Mulholland Drive (2001)

David Lynch | 2hr 27min

“No hay banda,” warns the emcee at Club Silencio. “There is no band.” Everything we hear there is an illusion, played as a tape recording while musicians and singers move their hands and mouths. It doesn’t really matter how many times we are told this, or in how many languages. Every time a new piece of music begins, we find ourselves entranced by the haunting melodies reverberating across the theatre, then equally caught off guard when the sounds persist even after their apparent sources are gone.

Most affecting of all in this scene is the heartrending cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish by one club performer, sung entirely acapella. In the audience, our two leading women, Betty and Rita, cling to each other with tears in their eyes, unable to look away. Though it is Rita whose amnesia has kept her character at a distance from us, Betty is just as much of an enigma in her façade of superficial idealism. Here though, there seems to be a break in their reality. What it is exactly we aren’t too sure, but there is a profound sorrow in both the music and their reactions to it, as if they are mourning the impending expiration of something beautiful and fleeting.

Rebekah del Rio singing “Llorando” at Club Silencio. This may be the emotional lynchpin of the film, and yet at this point we may not even fully understand the context yet.

It is a skilful layering of illusions on top of illusions that David Lynch conducts in Mulholland Drive, removing us from reality by several levels until all we are left with is some primal, psychological rendition. This is the true power of cinema, according to him. It is only by studying the worlds that exist inside our minds that we can get close to understanding those feelings we bury deep into our subconscious, including the guilt, hope, love, and anger which aspiring Hollywood actress Diane Selwyn has let fester into putrid resentment. Mulholland Drive can be explained quite simply as a dark and occasionally whimsical nightmare conjured up in the final minutes before her suicide, but to seek hard logic in Lynch’s reason and plotting would be to defeat its purpose. It excels simply as a surreal melting pot of impressionistic images that translate the literal to the symbolic, asserting that such figurative representations are no less “real” than the places they come from.

Lynch smothering Diane in a heavy fog in this foreboding composition as she dreams.

More specifically, Mulholland Drive is Lynch’s own interrogation of the Hollywood dream as an empty, corrupt promise, drawing heavy parallels to Billy Wilder’s similarly street-titled film Sunset Boulevard. In Diane Selwyn and Norma Desmond, we see two women drawn in by the glamour of the movie industry, only to be left devastated when they are thoughtlessly discarded in favour of other more desirable women, forcing them to retreat into dream worlds of fame and glory. There are two key differences between these films though. Firstly, Diane has never had a taste of what it is like to be riding high on praise and adoration, unlike Norma. Secondly, we are not looking in at Diane’s dream from the outside. Instead, Lynch sinks us deep into this absurd labyrinth for two hours before he pulls back the curtain to reveal its source in the final act.

When we do eventually reach that point, we may at first barely even realise that this is what he is doing. But then tiny formal connections begin to arise. In the Winkies diner we have seen several times before, Diane singles in on the waitresses’ nametag, “Betty”, in an almost identical shot to one earlier in the film when Betty notices the name “Diane”. A hitman who amusingly bungled a murder in a standalone dream episode appears once again, meeting with Diane. He carries the blue key that Rita mysteriously kept in her purse, and tells Diane that when the job is done he will pass it on to her as a secret indicator. At that moment, she makes eye contact with another man in the diner. We have seen him before too in an isolated nightmare, confronting a horrific monster that lives behind Winkies. “I hope to never see that face outside a dream,” he fearfully expresses. Those iniquitous thoughts which linger beneath the surface of our consciousness are better kept out of sight, though this is a luxury that Diane can no longer afford.

A jump scare for the ages – fully earned, and not overdone. The appearance of the creature behind Winkies is terrifying, both on a visceral level and for what it represents.

Such an intricate web of parallels across dreamscapes and waking life makes for a wonderful piece of abstract formalism in Mulholland Drive, and one that only lulls us deeper into its soporific grip through hazy, wistful editing that slyly bridges one idea to the next. Long dissolves erode any sense of clear definition between scene transitions, blending them together to find striking collages in those indistinct, liminal spaces. Arguably the most iconic use of this technique in film history can be found here, imprinting a shot of Betty reclining backwards against a low angle of palm trees reaching up to the sky, delivering an illusion of idyllic serenity. Elsewhere, Lynch’s match cuts land on action beats, momentarily dispensing with the dreamy ambience to sharply leap through a broken timeline of incomplete memories.

Jaw-dropping imagery crafted in these long dissolves, dreamily passing from one scene to the next.

The lack of defining boundaries in Mulholland Drive even extends to Lynch’s characterisations of all four main women – or at least, the two women whose identities are as malleable as anything else in Diane’s dream. In the material world, she and Camilla are a pair of ex-lovers looking for fame in Hollywood. Where Diane is struggling to be noticed, Camilla’s star is on the rise, thanks to her winning a role that she may or may not have rightfully deserved.

The construct that Diane builds in her mind from guilt and idealism might as well be some sort of regret-driven wish fulfillment, playing out a fantasy where both women can start afresh under new circumstances, though with a considerable power imbalance in her favour. Diane thus becomes Betty, a bright-eyed actress with genuine talent, and Camilla becomes Rita, an amnesiac taking her name from Golden Age Hollywood star Rita Hayworth. To muddy the waters even further, other characters named Diane and Camilla exist in this intangible nightmare, though only as vague representations – one as a corpse foreshadowing Diane’s eventual suicide, the other taking the appearance of Camilla’s current girlfriend, and stealing movie roles she never earned. With identity-swapping as purposefully confounding as this, drawing parallels to Persona is inevitable, especially when Lynch lines up the faces of both women to appear as two halves of a whole in a Bergman-esque composition.

Very much influenced by Bergman in the identity swapping, beautifully depicted in this blocking of faces.
Multiple mirrors creating the sense of layered illusions as Rita picks out a name for herself.
Secondary to Bergman are the Hitchcock parallels, with Betty modelling Rita into a blonde just as James Stewart does to Kim Novak in Vertigo.

It is a complex pair of performances that Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring put in here, as the pair of them come to represent both the glossy artifice and insidious darkness that underlies the American entertainment industry. The cheesy dubbing of their overdone line readings borders on unsettling, with both acting as if they are being forced into some conventional mystery movie about two girl detectives tracking down hidden truths about their pasts. Watts particularly shines as the duplicate versions of Diane, constantly breaking her identity up into pieces and choosing to play each as if they were individual characters. This also means that we are frequently taken unaware by sudden shifts in her performance, as we witness in the audition scene that sees her read badly written dialogue as a whispery, sensual seduction – an extreme contrast to the overwrought anger with she had previously rehearsed it.

A landmark performance for Naomi Watts playing several different versions of one woman, ranging from artificial to fully realistic.

Given the way Lynch often shoots Los Angeles like some sort of bizarre, alien environment crowded by towering palm trees, it isn’t hard to see why an outsider like Diane might psychologically disintegrate so easily. Though she imagines rooms cloaked with red curtains where nefarious men eavesdrop and pull strings, this is merely something to fill in the blank space of the unknown. In the grand scheme of things, they are nothing more than catalysts. The awful truth of Mulholland Drive’s existentialism rather comes from within, where Diane introspectively carves out new realities from the fragments of old ones, only to find herself arriving back at the same shame and self-loathing that she has tried so fruitlessly to escape.

Fog fills Lynch’s night-time exteriors, turning Los Angeles into an alien landscape of imposing palm trees and empty lots.

Mulholland Drive is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

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