NOV 2001

Mulholland Drive

Written and Directed by David Lynch

Starring Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Justin Theroux

Part of the interest of Lynch’s films is that—as he has said—if he could describe what they mean in words then he would not need to make them as films. The value of Lynch’s work—as with the best of his surrealist antecedents—is that contained within a given piece there is a complex network of meanings awaiting the intrepid analyzer. Perhaps Lynch resists verbal assignment of meaning to his films because he is conscious that any one of his films is packed with enough meaning to fill volumes. That said, below lie a few threads of meaning woven into the web of Lynch’s latest: Mulholland Drive.

Mulholland Drive—like Lost Highway before it—is fundamentally an application of a Wizard of Oz framework wherein the protagonist attempts to escape an unpleasant reality by entering a dream world in which she substantially improves her position. As in Oz, however, reality leaks through and finally overrules the jurisdiction of the dream. Lynch’s innovation is to make the dream appear exactly as real as reality itself (in terms both of the reality of the film’s narrative and of our own perception of daily reality). Between this dream and reality he posits a dark, shadowy realm that powerfully encroaches on both of them to insure that neither can be free of or safe from the other. In depicting this third place Lynch is at his most stereotypically "Lynchian" or overtly surreal. Part of what earns Lynch’s films the label "difficult" is in the way that this recurrent battle between dreams and reality pushes the viewer to abandon "passive" or "entertainment" film spectating in favor of more actively understanding and critiquing the process of narrative filmmaking itself. Further, Lynch asks the viewer to maintain a tenuous balance between a total immersion in the reality he creates and an utterly detached running analysis of that constructed reality.

Reader beware: it will help for me to summarize the plot, though doing so may "spoil" the viewing experience. However, in some sense Mulholland Drive is more than complicated enough to resist being spoiled by the revelation of plot details. Also, because this is a simplified reconstruction of an originally very twisted plotline, it may be misleading or even incorrect.

Diane Selwyn comes to Hollywood to become a successful actress. She is, however, overshadowed by the woman who becomes her lover—Camilla Rhodes. Then Camilla dumps Diane in favor of Adam Kesher, the director of her latest movie. Now doubly crushed, Diane hires a hit man to kill Camilla. Subsequently, Diane falls into a dream in which Camilla escapes death to become the amnesiac "Rita" thus enabling Diane (now the pure and innocent "Betty Elms") to turn the tables on her and become the dominant personality in their re-envisioned love affair. Reality keeps trying to break through the wall of the dream, which eventually ends, as all dreams must.

Because Mulholland Drive churns and pollutes the waters of its own narrative stream with such vigor, we can assume that it wants us to dive in to investigate beneath its surface. The story features not one but two lead women characters, each of whom is a Hollywood movie actress, and each of whom is presented as at least one fully realized character other than or in addition to herself. This dramatic trope forces the viewer to adopt a (perhaps uncomfortable) perspective on them as fictional characters (created and manipulated in the process of a narrative) and points to Hollywood’s construction of femininity as exactly that: an artificial construction. Early in the film, when the amnesiac Camilla of Diane’s dream world requires a name for herself she chooses "Rita" from a poster for the classic movie Gilda starring the ultra-glamorous Rita Hayworth. Across the top of the poster a banner announces, "There NEVER was a woman like Gilda." Ironically recontextualized into Lynch’s film, this straightforwardly announces a critique of Hollywood’s role in the creation of an artificial femininity that has been held up for several decades as an ideal for real-world women. The importance of this one line of text becomes particularly clear with the knowledge that Lynch included special instructions packed with each print to make sure that the image would be framed properly to reveal these words.

Later, when Betty gives the brunette Rita a makeover and announces, "You look like someone else" the image we see instantly falsifies this statement because, in fact, Rita now looks exactly like herself in a blonde wig. The makeup she wears so emphasizes her features in a particular way and so rigidly defines her precise "femininity" that changing her hair color and style cannot unmake this identity. Furthermore, within the context of the narrative, Diane desires this certain iconic femininity that Camilla embodies for her, and so she cannot bear to change it beyond visible recognition in the way that she does to her own image when crossing the dream/reality boundary.

The construction/reconstruction of Diane’s/Betty’s femininity plays out more subtly (at least in the sense that it is not announced by a banner of text) and also more dramatically. Lynch displays five distinct physical incarnations of her: as a rotting corpse, fresh out of bed without makeup or hair styling, with hip and sharp-edged hair and makeup styling, as a dowdy supporting character in the film-within-the-film, and (as Betty) with the softened hair and facial features of a 1950’s "good girl" look. Each of these calls the "reality" of the others into question, while not clearly labeling any of them as "false."

Beyond this physical construction is the even more complex construction of Diane/Betty as a feminine subject with desires and emotions. This construction serves a second line of commentary that runs parallel to the one addressing codes of femininity. Three pivotal scenes forcefully problematize the construction and performance of intense, intimate emotion and then echo powerfully throughout the entirety of the narrative.

About halfway into Mulholland Drive, Betty performs a creepy, film-noirish love scene for an audition. In it she transforms herself to such an extent that it shocks both the spectators in the scene itself (the director, producer, etc.), and those of us in the audience. An earlier scene in which Betty rehearses the same lines with Rita—with a different, very flat reading—disconcertingly marks this later scene as false in spite of (or perhaps because of) her powerfully convincing acting in the later scene. This construction pushes our attention to focus on the performer herself and on her performance, and by doing so it casts a long shadow over all other moments of intensely expressed emotion in this film (and, because of its setting, in any other Hollywood film). This is not to say that the film condemns such performance. Instead it reserves judgment in favor of problematization—something it takes even further in another scene.

Later, after their first love scene, Rita takes Betty to an ornate lip-sync performance club. Following an elaborate and surreal introduction, the emcee brings out Rebecca del Rio, "La Llorona de Los Angeles," who performs an impassioned Spanish-language version of Roy Orbison’s "Crying." At the emotional peak of her performance—which has Betty and Rita in tears—Rebecca collapses on the stage even as the pre-recorded singing itself continues blaring its now perverted emotional intensity. The strangeness of this scene marks it as an intrusion of the aforementioned "third place" that controls the balance between dreams and reality. As such it can overtly comment upon that balance and it does so by plainly staging for us the system of relations: "performance/recording/playback of emotion—impact upon spectators (Betty, Rita, and, by extension, us)." Part of this, again, relies on calling into question the sincerity or falseness of such constructed emotion, but doing so without any passing of judgment upon the participants so that we as viewers can be drawn into the situation alongside its fictional participants.

Finally, having exited the dream world, Diane looks on as Adam directs Camilla and her male lead in a kissing scene. Even after describing in coldly precise detail the way to perform the passion of the scene, Adam slips from the role of director into the role of Camilla’s lover as a tortured Diane looks on from a distance. Lynch thus draws himself (through his own role as director) into his own film as one of the participants in the complex and problematic interrelationship of reality and artifice. For the first time there is also a sense of condemning judgment being passed upon Adam, but this is moderated by the fact that Diane’s point of view dominates the narrative—the film’s condemnation of him becomes her condemnation of him (or visa versa).

The only judgment the film makes that could be seen as broad and definitive emerges for Diane at the very end. She has played a dangerous game with her own subjectivity and she has brought consequences upon herself. Yet even the apparent bluntness of this "moral of the story" is transformed into something much more complicated by the epic journey we must take to arrive at this moment.

NOV 2001

Signed Elements © Individual Authors
Unsigned Elements © Agenda Publications, LLC