At the Venice film festival premiere of David Lynch‘s Inland Empire last September, the film’s muse/uberdiva Laura Dern confessed to BBC News that even she wasn’t sure what the surrealist maestro had in mind. “The truth is I didn’t know who I was playing,” she said, “and I still don’t know.”

Not the first time either, swee’pea, my cynical self wants to interject. In Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, Dern’s previous encounters with Lynch’s dream generator, she was just as flummoxed as she is here. Can’t be accidental, these utterly clueless resolutions, and in fact Dern’s undoubted ingenue appeal has a lot to do with the Svengali-Trilby dynamic that’s apparently been working itself out (in contrast, say, to Isabella Rossellini, who after a pair of canny collaborations with Lynch transferred her dark, antinomian intelligence straightaway to Guy Maddin land, not to be silly putty in anyone’s hands, I guess).

All of which arguably suggests the much earlier collaboration between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich back in the 1930s, where Sternberg’s cryptic direction—”Take three steps, then look at the camera as if you can’t live without it”—invariably elicited the rapturous, if not always on top of it (“I didn’t know what I was doing—I just tried to do what he told me,” Dietrich admitted in an interview), participation of his mannequinlike Galatea/Trilby star.

“What’s my motivation?” wasn’t the issue there, nor is it for Lynch-Dern, though in Dern’s case “can’t live without it” (meaning the wonderful ogling camera) translates roughly as “aaiieee, get that damned thing out of my face!” As Judith Lewis wrote in LA Weekly, Dern “has suffered, vexed, fought, escaped and died, and she has probably spent a greater proportion of her screen time with her face twisted in pained confusion than any other actor alive.” The horror! the horror!—though for both on-screen Trilby clones, from the 30s and the present, whether horrified or rapt, that obscure object at the end of the transformational gaze will always be . . . precisely nothing at all, just a blank spot on the Method/motivational map!