New Movies -
Old Movies -
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch) 2001
A nightmare wrapped up to look like a dream, David Lynch's Mulholland Drive is quite possibly his best film yet. It’s more hugely entertaining than any film with something to say has any right to be, and stylistically, it belies its roots as a television series pilot. It’s also, unfortunately the sort of film that warrants a ton of discussion, but is next to impossible to discuss without spoiling it. I’ll try to, but will eventually slip into an analysis that, with warning, spoils freely. The film is an expansive exploration of L.A., the city that manufactures dreams. Naturally, since this is David Lynch, the seedy underbelly isn’t far from the surface, but this film goes much farther than his other noir exercises in illustrating the effect this evil has on its community and explaining its inevitable inversion of characters. It criticizes the irresponsibility of selling dreams as reality and manages to illustrate the inherent dangers of doing such a thing.
The film isn’t nearly as graphic as some Lynch films.
Nothing here is quite as horrible to look at as the baby in Eraserhead. Several
Lynchian images and tropes make a resurgence here. There’s a constant
reference to the dream (Lynch’s perception of cinema seems a constant dream
state), with an emphasis on numbers and recurring images. There’s a man with
no hair that, with others, seems to be a signpost to an alternate reality. There
are innocent detectives uncovering the evils of the world as they try to solve a
mystery. There are several (lesbian) sex scenes. There’s a grotesquely
exaggerated feeling in the violence that we see. Still, the film feels like a
departure from most of his work, since he’s not exactly condescending to his
characters. The film’s feminine point of view helps a lot as well. There are a
few characters here that manage to be something more than an exaggeration of a
person’s most horrible qualities. Naomi Watts gives the film’s best
performance, and it’s easily one of the year’s best. The role allows her to
show a startling amount of range, and she nails every scene.
There’s also a sense that Lynch wants us to enjoy his vision of L.A.,
at least for the first one and a half hours. The film plays like a knowing
collection of classic scenes from his films, winking at the audience (that a
restaurant in the film is called “Winky’s” shows the tone). There’s
little that’s overtly horrible about what goes on, but our knowledge of
Lynch’s previous work and his characters’ fear of the unknown make the setup
thrilling. As I said before, the film is insanely fun. With just under an hour
of film left, however, the film changes into something entirely different.
Lynch’s camera loses focus on the world that he’s created, and suddenly the
world doesn’t make sense any longer. The second part of the film help to
explain all of the niggling little inconsistencies that bothered you in the
first part of the film, and the truth eventually comes to light. I won’t say
more, other than that it’s a brilliant commentary on the film’s setting, and
that it is a reprimand to those that want everything in a film to make sense
without them working for an explanation.
* * * *
Still, I’ll try to make sense of it all…
*** Major plot spoilers & interpretation ahead ***
Brief Explanation -
I think the half of the film is a dream (or alternate
reality). The only really debatable thing is establishing which half is which...
That he never confidently says which is, which is all quite okay, since the
film's theme is about the irresponsible dreammaking of Hollywood, in which
reality is negligible anyway. I think the safer reading would be to assume that
the 1st part of the film is all an idealized dream of Hollywood by Betty.
The film opens with a close-up of bedsheets filmed like they're a landscape, and
2 hours later, we see "Betty" wake up as Diane. The film flashes back
& we find she's ordered a hit on Camille (idealized as the Betty loving Rita
in the 1st half). Her dream seems to have been a denial of their bruised
relationship. When she sees the blue key telling her the deed is done, she
attempts to revert back into the dream world (the old people arrive, but they're
scary) but instead the dream is even more of a nightmare (the blue key,
"real" names, etc all had filtered in before). She has no place to
retreat & kills herself.
