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Lost Highway: A Siren Song through A Dying Dream

Lost Highway remains Mike's favorite Lynch film.

An almost impossibly beautiful woman and a dark-haired young man make passionate love in the desert just beyond the lights of Los Angeles. The only light comes from the headlights of a classic Ford. A haunting melody plays from the radio. The air is practically…electric.

There are two key aspects to the climax of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, fittingly enough for a film and an artist both fixated on duality: the immediate, visceral, punch that it packs on first viewing, and the more cerebral side of things that lingers in your mind long after you’ve seen it, pulling you back to watch again and again to try and pull out some new level of understanding. 

On the surface, it feels like a fairly straightforward scene: Pete and Alice, having just robbed (and accidentally murdered) Andy, have taken his car out to a cabin in the desert outside Los Angeles. There, they’re supposed to meet a fence to secure some money to leave town, but when they get there the cabin is empty. The pair make love in the desert, and when it’s over both of them disappear: Alice goes into the cabin and is never seen again, while Pete is gone, and in his place is Fred, the man we had been following for the first forty minutes or so. But, as with most things Lynch, there are layers and layers of meaning we can draw out by looking closer at this sequence. 

Image from Lost Highway: A man (left) and a woman (right) touching their foreheads together

Lost Highway is a film that feels structured like a massive kaleidoscope: characters reflect one another, while motifs, songs, lines of dialogue, and even entire conversations get repeated. Reflections of reflections of reflections, the end is the beginning is the end. Mr. Eddy says her name is Alice Wakefield, The Mystery Man says her name is Renee—and if she told you her name was Alice, she’s lying. Reflection and repetition are key components of this scene, both in its themes and its visual/aural impact. 

Starting off with just what we can see and hear, there’s several key elements throughout this sequence that lend to its dreamlike, unnatural feeling—or perhaps, sensation is a more appropriate word. Visually, the scene starts out in the darkness we’ve become accustomed to, but when we get to Pete and Alice making love it becomes almost blindingly bright—possibly the brightest scene throughout the entire film. The only thing that even comes close is a brief, blinding flash of light over Renee’s face in the lovemaking scene between her and Fred. It directly mirrors the darkness of that earlier scene, and lends itself to this heightened sense—Alice has an almost angelic glow about her throughout the scene. By contrast, Pete’s face is often blurry and feels out of focus, as though he is fading out of reality, while every transition lingers faintly overlaid against the next shot, giving the sequence an almost outside-of-time quality. 

And on top of these visuals: the song, This Mortal Coil’s famous cover of “Song to the Siren,” its use here is so perfect that it almost feels like the scene—and possibly the entire film—is built around it. Like almost everything else in Lost Highway, it’s a reflection of sorts: a song to the siren sung by real-life siren Elizabeth Fraser. The lyrics of the song, too, feel reflective of Lost Highway’s story, a tangled web of seduction (“here I am…waiting to hold you…”), rejection (“touch me not…touch me not…come back tomorrow”), longing (“did I dream…you dreamed about me?”) and death (“…or should I lie with death, my bride?”). 

The song actually shows up three times over the course of Lost Highway: this scene, the earlier lovemaking scene between Fred and Renee, and Fred’s vision of the cabin from the confines of his cell. The first two times we hear it, it’s a faint echo of itself as if calling us elsewhere, drawing a line of continuity between the two lovemaking scenes and the two transformation scenes. When we hear it in the climax, on the other hand, it’s at full volume and we practically drown in it. We even get a diegetic point of origin for the song: the radio that Alice turns on before turning her charms on Pete once again, as if setting the stage for what’s to come. 

The song itself feels firmly tied to desire (or the objects thereof) so it’s not surprising to find out that the song itself is an object of desire—not for Fred or Pete, but for Lynch himself. Turns out, Lynch had originally wanted the song all the way back in 1986 for Blue Velvet, but was unable to get the necessary finances to get the rights. One of the producers suggested that Lynch make his own version, so he wound up doing just that, scribbling out lyrics to what he called “Mysteries of Love” then tasking his then newly drafted composer Angelo Badalamenti with crafting something that sounded reasonably similar. Badalamenti in turn recruited a singer he’d known from his days in New York theater: Julee Cruise. Their first collaboration, “Mysteries of Love” wound up being a perfect fit for Blue Velvet and would lead to further collaborations, including “Falling”—better known as the theme song for Lynch’s Twin Peaks

Pete has spent the entire film chasing a dream, one in which he escapes LA with Alice. Lynch, in turn, had been chasing his own dream of that song for the better part of eleven years since he wanted it for Blue Velvet. It leads to this almost melancholic sense that comes through in this scene; to desire something for so long and finally have it, only for it to last but for a moment before fading into the night—or into reality. After all, the reality is all you’ll ever get.

