WARNING: This article discusses sensitive and mature material, specifically film depictions of sexual assault and rape. Please exercise due caution when reading.
Some films are difficult to watch twice, and not for poor quality or execution. The experience of that initial play through is so cognitively disruptive that to finally reach the end is to be left empty, to face a feeling so fully that you are visually overwhelmed by it. There’s Lars von Trier’s series exploring various stages of severe depression, like ‘Melancholia’ or ‘Antichrist’, or the re-enactment of recent tragedies, like ‘Elephant’, which depicted a school shooting much like that of Columbine, or ‘Flight 93′, or ‘The Stoning of Soraya M.’ or countless other films and categories they might belong in. Each viewer will have a slightly different experience from the next, though I find what particularly succeeds in blending the reality of human experience and that of the fictional world a film would present is in instances of effective foreshadowing. I find it incredibly disturbing to know the result of a story, to know that a person will die, or a mission will fail or whatever inevitable end, but to be so involved in the same film’s story and characters that you expect and hope for a different conclusion.
These occurrences are rare for me, as I can usually separate the reality of the world as it is from the realm behind the lens, but I recently had a pretty intense experience watching something for the first time. It was so acute and visceral in fact, that I felt a strong sense of dysphoria and disassociation, as well as a nagging need to write about it at length, if possible. This is my attempt to process that experience.
This year my partner and I made it a point to binge-watch the entirety of the Twin Peaks series leading up to the end of 2017, which promised and delivered a new, third season by David Lynch. This marathon of ours included the critically debated film, ‘Fire Walk With Me’, a prequel story that shows us the last seven days of fated character Laura Palmer’s life. The TV show begins its plot doing away with her rather quickly, and its only through flashbacks and dream sequences that we see small glimpses of Sheryl Lee’s abilities as an actress. Her role in the film, however, is incredible, titular, poignant, and as this essay suggests, visceral.
The suffering of Laura Palmer is akin to the horror I felt as a Catholic-raised child learning the stations of the cross. Where the show offers an epic run-around between the truly evil, deranged, animalistic spirit of an entity known as Bob and the candy-sweet performance of lawful goodness through our hero, Dale Cooper, this film seems to focus solely on the utter, horrific disassembling of a young woman’s security, her sexuality, her relationships and her autonomy, through both paranormal and explicitly real means. When given the visual and aural experience of a person being physically harmed and violated, the natural instinct of empathy kicks in, but especially so when enacted with such subtlety and nightmarish realism as Sheryl Lee offers us here. I can only imagine how eye-opening this film might have been to me as a younger woman, or even as a young girl with what I have been through personally.
This isn’t even to speak exclusively in regards to Laura Palmer’s final, fatal encounter with Bob-possessed-Leland, her murderer being her own father, though that scene’s power is unquestionable. The entirety of ‘Fire Walk With Me’ is a slow, purposeful burn, from a flicker of her life in school, time with her friends building an image of the popular, perky homecoming-queen, to the raging ignition of what I call the beginning of the end, or really, her dabbling with drug use, the unfortunate interactions with her abusive family, to the snuffed, sudden ending where all lights go out and Laura is led to an untimely end, despite avoiding possession by the evil spirit of Bob. Paired with the detailed decoration denoting the era, the somber, haunting score by Angelo Badalamenti, and the schizophrenic terror-vision of David Lynch, you create a film that was arguably trashed at its release by the media, but is now carefully reconsidered as a legacy film that followed an unfortunate television demise with critics.
Once again, I can’t stress enough how much of this film rests on Sheryl Lee’s shoulders, and her performance is stunningly real, to the extent that countless fans of the show and film have approached the actress with their own stories of sexual assault and incestual abuse, and how ‘Fire Walk With Me’ helped to comfort and encourage their own stories into the open with therapists, family, and friends. I have experienced sexual assault in my life, and while thankfully not to the same violent extent, this movie creates an effective representation of the violence women face, both in brief interactions with strangers and family alike, and in occupations involving prostitution. This movie left me so very unsettled because I knew what the inevitable end was, and yet I fell easily into the trap of blissful ignorance, and tried to wrap my mind around routes of escape, someone Laura could run to and reveal what was happening to her. It reminded me of the ease that so many fall to excuses, to think up brilliant plans of how a tragic story could have been avoided…but the thing is, it didn’t happen that way, nor will it. That helplessness is a feeling that troubles me, but I feel it also serves as a requirement for living a compassionate life.
One word continually echoed through my mind during the viewing of ‘Fire Walk With Me’: visceral. The film was viscerally unforgiving in its portrayal of a terribly dysfunctional family, viscerally frightening as this poltergeist figure chases a young woman in her dreams and waking hours; it was visceral in an unrelenting fashion of story-telling that I’d never seen before in relation to the topic of rape and sexual abuse. I’ve seen countless films try to wrangle the subject out of every genre you can think of, from comedies to fantasy to horror, but it’s always a portrait, a very clearly acted scene to add tension or set up a chance-encounter. Even certain dramatic re-enactments have tried to mimic what this film has achieved, but to little or ineffective resonance. This movie was visceral with its themes and execution, but it resulted in a real, physical, emotionally visceral translation through me as the viewer. You could remove every paranormal trait laced throughout ‘Fire Walk With Me’, and be left with a biopic of so many assault survivors, it’s deeply troubling. Not everyone will experience this film in that way, but perhaps there will be others that will translate so effectively down the line for a subject equally difficult to broach in nature, though still as important to know and treat with care.
Now, there were elements working against the creation of the film ‘Fire Walk With Me’, which lead to some sour critical responses, including regards to the sexual violence depicted, but I’d like to defend the choices the film made, even when compared to the quirky mysterious manner of the show. These are definitely different entities, if only related by the mystery the film leads into the TV series, and some of the characters who live in the fictional Twin Peaks. The show was scattered across a wide cast of characters and the story was really about Agent Dale Cooper forming a relationship with Twin Peaks itself. This film was a love song to Laura Palmer, but in the show you were only allowed a brief look into her tragic life. This movie opened her book and read aloud to the world just what she was, what she went through. I also think that the second season of the show proved to be too far gone from the vision of origin, and combined with the convoluted casting decisions the creators had to make, it caused many fans to jump ship on the film’s release, considering its box office earnings came nowhere near covering the resulting budget.
What I found in the film that felt absent from the series was a sense of history and authenticity, despite all the weird stylistic choices that a David Lynch production very purposely uses. The show was meant to tell an unbelievable story in a quaint, quiet place, an adventure to entice new viewers and a mystery to hook them for more, where the film very simply summarized something that, perhaps save the fever dreams and ghostly possession, actually happens all the time. People–women especially–are hurt in a violent, sexual way every single day in big cities and small towns alike, and more often than not, from people they trust and love.
These kinds of representations are important for so many reasons, specifically FOR the discomfort they cause. Perhaps they’re not meant to be viewed countless times like other fandom favorites, and for people like me that are sensitive to the source material, it’s not a torture I recommend putting yourself through often, if ever. But there’s something to be said about films that form pits in our stomach and vacate our senses of cheer. Think of ‘Schindler’s List’ or ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’. They’re not pleasant movies to watch for the subject matter they discuss, but without these representations, without written testimony and relatable comparisons, how can we expect to empathize with an experience we may never ourselves take on, especially if the events take place in a different part of the world, or from an entirely different time period? Sexual assault is probably not to best topic to sample here because of its unfortunate frequency, but my hope is that the purpose of this article lends the same level of importance regardless.