*** Longer analysis ***
Hopefully, you’ve seen the film and understood it perfectly, but judging from the baffled response most filmgoers had afterwards when this was screened at the NYFF, it’s not necessarily going to be the case. I think I’ve got a good understanding of the film, however, it is fundamentally illogical. Here’s a bit of stream-of-consciousness rambling that might help you out…
The film’s main theme, that L.A. is a corrupt city that can only manufacture corrupt dreams is what’s being explored here. Lynch has crafted a narrative that basically exists in two acts. The first act we see, in which Betty and Rita search for Rita’s real identity explodes near the film’s end, and places Betty in the role of Diane and Rita in the role of Camille. The tricky thing here is that Lynch spends nearly two hours establishing a reality only to destroy it near the finale. The film’s reality is the second segment, but even that reality is forced through Diane’s twisted mind. Betty and Rita, ultimately, do not exist outside of Diane’s mind (or at least don’t exist in this reality).
The plot is actually quite simple if you place the events chronologically. The film reveals in flashbacks from its final section that Diane, a young woman from Canada, moves to LA to try to make it as a star. She hooks up with Camille and they fall in love. Unfortunately, Camille breaks up with Diane once she meets Adam, a filmmaker. Diane, angry for being scorned kicks Camille out, and shuts herself off from her. Eventually, she accepts Camille’s invitation to a dinner party where she meets Coco, Adam’s mother, and sees Camille kiss another woman. Camille further hurts Diane by announcing at the party that her and Adam are going to be married. Diane flips out and hires a hitman (using money from her dead aunt) to take out Camille. The hitman says he will leave a blue key for her once the deed is done. While she waits for this, she dreams of a reality in which her and Camille could be together and happy. Her mind doesn’t allow this without distorting the facts however. She ends up creating an idealized version of the LA that she knows: an LA where her dreams can come true. The majority of the film takes place in this dream (whether it is internalized in her mind or is a legitimate second dimension is up for grabs, though).
Diane reimagines Camille as an unknown woman, who soon assumes the name Rita (not coincidentally stolen from an idealized film star) placing her first in the scene of the “crime”, en route to the party where Camille announced her engagement. Rita never arrives at the party however. Her chauffeurs stop the car, and she protests, “What are you doing? We don’t stop here,” suggesting that even our altered Rita realizes something is amiss with this world. A car accident occurs that wipes out her memory, and she wanders into the light (the lights of the city, but at the same time the light we supposedly see when we die) to an empty home. She feels a great amount of fear, but cannot remember why.
Diane recasts herself (as an actress this comes easily) as not Diane, but as Betty, who moves to LA, to occupy that abandoned home. The home’s owner, Betty’s aunt, has left to Canada to help make a film. Not coincidentally, the only film that gets made in this film gets made in Canada. The implication is that dreams (films) cannot flourish in LA. Betty’s remark upon arriving that she “had a dream about this place” suggests she holds an idealized model for the city, and Lynch certainly shoots her arrival in the sunniest way possible, with grotesquely kind old folks that she met on the plane in wishing her well. In any case, Betty soon befriends Rita, who wants to sleep to shake off her amnesia.
The film then shifts to show some film execs as they order Adam, the film director that he must cast a specific girl. Her name is Camille, but she looks not like Rita, but like the woman Rita (who is actually Camille) kisses during the second half’s party. The meeting feels illicit. The execs are grotesque and gangster like. All is being monitored by a mysterious man in another place. The meeting ends with one of the producers telling Adam “it is no longer your film,” and it’s not. This is clearly the perception of Diane, who was never a success as an actress being projected into this world. The film Adam makes is going to be the film that Diane wanted to be made.
During these scenes, we get two other scenes that are best discussed together. In the first, a man and his friend go to a diner that one of them has dreamt of. He wants to confront his terrifying dream that contained a burned man behind the restaurant. The man frightens him immensely, but he cannot quite explain his purpose. The dream becomes reality as he encounters the man and passes out from fright. In the second scene, a hitman is sent by someone (presumably the people that are after Rita) to assassinate a friend of his. Both of these scenes don’t have any resonance in the film’s first half, but make sense once the film’s dual realities are revealed. They seem to be reminders to Betty that the reality that we are seeing in the first half of the film isn’t real. The idealized LA is not reality, and there are tears in the seams. Diane really knows they exist, and even if they don’t fit Betty’s world in a narrative sense, they must reside there.
