“This Whole World’s Wild at Heart and Weird On Top”: Make-Up and Identity in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart

I believe the movies you watch as a child and as a teenager often leave an indelible mark on your memory and on your cinema tastes as an adult. This is surely my case: the first memories I have of watching a movie at the cinema are linked to A Hard Day’s Night by Richard Lester (I was 5), to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (I was 12) and to David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (I was 17). I started to regularly attend a cinema when I was 14, so these are not the only movies I remember vividly, but are surely those who impressed me most. I strangely have no memories of Disney movies, but I perfectly remember the impact the twisted love story by Lynch had on my 17-year-old prudish self. It shocked me, as if I had seen an alien, because it was different from anything I had watched so far. After many years, I recently had the chance to watch it again: the shock is obviously gone, but the feeling you’re watching a unique film is still there. I love everything about it, which is the reason why it’s still among my favourite movies ever. All the bizarre, eccentric, wicked, violent and ruthless Lynch aesthetic is shown at its best, reaching its peak of perfection in the star-crossed lovers (Sailor Ripley and Lula Pace, respectively Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern) and in Marietta Fortune, Lula’s vengeful mother (the actress who played the role is Diane Ladd, Laura Dern’s mother in real life).

lulamariettaMother and daughter are very different – at a certain point of the narration they’re actually enemies – but there’s a very strong bond between them. From a visual point of view you can tell there’s a connection between them: Lula is Marietta’s younger and wilder version. This physical similarity is surely one of the reason why David Lynch casted both Ladd and Dern. Both of them are natural blondes, with the help of some hydrogen peroxide, and love wearing red lipstick. Lula is more consistent in her make-up choices, because she opts for the classic red lips/red nails combo most of the time, while Marietta likes wearing something different from time to time (see the hot pink nail polish on her talons in the screencap above).

handsThe gory opening scene is the only one in which Lula sports coral pink nails and lips in a similar shade, which match her peach pink dress. This choice could refer to her being relatively innocent in that part of the narration. After leaving with Sailor for their crazy road trip, she’ll go through hard moments and her life will totally change. As a matter of fact, in the rest of the film she always wears red lipstick and red nails, as you can see in the second screencap. Lula has always a dramatic attitude (see the same gesture of covering her face with her hands at the beginning and later in the film), emphasized by her perfectly painted nails.

lulanailsWhen Sailor is first released from prison, they leave their town and go to see the speed metal band Powermad in concert. Before going there, Lula paints her toe nails red [1], while Sailor cleans his cowboy boots. At the concert she will wear strappy sandals, showing her painted toes. Later, when they leave for California, thus breaking Sailor’s parole, we can get an excellent view of Lula’s nails. She’s sporting a lovely half-moon manicure, with the half moon showing the natural nail colour. I think this glamourous manicure tells a lot about Lula: she’s wild and sexy, but there’s something conservative about her. Her style mixes lace leggings and slips, leather bras and skimpy dresses, but later she won’t hesitate to turn to polka dots and Veronica Lake waves. At the same time, she never changes hairstyle: her hair is always long and crimpled/wavy.

mariettamakeupOn the other hand, Marietta has a totally conservative style: she wears white skirt suits, cream or white blouses, white nightgowns, with rare touches of bright colour (the blue satin dress she wears in the opening scene). All her clothes are age-appropriate, which is a contradiction, since she plays a lot with her make-up and hair. She’s a hideous character and the main driving force of the story, but sometimes the audience perceives her merely as a symbol, a vessel which collects all the “Mommie Dearest” cinema figures: she looks like an elegant and poised mother, but she acts like an Erinye, doing whatever she can to bring Sailor and Lula apart.

mariettanailsShe sports three hairstyles all through the film: one is carefully coiffed, slightly wavy, reminiscent of the iconic style seen on Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity by Billy Wilder. This last reference is not coincidental: Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck’s character) is the ultimate femme fatale, a charismatic and beautiful woman who is ready to do anything to reach her goal; Marietta is definitely a grotesque version of Phyllis. The second hairstyle is the curly version of the first: we can see it only once, when she visits Marcellus Santos (J. E. Freeman), a gangster she hires to kill Sailor. In the screencaps above her nails are visible, too: she wears light orange, coral red, hot pink and scarlet red nail polishes, thus showing her love for beauty trends.

