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Festival de Cannes 72 Countdown: Wild at Heart, 1990

We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.

Wild at Heart, 1990

Palme d’Or – David Lynch

Master of the cinematic strange, David Lynch, struggled to make a film after 1986’s cult classic, Blue Velvet. Hard to believe. Or is it? Not everyone’s cup of tea, Lynch had two projects slip away from him, before Wild at Heart came along. And by then, his TV hit Twin Peaks was making the rounds.

Shocking, energetic, provocative, Wild at Heart is a bombastic ride. Coated in fire, from the opening titles, through the striking of matches, to a flashback of a flame-engulfed fatality. In a short film I made in 1995, the extreme close-up of a lit cigarette glow was a blatant rip-off. Adapted by Lynch from the book by Barry Gifford (which he has literally just completed), the filmmaker relished an exuberant, nuclear depiction of underbelly America.

“The rocky road is littered with vivid lunatics and lost souls.”

The journey was rocky, even when the film was finished, as many walked out of the first test screenings. Lynch made a slight change, but nothing drastic. And just in time for the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, where Wild at Heart was the unprecedented recipient of the illustrious Palme d’Or. There were boos and heckles when Lynch took to the stage. The cheers were swamped that day, but critics have certainly warmed to it over the years.

Wild at Heart

The story is about firecracker lovebirds, Lula (Laura Dern) and Sailor (Nicolas Cage). Flaunting their passion for each other at every opportunity. Lula’s bat-shit crazy mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd, Oscar nominated), has a huge gripe over Sailor – part not good enough for her daughter, part potential for revealing skeletons in her closet.

The film opens with Sailor being tagged by a guy Marietta hired, and fighting back, killing him. Sailor goes to jail, Lula waits for him, hands him his beloved snake skin jacket, and head off on a long, mysterious road trip across America. Lula and Sailor revitalize their sexual hunger for each other, while all manner of mayhem is not so far away – to which they are mostly unaware of.

The absurd and the outrageous (you’ve seen David Lynch films before, right?) is splashed across the screen. The rocky road is littered with vivid lunatics and lost souls. They stop at a crash site, as a fatally wounded girl (Sherilyn Fenn) stumbles around for her purse. Marietta has big gun Marcello Santos (J.E. Freeman) to locate her daughter and dispose of Sailor. She also has a casual romance with private investigator Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), who ends up in the wrong hands of the eerily twisted Juana (Grace Zabriskie) and her henchmen.

“Regular collaborator, Angelo Badalamenti is present, channeling the melancholic twang that can only be David Lynch.”

Even Sailor, in the midst of the young couple’s free-spirited antics, seeks out Perdita Durango (Isabella Rossellini) for some kind of help. Enter the intensely creepy Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), and there’s more trouble where he came from. And what of cousin Dell (Crispin Glover), who puts cockroaches in his underpants, and screams “I’m making m lunch!” like you’ve never experienced before.

Wild at Heart

But you remember The Wizard of Oz? There are references all over Wild at Heart from Lynch. Lula tapping together her red shoes following an ordeal with Bobby; then earlier seeing her mother on a broom cackling like the Wicked Witch of the West. There’s even a Good Witch (Sheryl Lee) at the end of the film. Quentin Tarantino, too, vocalized his admiration which influenced aspects of Pulp Fiction – though arguably his screenplays True Romance and Natural Born Killers feel closer.

Lynch also displays an eclectic use of music. Regular collaborator, Angelo Badalamenti is present, channeling the melancholic twang that can only be David Lynch. ‘Slaughterhouse’ from Powermad is a banging rock tune, perfect for Lula and Sailor to let off steam on the dance floor. ‘Wicked Game’ by Chris Isaak provides some tireless ambiance while on the road.

Gene Vincent’s ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ is apt, for obvious reasons. The surprisingly touching scene as a girl dies in Sailor’s arms by the side of the road, is made all the more poignant by classical piece, ‘Im Abendrot’, composed by Richard Strauss.

“The vibrant dialogue and the oddball players both contribute to, and detract us from, the crazy.”

Nic Cage himself lends his own Elvis-esque vocals (and moves). First, in one stand-out set-piece, as he serenades Lula in the night club with ‘Love Me’; and then at the end as he sings ‘Love Me Tender’ atop a car in the middle of a traffic jam, fulfilling his pledge to Lula. Cage’s otherwise over-the-top performance is a perfect foil for Lynch’s frenetic execution.

Wild at Heart

Lynch doesn’t shy away from the ridiculous. Often scenes so bizarre, chilling, funny, you are just not sure how you should feel. The moment the spiteful Marietta has covered her face in red lipstick is startling to say the least. And the moment a character somehow manages to blow his own head off with a shot gun, splatting on the ground like an exploded, soggy melon, is practically laughable.

As standard with David Lynch, the haunting sequences drift in and out of our viewing consciousness. There’s a true art to that. Blending the hyperactivity, and the grossness, the eccentricity, the sheer horror. Wild at Heart certainly has its moments of claustrophobia. Even on the open road, there’s a sense of surreal danger. Even dread. The vibrant dialogue and the oddball players both contribute to, and detract us from, the crazy. Truth is, we never really know where we are. And that suits Lynch down to the ground.


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