We then see, again, Betty and Rita as they begin to unravel Rita’s identity. There’s obvious symbolism here in their quest, as Betty, unsatisfied with Rita’s decision in the real world, has chosen to help her find herself again. She opens her purse to find wads of money (that we later find are explained yet another tear in reality – Diane gives the same purse full of money to the hitman). She also finds in that box a mysterious blue key. The film has a sense of dream logic in this scene. Nothing quite makes sense, but there’s the impression that the answers lie behind a closed door nearby (an image Lynch repeatedly uses). The girls confirm there was actually a car accident in a scene that shows Betty’s acting ability, and Rita remembers the name “Diane” when they go to the same restaurant shown earlier in the film. When a psychic confronts the two, she warns Rita that she is in trouble, and when Betty says, “My name is Betty,” the psychic replies “No, it’s not.” The real world seems to be slowly drifting into the fantasy world. The fantasy slowly is unraveling; reality cannot be denied. During these scenes, Lynch moves his leads closer together physically as they move toward a physical union and an understanding of their situation.
Meanwhile, Adam’s production is shut down, and he discovers his wife is cheating on him with the pool man (Billy Ray Cyrus). We later find out that this affair really happened, and pushed Adam toward Camille. He is told he must meet the Cowboy if he wants his life restored. The Cowboy seems to be a messenger that can cross between the two worlds, and tells Adam that if he chooses Camille (who is now NOT the other Camille, but the woman she kissed) as his lead, all will go well. With this new implication, Diane wishes to give Adam a new mate, so he won’t choose Rita, and also remove another source of sexual attraction from Rita’s path. The Cowboy orders Adam to say, when he sees Camille, “This is the girl.” Diane’s idealized world requires an intense amount of certainty in differentiating itself from the other reality.
When we shift back to Rita and Betty, they have established a sort of idealized family unit. Betty’s clearly wears the pants in this family. She is the one that goes off to work (or an audition at least). As she does, she says to Rita, “Don’t drink all the Coke.” In one of Lynch’s slyest lines, he establishes Betty’s desire to achieve a normal domestic bliss with Rita. Her audition goes so well that she doesn’t only get the part, but also gets a chance to audition for a bigger role in Adam’s film. When she goes to the set of Adam’s audition, he naturally picks Camille, as he was ordered. That Betty ends up here at all to witness that feels like a coincidence. Her dreams are coming true in this version of LA. Adam notices Betty from across the room, but cannot quite grasp her significance. She realizes she had promised to return to Rita, and before auditioning, returns to her.
They look up Diane’s name in the phone book, and head to her home. Neither understands the significance of Diane. When they arrive, they find a blonde haired corpse… presumably Diane’s. They return home, and Betty remakes Rita to look more like her, signifying her obsession, and completing Rita’s transformation into Betty’s ideal. They make love, as the universe gives them a moment to reconcile their situation. After they fall asleep, Rita wakes in the middle of the night with a desire for them to go to a club. They go there and are basically made to watch a theater where nothing is as it seems. All that seems real is phony. The club is a sort of cosmic courtroom where they are made to realize their transgressions. The show affects them both profoundly, and they both shed tears. When Betty goes to get a tissue from her purse she finds a blue Pandora’s box, which Rita’s key obviously fits. They return to their home and open the lock. The camera zooms into the void of the box, Betty and Rita disappear, and we see Betty’s aunt enter the room as if they never existed in that world at all.
The Cowboy appears in the real world, and tells Diane it is time to wake up. Her neighbor arrives, and tells her two police detectives are looking for her. She flashes back to the events that have happened between her and Camille up to that point, the camera losing focus on the events. Afterwards, she sees the key has arrived, signifying Camille’s death, and Diane regrets calling the hit. The death makes the dream of happiness crack. She imagines the most grotesque elements of her idealization of the world, the old folks, as they attack her. She kills herself to resist confronting this unwanted dissolution of her ideal reality. Once the fake reality has evaporated, the forces that seem to govern over reality, note order has been restored, and call for silence. The film fades to black.
Lynch paints LA as a town that creates dreams, but those dreams are irresponsibly made because the foundation of the town is corrupt.