The Doppelgangers of David Lynch

David Lynch is no stranger to the concept of repeating motifs. Take, for example, 1986’s Blue Velvet, when he introduced the theme of the lumberjack into his work. This imagery worked its way into the series Twin Peaks, with its sawmills and flannel. It rose again in the music video-esque ending of Inland Empire as a lumberjack sawed a log to the rhythm of the closing song “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone. And it took on a spiritual configuration with the revelation that Bob was one of a number of otherworldly, disembodied spirit beings collectively called the Woodsmen in Twin Peaks: The Return.

One of his other frequent motifs is that of the doppelganger or double. This motif stretches all the way back to the original Twin Peaks series. He has since revisited it with as much frequency as any of his other cinematic obsessions. Much has been written about the phenomenon, and the readings are often obvious and reductive, focusing solely on the idea of Lynch’s doppelgangers as representative of the dual nature of man and existence.

This is certainly present in much of his output, even extending into the work that doesn’t include doppelgangers directly. The title of Twin Peaks is itself a metaphor for the “two towns,” the nice, peaceful community and the dark, mirrored reflection beneath. This theme of duality began in Blue Velvet, similarly displaying in its stunning opening moments a camera shot that takes us from the beauty of suburbia to the teeming rot and insects that live just under the surface.

However, settling on the idea that this and this alone is what Lynch is exploring in his work is cursory and simplistic. For an artistic mind as expansive and explorative as Lynch’s, it seems insulting to assume that he would merely be revisiting a single, simple theme over and over again. As is often the case, Lynch works on multiple levels at once with the same image and idea. And while humanity’s dual nature is certainly a surface interest, there is a level on which it works in a much more complex capacity.

The concept of the doppelganger, a German word that generally means a ghostly double or duplicate, is most frequently used as a way to explore the internal struggle of a character. In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the doppelganger is a direct representation of the two sides of a single human psyche battling itself — the good and the bad divided evenly and in a constant battle with one another. Lynch operates on a more subtle and complex level than this.

With his first great example of the doppelganger, Twin Peaks, he finds a way to reverse the expectation of the doppelganger as a story trope. Rather than revealing the internal struggle of a character through the doppelganger, it acts as a defining element of an entirely separate character. After the tragic death of Laura Palmer, her cousin Maddy Ferguson arrives in town. Played by Sheryl Lee, she is a near-perfect duplicate of Laura, the notable exceptions being her hair colour and her glasses.

Lynch cleverly allows the viewer to believe that Maddy might be representative of the other side of Laura, with her darker hair and questionable presence. However, he soon reveals that Laura represents her own doppelganger; the sweet young girl everyone in town knew had a dark and sordid secret life. Laura needed no physical doppelganger because the criminal investigation into her murder presents us with all we need to know about her dark side.

Instead, Maddy serves as an external representation of Bob, the villainous presence possessing Laura’s father, Leland. Ultimately revealed as Laura’s killer, Leland seems to be unaware of the killing and is in denial about his involvement. However, events circle back on themselves, and just like he did with his own daughter, Leland also kills Maddy. He places a piece of paper with a single letter on it under her fingernail and he wraps her in plastic, in an exact echo of Laura Palmer’s death.

While Leland was an unwilling participant, Bob fully embraced what he was and what he did. Bob embraced what Friedrich Nietzsche called ‘eternal recurrence.’ In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote, “Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being.” Nietzsche’s belief of eternal recurrence is the idea of total acceptance of one’s true nature and true fate. Such acceptance would never manifest as an attempt to alter the fate, but rather to fully accept it. He described it as being an acceptance so strong that the individual would be satisfied to live out that fate, unchanged, over and over for eternity.

Maddy Ferguson wasn’t the stand-in for Laura Palmer’s darker half, but rather an external representation of Bob’s desire for eternal recurrence, the need to re-enact the same murder, post-killing ritual, and game of hide-and-seek with his victim. Maddy was the window through which viewers could understand the abstraction that is Bob.

The theme of eternal recurrence isn’t just a subject in Lynch’s work, but a meta-motif in itself. Lynch often echoes events in his films, making the stories elliptical or cyclical in nature. In Blue Velvet, he echoes Dorothy’s multiple performances of the titular song with Ben’s lip-synced rendition of a Roy Orbison song. Lynch places Kyle McLachlan’s Jeffrey in the closet the first time he sees the violent Frank, and it is the same place from which he emerges when he finally kills Frank. In his HBO movie Hotel Room, Lynch allows events to play out in the same single room through different eras across time, even recycling the image of women falling into unconsciousness before having to face a painful truth about their lives. He utilises a visual motif of characters “looking up” at nothing in particular throughout Lost Highway.

Lynch continues exploring that eternal recurrence in Inland Empire, which seems to work as a spiritual continuation of the Bob narrative from Twin Peaks. The film sees two actors sign on to make a film which was once abandoned after the actors playing their roles were killed. The abandoned film seems to have taken on a cursed reputation, but this doesn’t lessen actress Nikki’s interest. Though she knows about the fate of the woman in her previous role, she throws herself into it, embracing the possible echo of things past in much the same way that Bob embraced his fate as a killer in Twin Peaks.

Inland Empire views the embracing of fate as a spiritual achievement, enlightenment, and the ability to accept the inevitable. The film itself tells us that the future is locked and unchangeable when Grace Zabriskie’s mysterious Polish woman tells Nikki in a pivotal scene that “if it was tomorrow, you would be sitting over there.” Nikki turns to look where she has pointed, and she is indeed exactly where the woman said she would be. The future cannot be escaped, it can only be embraced.

