Surrealist, dream-like images fill a film that’s wilfully complex, perplexing and probably Lynch’s masterpiece
Director: David Lynch
Cast: Naomi Watts (Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn), Laura Harring (Rita/Camilla Rhodes), Justin Theroux (Adam Kesher), Ann Miller (Coco), Mark Pellegrino (Joe), Patrick Fischler (Dan), Michael Cooke (Herb), Dan Hedaya (Vincenzo Castigliane), Angelo Badalamenti (Luigi Castigliane), Michael J Anderson (Mr Roque), Monty Montgomery (The Cowboy), Lee Grant (Louise Bonner), James Karen (Wally Brown), Chad Everett (Jimmy Katz), Melissa George (Camilla Rhodes), Billy Ray Cyrus (Gene), Lori Heuring (Lorainne Kesher)
Spoilers: I’ll be discussing in detail the plot (if you can call it that) including its final act reveals which are crucial for understanding the film. So watch it first!
Where do you begin? Mulholland Drive feels like the culmination of Lynch’s work, a perfect boiling down of Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, Wild at Heart and Blue Velvet into a surrealistic meditation on Hollywood, wish-fulfilment, dreams and reality. It’s both wilfully inaccessible and surprisingly clear, both coldly cruel and achingly tender, full of hope and devoid of happiness. It’s tough, cryptic, engrossing viewing and unpeels like an onion (and likely to have the same effect on you as that vegetable). Every scene may mean everything or nothing, but there is not a moment of it that isn’t darkly, thrillingly engrossing.
It starts with a car crash on Mulholland Drive – but not before a stream of seemingly disconnected images that only later reveal their importance, including a women on a bed and a dizzying array of disconnected jittybug dancers drifting across the screen like paper cut-outs before a purple background. The car crash involves a mysterious woman ‘Rita’ (Laura Harring) who narrowly escapes being murdered but is left with amnesia. She stumbles to the house of Betty (Naomi Watts), a newly arrived girl in Hollywood, eager to become an actress. With only a bag of money and a mysterious blue key to go on, Rita and Betty search to find out who Rita is. Meanwhile, director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) finds his film (which Betty wants to audition for) being taken over by gangsters. Did I also mention an incompetent-but-brutal hitman, a supernaturally omniscient albino cowboy and a monstrous goblin-like hobo who lives behind a diner and can kill on sight?
Mulholland Drive grew out of Lynch’s plans for a new Twin Peaks style TV series. He shot a pilot, the footage from which takes up much of the first two thirds. Like Twin Peaks it was full of mysterious alleyways to be explored: it’s amnesiac lead, mysterious money and blue key, shadowy gangsters (even led by Twin Peaks veteran Michael J Anderson, here in a Red Room style hide-away, his head attached to a prosthetic body), creepy supernatural nightmare elements. Alas, the executives hated it (it wasn’t exactly Desperate Housewives), but French investors stepped in to fund Lynch turning it into a surrealist movie, with an additional half an hour of footage to an ending (of a sort).
A sort of ending is what we get. Mulholland Drive is a famously confusing, impenetrable film. But to me it seems clear. Lynch’s solution was to turn all the pilot footage into a bizarre and terrible dream – and latch on an ending set in the ‘real world’ which re-presents characters, events and throwaway moments in surprising new lights, leading us to radically reinterpret everything. Effectively, the first two-thirds are the guilt-ridden nightmare of Diane (Watts again), a failed actress in Hollywood who paid for a hit on a star actress Camilla (Harring again) who she believes seduced and spurned her. In her dream, Diane reimagines both herself and Camilla exactly as she wishes they were: herself unspoilt by Hollywood with preternatural talent, Camilla as an amnesiac utterly reliant on her.
What we have here is dreams as wish fulfilment: and what city is more about that, than Hollywood? Mulholland Drive plays as the dark underbelly of Sunset Boulevard (pretty dark and bitter already!). Lynch’s Hollywood is a vicious, heartless, bloody place, where cruelty and death are commonplace. In ‘the dream’ the gangsters – terrifying cameos from Hedaya and composer Badalamenti, the latter dribbling inadequate coffee from his mouth during a meeting in a grotesque power play – call the shots. Reality might be worse. This heartless factory of dreams chews up and spits out innocents like Diane, turning her from naïve and optimistic into bitter, twisted shell, emotionally maladjusted, locked in her apartment tearily in thrall to her worst instincts.