Image from Lost Highway: Closeup of a woman's face next to a man's face, both of them illuminated by a bright blue light

After the song has faded, Alice—who has come to embody both of Fred’s desires—rejects him. “You’ll never have me,” she whispers to him, accompanied by the scene’s last major visual clue: a flash of blue light that we’ve seen at key moments throughout the film: Fred’s performance at the nightclub, his transformation into Pete, and the first appearance of Alice to name a few. 

The meaning of Alice’s final line is crystal clear: Fred can never escape what he’s done, any more than he can bring back Renee or even have a version of her that satisfies him. Both of his desires are fantasies, one that he was once able to have and came to destroy, and one that is forever out of his reach. There is no escape to be found at the cabin, only the Mystery Man, who chases him back to his car and sets him back down that long, dark, lost highway. 

As it’s already been noted, Lost Highway is a film about the structure of desire, and throughout the film Fred desires two things above all else. The first of course is Renee, but true enough the boredom that comes with having what he desires ultimately leads to the destruction of both Renee and his life as a free man. 

Of course, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, and as soon as Renee is dead Fred almost immediately desires her once again—and perhaps even more so, wants to not be the person responsible for her death. So after he’s turned into Pete Dayton, lo and behold she walks right back into his life—only, it’s not her. Just like in his nightmare, it looks like her, but it isn’t her. This time, her name (at least the one she gives him) is Alice, and just about the only thing she and Renee have in common is their appearance.

Image from Lost Highway: A Ford Automobile on the top of the screen, faintly overlaid against a blond woman and a dark haired man kissing on the bottom of the screen

The Renee/Alice duality feels reflective of a lovely psychological hangup known as the Madonna/whore complex, where a man is only able to see women as either saintly “Madonnas” or degraded “fallen women” and is only able to desire the “degraded” partner and not the “respected” partner. As Freud wrote on the complex: “Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love.” Fred is unable to see Renee/Alice as a real person, only as an extension of his own desires, leaving him unable to reconcile that these two extremes can in fact be the same person and losing them both. 

The second thing Fred desires is also fairly straightforward: escape. Almost as soon as Renee is dead, Fred wants to escape from what he’s done, both due to wanting Renee back and not wanting to be guilty of her murder. This desire to escape leads him first into the life of Pete Dayton, and then as Dayton to try and follow Alice when she promises him that the two of them could leave town together. Just before he transforms into Pete, Fred has a vision of a cabin somewhere in the desert, and as we later find out this cabin is where Alice’s fence is supposedly waiting to give them the money they’ll need to leave town. Of course, there’s no one there, there never was. 

Most know the story by now, but Lost Highway was loosely inspired by the O.J. Simpson trial. Lynch himself tells us as much in his book Chasing The Big Fish: “What struck me about O.J. Simpson was that he was able to smile and laugh. He was able to go golfing with seemingly very few problems about the whole thing. I wondered how, if a person did these deeds, he could go on living. And we found this great psychology term—’psychogenic fugue’—describing an event where the mind tricks itself to escape some horror. So, in a way, ‘Lost Highway‘ is about that. And the fact that nothing can stay hidden forever.”

So with all of that in mind, the meaning of this scene becomes clear: it’s the moment that the dream collapses, similar to Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio. The moment when whoever it is we’ve been following is forced back into the reality they’ve been trying to escape from, whether it’s Diane’s fantasized Hollywood story as Betty in Mulholland Drive or Fred’s imagined life as Pete. Diane has to wake up to the reality of her broken dreams, while Fred has to turn back into himself and face the consequences of his own reality: he’ll never have Renee because she’s dead, he’ll never have Alice because she doesn’t exist, and he’ll never be able to escape the guilt he feels over her murder. 

The film doesn’t end here, but what does end is the dream, and for the last twenty or so minutes of the film we are left in a state of free-fall, back in Fred’s all-too-grim reality and the violent road we’re seemingly unable to pull off of. But for that one, brief moment, we were completely lost not on the highway, but the dream.

Written by Timothy Glaraton

Writer. Editor. U of M Graduate.

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