However, Lynch isn’t merely satisfied to stop there. In Lost Highway, Lynch inverts the premise of Twin Peaks and uses the doppelganger to explore the flip side of eternal recurrence, something more akin to karmic retribution. In the same way that Howard Hawks created Rio Bravo as a response to High Noon, Lynch creates his own response to Bob in Twin Peaks by creating Fred in Lost Highway.

Where Bob is content to relive his fate over and over, first with Laura and then again with Maddy, Fred is unable to live with his own reality. Fred is impotent and in a struggling relationship. He believes his wife Renee might be unfaithful. Eventually, he kills her. Given his inability to accept his fate, he tries to refashion his reality to make himself blameless. In prison for her murder, he suddenly finds himself replaced by a young and virile man, and he remakes his wife into Alice, the girlfriend of a gangster and a femme fatale of a type that he COULD blame for infidelity. This allows him to try and absolve himself of the crime he has committed by burying it inside the delusion; Fred’s way of coping with his crimes is by altering them. Early in the film, he tells police officers that he doesn’t like video recordings because he prefers to remember the past the way he wants it.

In the same way that Jimmy Stewart’s detective in Vertigo reshapes Kim Novak to suit his specific desires, Lynch shows Fred doing the same to his wife in a psychological sense, recreating her as the woman who does deserve what he has done to her. When he can’t escape reality (ironically enough, due to the videotapes that invade his fantasy and force him to see the truth), he rebuilds it so that when his fantasy crashes down around him, he can still believe himself to be the victim.

Mulholland Drive is an echo of the karmic retribution of Lost Highway. But in this permutation, the retribution takes on an even stronger spiritual component. The sweet and innocent Betty we meet at the beginning of the story is ultimately revealed to be Diane, a drug addict who has killed her unrequited love interest, Camilla. Unable or unwilling to accept that truth, Diane has escaped into a fantasy (perhaps), or she has possibly become so self-deluded that she has scrambled faces and identities in her own mind so strongly that a rival becomes a roommate, Camilla has become a new lover named Rita, and an off-screen aunt is miraculously back to life.

Old faces are pasted over new ones, and a hint pointing towards her delusion comes in the form of a singer at Club Silencio; the lip-synced performance of the song symbolically represents Diane’s scrambling of mismatched faces and voices, her interchanging of identities to suit her internal narrative. But the mistake Betty makes is in unlocking the Pandora’s Box she receives at Club Silencio. Unlike the grounded truth of the videotapes in Lost Highway, the blue box in Mulholland Drive is a higher, spiritual truth. She tries to solve what she thinks is an unrelated mystery, but it leads back to her undoing. It’s similar to detective Harry Angel in the film Angel Heart, who took a missing person case only to discover that the man he was hunting was himself. Diane killed Camilla, then reshaped her as Rita; she covered her tracks and changed her apartment and her name, hoping as Betty to leave “Diane” behind and embrace her new life with the manufactured Rita. The unlocking of the box, however, shatters her new life and her illusion, forcing her to face her crimes.

The more Lynch toys with the theme of the doppelganger, the more it takes on spiritual and even religious overtones. Twin Peaks: The Return is Lynch’s most overt flirtation with religious iconography, leaving behind the doppelganger narrative of Laura Palmer and Maddy Ferguson to embrace a new duplicate narrative that complicates the mythology by adding more than one doppelganger.

No longer content with the simplistic symbolism of dual identities, Lynch upped the ante by bringing a third identity into the equation. Twin Peaks: The Return gave us Agent Cooper, the disembodied spirit trapped for a quarter-century inside the Red Room of the Black Lodge; Dark Coop, the body of Agent Cooper commandeered by the villainous presence Bob, free to navigate the body in the absence of the agent’s consciousness; and finally, Dougie Jones, the childlike vessel created to allow the noncorporeal Agent Cooper to come back into our world.

The allusions to the Holy Trinity don’t stop at just the number; Lynch has given each of the characters reason to compare to the Christian godhead. Agent Cooper serves in the God-like role, the father and grown man, mature, the upholder of the law. Dark Coop is the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit, the bodiless entity influencing humanity and using it as a vessel for its purposes. And Dougie Jones is the Son, both the child of Cooper and part of Cooper himself, here to bridge the worlds of the Black Lodge and our reality.

Though his methodology is new, his purpose seems to be the same: to use the doppelganger symbolism to show the audience truths about other characters. Lynch himself, playing FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole, alongside Miguel Ferrer’s Agent Rosenfield, is searching for Agent Cooper. In their search for the God-figure, their lives are intertwined with Dark Coop representing the Holy Ghost’s influence on the world of man (and possibly also explaining the demonic origins of the Woodsmen, cast down to Earth in the technological dark ritual of an atomic bomb explosion). And Cooper himself tries to come back into the world in the form of Dougie, the Christ figure, bringing important revelations about the interaction between our reality and a greater truth that humanity has yet to fully discover or embrace. In searching for answers about the doppelgangers of their world, Lynch’s characters come to deeper understandings about themselves instead. It is perhaps Lynch’s intent that the doppelgangers serve the same purpose for the viewers as well.

Lynch’s works seem so intertwined because he has found a way to weave their disparate narratives into one meta-narrative about accepting one universal truth: if the future is unchanging and immutable, then the ones who have the clarity to recognise and embrace that can live a satisfying existence. And the ones who never recognise it or who struggle against it will be forever at odds, attempting to hide from, cover-up, or disguise the truth, and being forced instead to recognise that truth over and over. That Lynch is able to filter that single, all-encompassing message through multiple films using lenses such as a Buddhist perspective of karma, a Christian allegory for the Trinity, and a philosophical underpinning of the teachings of Friedrich Nietzsche is what makes his work truly unique and powerful.

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