(Dir. David Lynch, United States, 2001)
Has any one film been so hotly debated and discussed in the past decade (or century for that matter)? Or, has any film been so universally admired and adored? Just as Kid A round up consensus for critics and audiophiles alike in the music community, so David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive became the de facto film of choice in the world of cinema at decade’s end. Even years after its release, it’s easy to see why. Filmmaker David Lynch possesses such a daringly unique and recognizable aesthetic that posits him amongst the likes of other greats such as Welles, Fellini, Bergman, Kubrick, and Malick – whose names have similarly spawned new adjectives (i.e. –ian) to describe their work. Mulholland Drive, then, may be his most Lynchian film to date. Every motif, theme, or filmic technique that mark his three-decades spanning oeuvre all appear – yielding remarkable results, I might add – here: fascination with the (falsely) halcyon era of the ‘50s, split personalities or characterizations, surrealism, and, of course, dreamlike narratives. Each of these explored separately in notable earlier works Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, and even The Straight Story, are all condensed and pressed upon more efficiently (and more rewardingly) in Mulholland Drive.
After an unexpectedly chilling and intentionally choppily edited dance sequence, the camera glimpses a darkened hallway and then a bedroom before rapidly descending on a pillow as if signifying falling asleep. What follows, we presume, is a dream. At least, the majority of the film sure plays out like a dream – an explanation that proves most reasonable amidst a sea of disparate and wild theories that floods discussion boards, digital archives, and essays on this enigmatic film (Lynch has delightfully remained silent on the matter). Like a dream, the first portion of the film is spotted with moments of unexplained incoherence and detours – the unidentified pair sharing breakfast at Winkie’s, the apartment complex murder that takes a darkly comic turn, a mysterious man confined to his chair always seen behind glass – seemingly indicative of the rabbit trails our subconscious takes us down while we sleep (or possible remnants of an abandoned TV pilot where Mulholland Drive was conceived). And, most convincingly, the dramatic shift in plot and characters’ identities following the cowboy’s memorable line: “Hey, pretty girl, it’s time to wake up.”
Alas, one needn’t offer any further proof for a given theory that has been often cited before because fully dissecting Lynch’s masterpiece isn’t necessary for appreciating its cinematic and narrative accomplishments. Of course, speculating, pondering, and diving deeply into its oft-explored complexities proves a valuable exercise, but getting lost in the sequential ordering of the perfect chaos of Mulholland Drive may overshadow a more unsettling and resounding type of dream embodied in the character of Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts). Following the traditional interpretation that the first portion of the film belongs to Diane’s dreaming subconscious, we are introduced to an alternate version of her in the naïve and annoyingly optimistic Betty. In Betty, Diane becomes everything she wishes she could be: a newcomer to the Hollywood scene welcomed with open arms, an amateur sleuth on the trail of an exhilarating mystery, a great actress and a movie star, and a first-time lover who is passionately loved in return.
This life, so perfect it could only exist in the movies, never becomes a reality for Diane and provides a detrimental blow to her fanciful expectations when we meet her for the first time. Disheveled and merely existing in a darkened, grubby apartment, Diane does not have the life she always dreamed of before moving to Los Angeles: no big parts, no real friends, and no lover. As Betty, she could turn a convincing performance on a dime soaking up praise from casting directors Diane could only dream of. As Betty, she easily wins over the heart of the equally naïve and vulnerable Rita (Laura Elena Harring). Too, Diane’s seemingly self-congratulatory traits that may or may not exist manifest themselves in her peppy counterpart: her aforementioned acting skills, her general amiability toward friends new and old, and her loyalty to Rita even at her own cost. This last point is crucial in understanding the depth of Diane’s despair in Camilla’s (Rita’s real-life counterpart) apparent betrayal by falling for the director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux). When Betty passes on the audition of a lifetime in favor of helping Rita, we learn of Diane’s view of herself as the one who traded it all for love. Of course, things may not be as clear as Diane would have us believe, for in reality Camilla is the great actress in demand who does Diane favors by landing her minor roles in her films, and it remains unclear whether or not the two were actually ever lovers despite how Diane feels toward Camilla.