It makes sense in a way that the film is dominated (probably) by a dream. Hollywood is the town of stories, and it’s perversely logical that the unreality should feel so detailed, engrossing and narratively compelling while what is (probably) reality is fragmented, mundane and laced with cruelty. To the people of films, stories are richer and more freeing than anything that happens in real life and infinitely more comforting.
Comfort is what our dreamer wants. Naomi Watt’s Betty seems like a cliché of a small-town girl, swept up in the big city. Full of aw-shucks charm, the eagle-eyed will spot little moments of strength that feel out of character. There are micro-flashes of anger and she’s determined to break into a mysterious, abandoned house to find a clue when Rita runs. She’s a gifted actress, turning a mundane script in an audition (a script she and Rita laugh at) into a simmering performance of sexual control that stuns the room. But this is a multi-layed performance, just one facet of a whole.
Because Betty’s talent is recognised in the way her ‘real-world’ counterpart Diane – stuck in small supporting roles, gifts from Camilla – never is. There are touches of this in that audition: the director is the least involved and speaks only in vague bullshit. Its not just that talent recognition: in the dream she can turn her lover Camilla, an independent and (perhaps) selfish figure, into someone so dependent on her that she literally doesn’t even know who she is. She even turns the man Camilla leaves her for, into a deluded, humiliated cuckold in thrall to gangsters.
Lynch’s crafting of this dream is flawless. He can mine tension from even the smallest moments. Innocuous events – two men sitting in a diner, a kind old couple in a cab, a business meeting, a singing audition – drip with menace and unknown horror. His camera frequently, almost imperceptibly weaves, as if held floating in space. Logic jumps and sudden transitions abound. Lights flicker and time never obeys rules. He is also a master of black humour: a hit-job gone wrong (with bodies and a vacuum cleaner joining the carnage) is hilarious, as is Kesher’s unexpected arrival home to find his wife in bed with a muscular pool cleaner.
Mulholland Drive is also a sensitive and highly emotional romance story between two lost souls. Betty, naïve and helpful and Rita, who clings with gratitude and adoration to the woman who helps her. Moments of sexual tenderness between these two are shot with erotic beauty: contrasted sharply with the more sordid, aggressive couplings between them in ‘reality’.
But these mix with moments of chilling, unspeakable horror. The hideous goblin living behind a diner, an embodiment of all that is cruel, evil and twisted, later clutching a box the releases the furies themselves seem to leap from. Is this a dark expression of the dreamer’s own guilt (which seems to be transferred to “Dan” a man we see literally dying of fright in a diner that becomes crucial later)? The Cowboy, who may or may not be of this world, glanced at two dreadful moments (just as he promises) seems to guides the dream. And the Silencio club, a theatre of the bizarre, disturbing auditory and visual twists and turns that serves as the gateway between dream and reality – something Betty subconsciously knows, vibrating in terror in her seat, knowing this fantasy she has crafted is under siege from dark elements of the truth demanding she acknowledge them.
Mulholland Drive deconstructs itself at every turn, aided by Lynch’s wonderful, hypnotic surrealistic touches. What’s beautiful about it, perhaps, is it leaves it very much up to you. For me, the desire for dreams to be fulfilled is crucial. It’s all captured in Watts and Harring’s multi-layered performances, their versions of the same women contrasting and complementing each other. Lynch allows their personalities to blur both in character and in visuals (Rita ends up in a matching wig in touches of Vertigo while the film’s blurring of two personalities echoes Bergman’s Persona, including a homage via a shot where both faces seem to merge into one).
An intense, fascinating dream-like exploration of several classic Lynchian themes, Mulholland Drive is his finest, most rewarding film. One which, whatever interpretation you place on its events, grips and challenges you at every moment, full of scenes which spark a mixture of imagination, horror and intrigue. Powered by two wonderful performances at its lead, both with just the right mix of reality and fantasy about them, it’s an extraordinary film.