There is an irony that one of the best Hollywood movies of the past quarter century is centrally about how toxic and destructive moviemaking is. Or perhaps it needed to be this way: only someone deeply skeptical of the Hollywood machinery could make something this original and elliptical.
Mulholland Drive is the ninth of ten feature films to date by lovable weirdo genius David Lynch. It is a fractured story of a young actress named Betty (Naomi Watts) who arrives in Hollywood and connects with the mysterious, amnesia-stricken survivor of a car accident, who adopts the moniker Rita (Laura Harring). They team up to try and unravel Rita’s background.
Meanwhile, we follow a few other plot threads that hint at a broader conspiracy. There’s a numb-skulled assassin who botches every job. A psychic curse seems to surround the local diner named Winkie’s. Lastly, a director (Justin Theroux) is pressured by a shadowy group to cast a specific actress as the lead in his new film. (“This is the girl.”)
Except, that’s not really what Mulholland Drive is about, is it? I’m going to assume if you’re reading any further than this that you’ve seen the whole film (or don’t mind having it spoiled and dissected).
In a traditional narrative, as the film builds to its climax, we expect threads to come together and revelations to answer more questions than they ask. But this is the opposite of what happens in Mulholland Drive: the longer the film goes, the more it dissociates into dream logic and surreality. A nighttime visit to Club Silencio shatters the barrier between illusion and reality. Betty and Rita find the key to a mysterious blue box, then vanish.
We then find ourselves in an alternate reality that is a dark mirror of everything we’ve seen thus far: Where the opening 115 minutes showed Hollywood as a “dream factory,” a romantic and classical place, the flip side seen in the closing 25 minutes is a gritty story of a floundering, drug-addled actress Diane Selwyn (Watts) in the midst of a crumbling affair with another actress, Camilla Rhodes (Harring). The cast and some of the plot match the earlier act, but the names and dynamics are shuffled around and poisoned. It ends with Diane hiring a man to do some unspoken act to Camilla — perhaps kill her — only for Diane to psychologically implode. She sees the blue key, the signal that the unspeakable act is committed, and she kills herself.
The most popular reading of Mulholland Drive is that the opening half is an extended dream of Watts’ Diane, with the closing act showing the reality. The dream reflects the insecurities and fears of Diane, including her guilt at hiring a hitman to kill her ex-lover, Camilla, and her dread at her unsuccessful acting career.
There’s a lot of evidence in the film to support this reading. The dream-world plot thread about a loser director involved in a conspiracy to cast an unworthy actress could be real-world Diane rationalizing her own career failures. The bumbling assassins and escape of Rita from a car crash could be Diane’s regret, subconsciously imagining a scenario where her hired hit fails. Rita’s adoring, needy love of Betty — even merging with her in appearance — could be a manifestation of Diane’s longing heartbreak at losing Camilla.
Another clue suggesting that the first two-ish hours of the movie are all a dream is the constant references to dreaming and sleeping throughout this portion. The film opens with POV shot that zooms us towards a red pillow, and the first segment of the film ends with Diane waking up in the same bed. The word “dream” is used a number of times; the movie’s tagline is even “A love story in the city of dreams.” The Silencio singer collapses into a deep sleep (perhaps a faint or even death) on stage. Rita comments on her desire for rest after the concussion from the car accident. And yes, the sex scene is in a bed as they’re trying to fall asleep.
The peculiar thing about this reading of the film is that almost forces you to watch the film twice. It’s possible to piece it all together in those closing 25 minutes, I suppose, but it’s so disorienting to encounter an entirely new world that by the time you’re really placing the connections, the movie is wrapping. But it makes watching again so satisfying as you realize how many puzzle pieces Lynch has left for you should you wish to try and fit them together.
I like this interpretation of Mulholland Drive quite a bit, but part of the beauty of the film is that there’s no one definitive solution to this puzzle box. It’s not like Memento where you can reconstruct the narrative reality with full clarity once the last scene rolls. There are too many hazy, subjective threads and images. I think of the movie as a Möbius strip: the dreamy parts and the gritty parts flow together, but it’s not an “orientable surface” with an objective reality. The beginning and ending and meaning of the story are always shifting depending on how you look at it. Red pillow begets blue box begets red pillow… and so on.
Regardless your take on the story, there are plenty of themes you can extract from the movie: Lynch is undoubtedly obsessed with the artifice of films and how that mirrors the plastic fakeness of the Hollywood content-production business. There are tantalizing hints of addiction and possibly abuse or other trauma in Diane/Betty’s story. Everything is a dual-sided concept: hope is coupled fear; entertainment with exploitation; reality with deceit; destiny with arbitrary insignificance.
What makes this such a compelling film to dive into is its monumental visual construction. Lynch’s world, especially in the first two hours, is curdled midcentury idealism, like a Norman Rockwell painted in blood and bile. It’s very much like Twin Peaks in this regard — the sweetest exteriors hold the darkest secrets. Lynch’s use of color is phenomenal, and he always knows where to place the camera to create a distinct emotional texture; e.g. the close-ups at Club Silencio are heartrending.
This hazy, mixed-up Hollywood is edited like a synesthetic hallucination. Images occasionally bleed into each other, and cuts sometimes warp us to entirely different locations. Angelo Badalamenti’s enigmatic score is utterly perfect at keeping us right on the edge of coherency in any given scene. One can only say “dreamlike” so many times before it starts to lose meaning, but that’s really what Mulholland Dr. feels like.
To top it off, the acting is exemplary. Watts is so good at playing all the heightened, occasionally campy, versions of Betty and Diane; it’s an all-timer performance. Harring is terrific as a closed book with deep secrets and desires, her minimal expressiveness making her flashier moments really stand out. Theroux is hilarious as the aloof director, but still carries himself with resigned tragedy. And the supporting actors almost all manage to leave an impression.
There are some loose threads that could have been trimmed — I think one or two of Theroux’s scenes are excessive — but my biggest question of the film is whether it is too bleak in the way it pulls the rug out from under us in showing Betty/Diane’s dark alternate reality. While the majority of the film is an illusory blend of optimism and creeping dread, the ending is a suffocating nightmare of broken dreams. It’s all brilliant, of course; just not something that puts you in a good mood for the rest of the day.
I first watched Mulholland Drive with my friend Nate in his apartment, and we spent what felt like hours talking about it afterwards — he had seen it before and helped me piece it together. That night and every time I’ve watched since, I’ve been almost overwhelmed with the movie. It’s an embarrassment of cinematic riches, one of the most thought-provoking and unusual films I’ve ever scene. It truly is one of Hollywood’s great masterpieces, irony and all.