mariettaMarietta is a psychotic woman, obsessively attached to her daughter and unable to let her go. The madness beneath her poised appearance sometimes comes out, especially when she’s very angry or worried. It explodes in one of the most memorable scenes of the movie: she receives a phone call from Lula, who tells her she’s fine but that she has no intention to come home. Marietta is wearing a white nightgown, her mermaid hair loose with a pink ribbon; well, she takes her red lipstick [2] and passes it on her wrists, as if to simulate a wrist cut. Things will get even crazier when she realizes Santos wants to kill her lover, Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton); she freaks out and literally paints her face and hands red with the lipstick. This scene has been paid homage to in many videos – the disturbing Heatherette for MAC video by David La Chapelle, starring Amanda Lepore, or in De Formule by the Dutch band De Jeugd Van Tegenwoordig.

Other two interesting yet disturbing characters in the movie share lots of similarities between them. Perdita Durango [3], played by Isabella Rossellini, is a woman who was part of Sailor’s criminal gang; she lives in Big Tuna (Texas) and is dating Bobby Peru (Willem Defoe), another hideous criminal figure. Her sister is Juana (Grace Zabriskie), who’s part of a criminal gang, too [4].

perditaPerdita’s character is tinged with melancholy, while Juana is as crazy as Marietta. They seem to have a symbotic relationship, just like the one that Marietta would like to have with her daughter. This is clear from her physical appearance: both of them have the same hairstyle (platinum blonde short hair styled in soft waves) and the same dark thick eyebrows, plus both of them wear black clothes. They are not twins but look like them: this imbues their figures with a sense of unheimlich (uncanny).

vlcsnap-2013-08-31-00h08m47s84All the characters in the movie seem to take part into a competition for who’s the weirdest, but the prize for the most tragic definitely goes to Sherilyn Fenn, who plays the role of a girl in an accident. Lula and Sailor stop by and want to help her but she dies in their arms. She wears a pair of high-waisted jeans and a cropped black top; her hair is styled in beautiful tousled locks but she’s covered in blood, amplified by her red lipstick and red nails (Lula’s favourite combo). Fenn appears in this scene only, acting like a “broken doll” (in the words of the director).

One of the reasons why I love this film so much are the many references to Elvis Presley (Sailor’s favourite singer) and to the Wizard of Oz. Toto (Dorothy’s dog), the Emerald City and the Wicked Witch of the West (whom Lula transfigures her mother in) are hinted at all through the movie. In a scene, Lula’s wearing red shoes and she tries to click the heels thrice, because she wants the nightmare in Big Tuna to end.

tumblr_mo7enkKh1U1s30ihzo1_500The peak of this heartfelt homage is the apparition of the Good Witch (Sheryl Lee) at the end of the movie. She tells Sailor not to turn away from love, and her words convince him to go back to Lula and their son.

goodwitchIt’s strange not to see Lee wrapped in plastic, but it’s good to see her surrounded by a glorious halo, wearing a triumph of pink satin and silver embroideries. Her costume is obviously a reproduction of Glinda’s dress with some differences (the braided detail on the neckline and on the belt, the puffy sleeves, the cylindre-shaped headdress), but the hair and make-up are in tune with Lynch’s style. Sheryl’s platinum blonde hair is styled in waves, while her face, arms and hands glisten with silver glitter and highlighter. This is one of my favourite moments of the film: the audience is asked to suspend disbelief more than ever, but experiencing a bit of magic in such a tense and tragic story is what everybody is asking for.

[1] It’s very hard to tell exactly what colour was used in this scene. Judging from the bottle shape, it could be a Chanel nail varnish.

[2] Also in this case I think the lipstick was by Chanel.

[3] There’s a lot to say about this character. It’s the psychotic protagonist of 59° and Raining: The Story of Perdita Durango, the third novel of the Sailor and Lula series, written by Barry Gifford and published in 1992; it was brought on the silver screen by Álex de la Iglesia in 1997 (the protagonists were Rosie Pérez and Javier Bardem). It’s not a case she appears in Wild at Heart, too, because Lynch adapted the first novel of the series, Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula.

[4] I love the fact that Lynch gave three minor roles to some of the most famous actresses of Twin Peaks. You may remember that Grace Zabriskie was Sarah Palmer (Laura’s mother), Sherilyn Fenn was the femme fatale Audrey Horne and Sheryl Lee was obviously Laura Palmer.


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