately sets her up this way because Fred is suspicious and blames Renee for all his problems in the same way the femme fatales in film noir have traditionally been accused of bringing about the downfall of the male characters.

The relationship Pete has with Alice is the imaginary version of Fred’s actual relationship with Renee. Alice is blamed for the destruction of Pete’s ideal world. It is she who seduces him, which results in Sheila, his ideal girlfriend, leaving him and his being exposed to the violent and seedy underworld of Mr Eddy. The things that Fred suspected Renee of are actually done by Alice.

During the first section of Lost Highway Fred briefly enters the imaginary world and pictures Renee and Andy sneaking out of his jazz club together. When Fred actually meets Andy, and takes an obvious dislike to him, Fred interrogates Renee about him. She innocently answers that they are friends and he once offered her a job, the details of which she cannot remember. When Pete asks Alice the same question she answers the same way, but then elaborates that the job involved prostitution and pornography. Hence in the imaginary world Alice/Renee conforms to Fred’s wild suspicions about her. When Alice tells Pete about her first experience with Mr Eddy, who in the imaginary world is in charge of the pornography industry, the film flashes back to show a visual representation of what happened. However although Alice tells the story, Pete/Fred has visualised it according to their imagined ideal of what happened. In the flashback Alice is threatened at gun point to strip and then perform oral sex on Mr Eddy. However as the scene progresses she begins to enjoy it, a fact Pete confirms with her afterwards. The image of Alice enjoying violent sexual abuse could only come from Fred’s deranged imagination.

Alice as the femme fatale who is dangerous to men but desirable as well due to her excessive sexuality comes from a long line a cinema femme fatales who have been blamed for destroying the lives of the male heroes of film noir. However Lost Highway, like some film noirs before it, critiques this dominant view that women cause the problems of a male dominant world. Lynch dresses, makes-up and frames Alice as Orson Welles did for Rita Hayworth’s character Elsa Bannister in The Lady From Shanghai (1947). Both Alice and Elsa have the fluorescent blonde hair, the pin up girl wardrobe and they pose as if in an advertisement pandering to the male gaze (Telotte 1989: 67). Both Welles and Lynch are using exaggerated representations of the femme fatale to comment of the male construction of women, Lynch more explicitly so since Alice is literally Fred’s imagined ideal of Renee.

Like Lynch, Welles portrays deceitfulness of the femme fatale as something imagined by the male hero. Albano argues that Elsa is a guilty character, which makes the character that Rita Hayworth plays in Gilda (Charles Vidor 1946) also guilty, due to the deliberate similarities Welles makes to Gilda by using the same actress, the same song “Amado mio” and the same interplay between appearance and reality in The Lady From Shanghai (Albano 1988:130). However Welles’s deliberate reference to Gilda seems more likely to achieve the exact opposite. By drawing on the audience’s knowledge that Gilda was an unusual femme fatale because she was innocent, he creates Elsa as also innocent. Like Lost Highway, The Lady From Shanghai is filmed subjectively from the point of view of the male hero, Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles). Hence towards the end of The Lady From Shanghai as Michael becomes paranoid and delirious, his external reality changes into a fun house to represent his departure from the symbolic order into the imaginary order. Like Fred transforming into Pete, Michael entering the fun house is a representation of the imaginary order taking over. The presence of the mirror maze, which is then smashed therefore creating more mirrors, is another clue to Michael’s entry into the imaginary. When he encounters Elsa her appearance and voice is exaggerated to make her appear totally evil and manipulative, in contrast to how she appears during the rest of the film. Like Alice, these traits have been imagined onto her by Michael. While Gilda is an objective portrayal of men accusing women for something they are not guilty of, The Lady From Shanghai and Lost Highway subjectively reveal to the audience how these women are constructed in the imaginary world of the male characters. While Gilda escapes unharmed, Else and Alice/Renee are murdered, falsely accused by deranged men.

Fred’s possessive behaviour towards Renee can be understood by Lacan’s notion of the phallus in relation to the Oedipus Complex. Lacan advanced Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex by introducing the notion of the Name-of-the Father. Rather than the infant viewing the women as literally castrated and hence lacking, the infant sees the woman as subordinate to the father because she possess the father’s phallus, symbolised by the social institution of marriage. Hence the mother carries the Name-of-the-Father which gives her the father’s authority over the infant as well as the father’s authority over her (Grosz 1990: 70-71).

The Name-of-the-Father is a symbol of authority that is represented in the symbolic and makes the symbolic possible since it possess all the agencies that places restrictions on the infant’s desire, such as the threat of castration as punishment for infringements of the law. It is an essential point of anchorage for the subject, without which there is a hole in the symbolic universe (Bowie 1991: 108). Without the presence of the Name-of-the-Father, the subject wants to be the father and hence possess a woman to replace the mother figure and keep her in chains. This phallic uncertainty is a disturbed, but common, state of mind that leads to misogyny, which leads to sexual violence (Frosh 1995: 187).

Fred is lacking the authority of the Name-of-the-Father, hence he is obsessed with totally possessing Renee, and will react violently towards her or anybody else who threatens his authority over her. Her friendship with Andy upsets him so that as Pete in the imaginary order, Andy is killed by them both. In the symbolic order Fred actually kills Renee and Dick Laurent, the man she has an affair with. It is safe to assume that Renee actually has an affair with Laurent since we see them having sex when Fred has transformed back to the symbolic. However Laurent is just an ordinary guy who was a mutual friend of Renee’s and Andy’s, as opposed to Mr Eddy, the over-the-top pornography maker, crime lord, that acts as a father figure for Pete during the film’s imaginary phase.

