Dir/scr: David Lynch. US-Fr-Pol. 2006. 189mins.

Around 10 minutes into INLAND EMPIRE, David Lynch's baffling new cinematic mindgame,a guy with the head of a rabbit drones: "I do not think it will be much longernow". Wrong, bunny: it will be another two hours and 50 minutes of improvisedplotting, rumbling sound effects and blurry digital camerawork before the finalcredits roll.

Lynch's latest, which he spent two-and-a-half years filmingon and off - and with no script - begins intriguingly enough, apparentlypromising a dark mystery along the lines of Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway.But in those tastily bizarre earlier films, you always felt that you couldpuzzle out the whole thing if only you watched themenough times. With INLAND EMPIRE -and yes, that's how it's spelt - we soon begin to suspect that there's nothingto solve. All we're left with are a few atmospheric scenes, some menacing musicand sound effects - and a great performance by Laura Dern,who commands the screen despite the fact that she doesn't seem to have a cluewhat's going on either.

The film already hasdistributors in place throughout most of Europe (though not the UK) and much of South and Central America, plus Australia, New Zealand, Koreaand Japan.In these territories distributors will benefit initially from Lynch's strong cult appeal, but results will tail offsharply after the first weekend once word gets out that this is not a dark andsexy mystery but a punishing experimental experience that borders on video art.

INLAND EMPIRE will undoubtedly get a USrelease sooner or later, but it will be unusually limited for a Lynch film.There was a real sense of collective disappointment after the film's pressscreening at Venice,where it played out of competition; the stunned silence from those of us whohad expected more was far louder than the few isolated handclaps from diehardLynch fans.

It's almost impossible to summarise the plot of a film that doesn't really have one;by the end of the three hours, we have little to add to Lynch'slaconic press-book statement that INLANDEMPIRE is about "a woman in love and in trouble".

The woman is Nikki (Dern), an actress who appears to live in a palatial mansionwith a jealous husband upstairs. A creepy neighbour(Grace Zabriskie, a Twin Peaks regular)predicts that Nikki will get an important part in a film, and seems to suggestthat evil will follow.

Dern indeed gets the part, and begins rehearsals with Kinglsey, an English director (Jeremy Irons), and hislugubrious assistant (Harry Dean Stanton). Her co-star is a cocky young actorcalled Devon (Justin Theroux), whose romanticpursuit of Nikki in the film within the film (where she is called Sue and heBilly, and they both talk with Gone With The Wind Deep-South twangs) soon spills over intoreal life.

Kingsley tells his actorsthat the film they are making is actually a sort of remake: the first attemptto shoot the script, years before, ended with the murder of the two leadsbefore the venture wrapped.

This is a promising Lynchian premise - but the set-up described above takes upno more than half an hour. For a while, as Nikki steps from thefilm-within-film to another layer of reality that seems to lie behind it, weremain hooked, as Dern's initially magneticperformance, swinging from tender passion to paralysingfear, plays against the often mannered dialogue and seems to suggest thatanswers will be forthcoming in due course.

But as the Dern character gradually loses her way in reality'sbackstage area, we begin to lose patience. Along the way we meet a desperate,homicidal woman (Julia Ormond) with a screwdriver embedded in her stomach wholater turns out to be Billy's wife; we keep cutting back to the family ofrabbit-heads (one voiced by Naomi Watts) who spout annoying Pinteresquenon-sequiturs; and we are introduced to some girls who later turn out to behookers, and who dance in formation to TheLocomotion. Oh, and we get some scenes shot in snowbound Polish streetsthat we strain in vain to relate to the rest of the story. The Irons, Stantonand Theroux characters have pretty much left the scene by the end of the secondhour; they probably had other films to make.

Perhaps one of the biggestlet-downs, though, is the director's conversion to digital film-making, whichhe enthused about on the Lido. Though theformat has undoubtedly allowed Lynch greater creative freedom, the result formuch of the film is a poor TV-quality image that bleeds colour,and lighting that even a Dogme director would blushat. There are exceptions - notably some striking black-and-white movingcollages that take us back to Eraserhead and German Expressionist cinema.

Lynch's sound design comes on like the boiler room of a Transatlantic liner for much of the time, and though itoften racks up the tension, it becomes wearing when we stop caring enough toget tense.

Inland Empire Productions
Asymmetrical Productions

International sales
Studio Canal

David Lynch
Mary Sweeney

Laura Dern
Jeremy Alter

Odd-Geir Saether

Production design
Christine Wilson

Editing/sound design
David Lynch

Angelo Badalamenti

Main cast
Laura Dern
Jeremy Irons
Harry Dean Stanton
Justin Theroux
Terryn Westbrook
Julia Ormond