Retrospective Film Review: David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’

  • Words: Brinley Knopf

An ambient brunch at Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg, featuring music from EMK and in my case, smoked salmon crostini, showed a viewing of Mulholland Drive (2001). Time to discuss this wacky, weird movie.

Gif Credit: The Criterion Film Blog

Mulholland Drive wasn’t even supposed to be a film, but was filmed rather as a TV pilot by Twin Peaks director David Lynch. Only after it was discarded by TV was it completed as a feature – and so trying to constrain a season’s worth of TV plot to about two hours means intentional/unintentional loose ends. With David Lynch’s deeply weird cinematography, you have a strange, spread-all-over and murky movie; both an affront to and a spin on storytelling.

No one can actually say what the movie’s about. If you think you can, you’re missing both the mark and the point. The plot is so loosely drawn, widely interpretable and not even the filmmaker himself has revealed the reality beyond the tagline ‘A love story in the city of dreams.’ All that’s left to do is theorize and speculate, as fans are wont to do with a movie as open-ended as this.

Here’s what’s generally accepted, plot-wise: A dark-haired woman (Laura Harring) is held at gunpoint in the backseat of a car, but then there’s an accident and she escapes, the sole survivor. She ambles down from Mulholland Drive up in Hollywood Hills, and ends up asleep in shrubbery with a head injury. She weasels into an apartment and finds increasingly strange places to sleep. Meanwhile, bright-eyed Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives from her flight to LA with aspiring actress ambition – the apartment belongs to her aunt, a big cheese in Hollywood – and she finds the nameless woman in the shower. The woman, amnesic, can’t remember who she is, but uses the alias Rita – in her purse, where identification should be, is a lot of cash and a blue key.

Somewhere else, a man monologues about a recurring nightmare he has about a monster behind the diner he’s sitting in – when he investigates, the monster appears and the man faints. Meanwhile, director Adam Kesher’s (Justin Theroux) film is preempted by the mafia, who are pitbulls about the lead being played by unknown Camilla Rhodes. Adam is defiant, to his detriment; he is at once homeless and bankrupt and forced to meet with a man named The Cowboy who deals in death, and finagles through fear Camilla’s casting. Later, an inept hitman kills three people and shoots a vacuum while after a little black book.

Betty auditions brilliantly for a movie and gets the part, hailed as bright new talent. Rita and Betty, amateur sleuths à la Nancy Drew, go on a goose-chase after a Diane Selwyn, who Rita thinks she might be. They find Diane dead in her apartment. Scared, they go home and Rita makes herself a blonde wig, not unlike Betty’s hair. Later, they sleep together and Betty tells Rita she loves her. Late in the night, they go to a strange club, and from the ‘illusion’ of the music to the woman with the blue beehive-haircut in the opera box, everything is eerie. During the performance, Betty finds a blue box in her bag. They return home and Betty disappears; Rita unlocks the box with her blue key and the box falls to the floor.

Gif Credit: The Criterion Collection

Here’s where things get weird, and the theories derive: Betty ‘wakes up’ in the apartment she found Diane in. But Diane is her real name – the very same Diane Selwyn – and she’s not Betty at all, but rather a depressed and downtrodden actress. Still in love with Rita, who is actually renowned and successful Camilla Rhodes, we learn they’ve been in a relationship, but that Camilla left her for director Adam Kesher.

Though, what’s real? We only assume Diane, unhappy and haunted by hallucinations, dreamed that she was bright, sought-after Betty, and that the woman she loves, Camilla, was a forgetful, weak and compliant woman named Rita. We think the fever dream, born from anguish and guilt, is a world where Rita needs Betty, relies on her. And that clues and symbols about what Diane has really done still appear in the dream, blurring the line between what’s real and what isn’t. But that’s just one theory. We don’t know if it’s Diane’s dream, a parallel Twilight Zone-like universe or a series of fantasies. It’s even been called a “poisonous valentine to Hollywood” wherein the dream of ‘making it’ in Hollywood is a dangerous illusion.

You can’t go too deep or overanalyze; nothing really makes sense or fits the bill. You have to decide what you think, to diagnosis the symptoms of what could be fantasy or reality. The movie is surreal and eerie, with a dose of chill and a heavy helping of confusion. There’s subplots and side-stories that might relate, but could be their own scenes leftover from when the script was a TV series in-the-making. Is the monster behind the diner a portal between reality and dreams – seeing as within the context of the man’s dream about him, he’s a figure of heightened fear, but he’s also just a homeless man? Why did the mob want Camilla Rhodes in the movie? Who was the big-eyed man in the wheelchair in that room who was listening in on casting discussions like Big Brother?

And who was The Cowboy whose eyes were so sunken and unblinking that he might’ve been an alien in human clothes?

We’re told David Lynch likes the fan theories – the more skewered and bizarre the better – one wonders if even he knows what this movie is about. I have a headache. I’m left with a strange sense of feeling like the movie went over my head and I’m figuring it out with a rationale that needs a perfect, pieced-together puzzle in order to like anything about it.