The lack of the Name-of-the-Father in the psychotic subject exposes them to endless encounters with the real. It lies beyond the symbolic order and hence is always foreign to them as well as being the most forceful element in their world. The hole in the symbolic order created by the absence of the Name-of-the-Father releases voices and hallucinations from the real (Bowie 1991: 109-110). The real in Lost Highway is represented by the Mystery Man who is an “essential object which isn’t an object any longer, but this something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence“(Lacan 1988: 164). When Pete is making love to Alice and she says to him “You’ll never have me”, the imaginary world of him possessing her and Fred is thrust back into the symbolic. The imaginary has been torn away, exposing Fred in his isolation to the rest of the world, exposed the world as something “originally, inaugurally, profoundly wounded” (Lacan 1988: 167). Fred is left in the real order that falls outside of the imaginary, but cannot be labelled or nominated either and therefore falls outside the symbolic order.

The Mystery Man represents the real because he is the violence and inspiration for the murders that Fred will commit. Although these drives are part of Fred – the Mystery Man is Fred – such desires are alien and horrifying to him. Murder is not something he has come to terms with in the symbolic order, nor is it something he imagines. When Pete does accidentally kill Andy in the imaginary order, he suffers a disturbing hallucination of Renee and Laurent, whom he has killed as Fred. In the imaginary order Pete has not committed Fred’s crimes, so that when Pete encounters violence he is horrified, just as he is when he receives the imagined phone call from Mr Eddy and the Mystery Man. While the imaginary order has constructed Dick Laurent as the horrific Mr Eddy, and hence taken away the guilt that Fred has for killing him, the Mystery Man appears as a unstable element from the real order. After Pete speaks to the Mystery Man, his imaginary world begins to disintegrate. His parents literally disappear, later he has the hallucination in Andy’s house, and finally he returns the symbolic order as Fred.

However the symbolic order of the final part of the film is firmly grounded in the intrusion of the real embodied by the Mystery Man. The Mystery Man appears in the first part of the film during Andy’s party and as a vision after Fred had unsuccessfully attempted to make love to Renee, indicating that Fred had already killed Laurent, but was in denial. In the last section of the film Fred has come to grips with the fact that he has killed Laurent. He was unable to escape from his guilt in the imaginary order of Pete Dayton, so he has projected his violence onto the Mystery Man. The Mystery Man hands Fred the knife that cuts Laurent’s throat and then actually shoots him dead. After the camera pauses on Laurent’s dead body it return to the shot of Fred and the Mystery Man except the Mystery Man has disappeared and it is Fred holding the smoking pistol. This direct link allows the audience to assume that Fred also killed Renee. In the scene preceding the discovery of her death, Fred disappears into the darkness of their house, but emerges as two shadows that move towards her bedroom, one shadow belonging to Fred, the other belonging to the Mystery Man as the embodiment of Fred’s violence.

Lost Highway is essentially a story about a man who kills his wife and her lover, is sent to jail and spends the rest of film trying to deny the act. Fred’s retreat into the imaginary order of Pete is foreshadowed by his statement about not liking video cameras because he likes to remember things his own way “not necessarily the way they happened”. However his destruction of the Name-of-the-Father leaves a hole in the symbolic order that lets the real come through to haunt him. It is of course the Mystery Man who has a video camera, and films both murders. Fred relives his murder of Laurent and literally tells himself what has happened over his intercom, but has still does not face the reality of his wife’s murder. Lynch uses the thematic and stylistic conventions of film noir to critique male dominance over women and the traditional image of assertive women as dangerous femme fatales who threaten society, when it is in fact misogynist men like Fred who want to possess women who threaten civilisation. The film ends with Fred physically in his cell, but mentally hurtling down the dark highway of lost identity.

Albano, Lucilla, 1988, “The Accessibility of the text: an analysis of The Lady From Shanghai”, in Off Screen: Women & Film In Italy, eds Guiliana Bruno and Maria Nadotti, Routledge, London, pp124-138
Benvenuto, Bice & Kennedy, Roger, 1986, “The Mirror Stage, (1936)”, The Works Of Jacques Lacan, Free Association Books, London, 1986, pp52-62
Bowie, Malcolm, 1991, “Symbolic, Imaginary, Real …and True”, Lacan, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp88-121
Frosh, Stephen, 1995, “Masculine mastery and fantasy, or the meaning of the phallus”, in Psychoanalysis In Contexts: Paths Between Theory And Modern Culture, eds, Anthony Elliott & Stephen Frosh, Routledge, London, pp166-187
Grosz, Elizabeth, 1990, “Sexuality and the symbolic order”, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, pp50-81
Lacan, Jacques, 1977, “The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience”, Ecritis: A Selection, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, pp1-7
Lacan, Jacques, 1977, “Tuche And Automaton” The Four Fundamental Concepts Of Psycho-Analysis, The Hogarth Press, London, pp53-64
Lacan, Jacques, 1988, “The dream of Irma’s injection (conclusion)”, The Seminar Of Jacques Lacan: Book II: The Ego In Freud’s Theory And In The Technique Of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp161-171
Muller, John, & Richardson, William, 1982, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience”, Lacan And Language: A Reader’s Guide to Ecrits, International Universities Press, New York, pp26-41
Telotte, J.P., 1989, “Narration, Desire and The Lady From Shanghai“, Voices In The Dark: The Narrative Patterns Of Film Noir, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, pp57-73

Originally appeared Apocalypse Whenever (The University of Melbourne, 1997) and was later published in Metro Magazine, No. 118, 1999

© Thomas Caldwell, 1997