To approach Lynch's films as though they were fiendishly difficult intellectual puzzles is a mistake. I remember wasting time trying to "understand" Mulholland Drive- that great, lamed masterpiece- and coming to some sort of conclusion as to who was what and where was why and how was when, but who cares? Mulholland Drive isn't great because it's minced up Agatha Christie or a miracle of construction (which it isn't) but because it's a beautiful fever dream. Originally conceived as a TV series, it was intended to drift on and on and on- and the conclusion that now rounds it off feels abrupt- like the afterthought it is.
Inland Empire is what Mulholland Drive should have been- perfectly paced through its predesignated running time. We follow our heroine through endless corridors and countless doors and in and out of various levels of reality. And that's it. The mystery that matters is to do with mood and atmosphere and emotion. The other mystery- the mystery of Dern's identity and what she might be in waking life- actress or hooker or the wife of a Polish circus artist- doesn't matter at all. Lynch presumably knows because that's the titanium skeleton on which the movie is built, but would it deepen our appreciation if we had access to his working notes? No- it wouldn't, because once we've identified one level of Lynch's multiverse as representing something like a bedrock of reality we're freed to dismiss everything else as merely a dream. And for Lynch nothing is merely a dream. Dream is all there is. Everything is equally real and unreal.
Someone- it could have been Godard (it usually is)- said that all movies are waking dreams. We are persuaded to accept them as representations of "real" life by dramatic and structural devices that tie one scene to the next. In Inland Empire Lynch rids himself of those devices. We have story without plot, encompassing gloom without a McGuffin to lead us through it. The brain- or part of the brain- hates all this. It is furious to impose meaning, structure, consequence. In the past Lynch has given in to it. Not here. Not any more. He refuses us that solace, rejecting it- rightly, I think- as superficial.