I think that Inland Empire is as much about infidelity and the ramifications that it has on a woman emotionally as it is about identity. It’s been a while since I saw the whole film but I remember key scenes in it.
We begin with a Polish woman, about to have sex. We then see her afterwards in the hotel room, obviously sad, lost and possibly trapped. She watches the television where she is able to watch a woman called Nikki’s story. We’ll forget about the rabbits for the moment.
Nikki Grace is an actual person, as well, in vast difference from the Lost Girl (Sue), Nikki is wealthy, but on the edge of having an affair. The day before she is cast in a film, the moment before she will be prominently connected to the man she will have the affair with, she is visited by a strange Polish woman. The new role this woman references Nikki taking isn’t the character in the film at all but as an unfaithful wife. The concept of magic and time is brought up and when the woman references if it was tomorrow Nikki would be sitting on the opposite side of the room. We then see this tomorrow and the events that lead to Nikki having an affair with her co-star Devon.
I won’t go into too much detail here. I will say that Devon is warned about having an affair with Nikki. This implicates that he is known for his string of romantic relationships. The laughter the group of men share about Nikki’s ass is also sickening. Nikki’s husband even warns Devon that Nikki is bound to him by marriage and that even outside forces will make sure the bond is not broken. Still, despite this, Devon and Nikki begin an affair. Devon breaks off the relationship, indicated by his laughing at Nikki during sex, leaving Nikki in a kind of depressed no where land, the same state Sue is lost to. This is represented by the strange house Nikki is in. The prostitutes are also representative of Devon’s past conquests. While it may have been love for Nikki it was not so for Devon. By having sex with him she has essentially sold herself. She has to subsequently deal with the shame and guilt that the affair has left her with.
Nikki begins to experience the life of Sue, the Lost Girl, who experienced the same situation. Sue’s story is the old Polish folk tale that 47 was based on. She cheated on her husband, got pregnant and then felt trapped in the boredom the end of the affair intensified. She has a daydream of killing her husband, believing this will make her happy. She becomes lost, potentially supernaturally, in connection to one of her husband’s associates: the Phantom. Her husband, after losing his temper realizing the child is not his, loves her and searches for her.
In the end, Nikki and Sue have experienced each other’s life. This teaches them both a lesson. In Sue’s case it frees her from the curse the Phantom placed her in, and probably was also due to her own emotions, so she is able to return to her husband and child without shame, love them and be loved in return.
In Nikki’s case she has avoided the affair all together. The Polish woman gave her a vision of the future. That is why we return at the end of the film to “yesterday” the scene where Nikki and the Polish woman sit on the couch discussing Nikki’s new “role”. Nikki will not accept the role, indicated by her happy and innocent appearance on the other couch. She will remain faithful, having learned the pain and emptiness an affair will cause. The outside forces Nikki’s husband referred to did come into play as did the magic the woman mentioned. Devon’s agent had mentioned that Nikki’s husband was powerful and knew everything. Once more a supernatural element has come into play. His preventing Nikki from having an affair did not only save him from the pain it would cause but most importantly it saved Nikki.
That’s what it meant to me anyway. It was kind of a cautionary tale that infidelity causes pain and sorrow and is not worth it.