Two key scenes come to mind to help in understanding Diane’s troubled psyche. First, the early breakfast at Winkie’s between two friends seems rather random ripped from its context in the bigger picture. But, upon closer inspection, it’s a telling sequence that suggests either a helpful nudge from Lynch to look more closely at what we’re watching or the possibility of Diane experiencing and manipulating a lucid dream. Dan describes for his friend Herb a terrifying recurring dream and the reasoning behind inviting him to breakfast at that specific location. As he recounts the sequence of this nightmare, its facets quickly become a reality – beginning with the frightened face of his friend standing in exactly the same place and culminating in the horrifying figure lurking behind the dumpster. Do our dreams mirror our reality? Or are they altered versions of it? And, do they meld seamlessly blurring the line between what’s real and what’s not? In Diane’s case, the elevated view of herself in Betty and the beauty of the love shared between her and Rita serve to fuel her anger in her actual position in society and with Camilla, and lead her toward a startling act of vengeance.
The second scene in question is the much-discussed, pivotal sequence at Club Silencio. After making love and catching a taxi (also notably featuring the finest example of cinematographer Peter Deming’s transfixing camerawork with a wobbly tracking shot blurring into obscurity as the pair takes off in the cab), Betty and Rita find themselves in a strangely lit theatre where an emcee with a booming voice toys with his audience by drawing its attention to the tape recorded sound of various instruments and one singer. To the audience’s astonishment, those muted trumpets, clarinets, and emotive vocal performances are all an act, though they sound perfectly real as if performed live. “It is an illusion!” the man exclaims. The parallels to Diane’s story are obvious, and the timing of this scene is key for first-time viewers who have yet to be shaken by Betty and Rita’s name changes. It stands as Lynch’s most obvious wink to his viewers, but it also serves to reveal that other illusory theme present in Mulholland Drive’s narrative: the myth of rags-to-riches fame and glory.
Just as Blue Velvet unearthed the seedy underbelly of idyllic suburban life, so Mulholland Drive similarly reveals the ugliness hidden beneath the façade of making it big in Hollywood. Leave it to the master of contemporary surrealist cinema to chart the unsentimental decimation of hopes and dreams found in the empty promises of the movies in a way both refreshingly unique and yet nostalgic in its plundering of cinema’s great past. The film boasts an unmistakable noirish vibe with ominous music, dreary sets, quick zoom-in camera movements, and female protagonists in peril. Too, Watts’ doe-eyed Betty captures all the campy eagerness typical of many a leading lady from the golden age of Hollywood (here Lynch has Watts’ superb performance to thank). There’s even a reference to one of Lynch’s personal favorite films near the beginning as the camera lingers on the street sign for Sunset Blvd. These allusions aside, Mulholland Drive undoubtedly stems from its modern setting in the first decade of the ‘00s, but like In the Mood for Love before it and There Will Be Blood after, it manages to somehow exist outside of time – never stuck in the year of its release nor pining for a bygone era prior the supposed death of film. In this way, it’s the perfect film to have ushered in cinema’s second century as an artistic medium – appropriately nostalgic, yet brilliantly forward thinking.
Lynch’s film ends with Diane, alone and full of regret. Haunted by the vile decision to exact her revenge on the object of her affection in an irreversible manner, Diane literally runs shrieking in terror from the memory of the hopes that brought her to Hollywood in the first place. The final shot, both tremendously unsettling and satisfying, lingers on starkly glowing headshots of Betty and Rita transposed over a dark cityscape of Los Angeles. Dazzled by the sights seen off-screen, Betty smiles and laughs with Rita. The forlorn strings of the music wail as the screen fades to black along with the crushed dreams of what her life could have been. Never sentimental, but also never cruel enough to punish or rebuke his audience, Lynch favors challenging us to always look closer. Blue Velvet may have caused some to think twice before buying up suburban real estate. Twin Peaks may have led others to drive straight through Small-town, USA. And, Mulholland Drive will always be there just in case you ever get stars in your eyes before embarking on what may very well be a perilous journey on the road to stardom.