Mulholland Drive (2001)

by Kirsten Markson


David Lynch's "Hollyweird"

David Lynch’s newest film, Mulholland Drive, is named after a twisting stretch of road that snakes through the hills separating Hollywood and the Valley. On the one side: the mundane landscape of Encino. On the other: the dilapidated apartments and strip malls that make up the version of the American dream seen in Mulholland Drive. This version emerges specifically in the age-old tale of the small town girl who seeks fame but finds corruption in the Hollywood studios.

Mulholland Drive opens by following the seemingly wholesome Betty (Naomi Watts), a Canadian actress who yearns for Hollywood fame, and Rita (Laura Elena Harring), a beautiful amnesiac. Midway through, it transforms into a noir-ish thriller of sexual intrigue and murder. Or perhaps the word “transform” is inadequate here: the film turns back on itself, much like the road for which it’s named, twisting around to begin again, changing characters’ roles and overlapping their circumstances.

cover art

Mulholland Drive

Director: David Lynch
Cast: Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Justin Theroux

(Studio Canal)
US theatrical: 31 Dec 1969 (Limited release)

As always, Lynch plays with audience expectations. One early scene features two male characters who, if Mulholland Drive followed movie conventions, could be key figures. Yet the two are never seen again; instead, it is their scene’s setting—a Denny’s-style restaurant called “Winkie’s”—that later becomes central to the plot. Such moments reveal Lynch’s blatant disregard for the need to pull the various storylines together, the film feels like an enigmatic message from a highly creative unconscious. Like many of his other works, it has a dream logic, whereby characters morph, metaphors are made literal, and a stylistic fluidity juxtaposes with a disjointed narrative structure.

The incongruous plot and California setting of Mulholland Drive echo the infamously strange Lost Highway, but the new film begins with a fairly conventional mystery plot. When Mulholland Drive veers into its second half, the difference from this beginning is particularly jarring. This could be in part because Lynch originally conceptualized the film as a television series. When ABC rejected the pilot (most of which appears in the first half of the movie), French backers gave Lynch the funds to shoot enough additional footage for a full-length feature.

Betty and Rita anchor the film, as the main points of identification for the audience. Like the film’s viewers, they are caught in an intrigue whose meaning they do not comprehend. And yet, although Mulholland Drive focuses on them, Betty and Rita remain mysterious and fairly one-dimensional characters. “Woman,” the film seems to scream at every plot twist, is a dangerously incomprehensible creature.

The two first meet when Betty arrives in sunny LA. At her aunt’s apartment, where she is set to stay while looking for work, Betty finds Rita showering in the bathroom; the catch is that Rita doesn’t know who she is, having been in a car accident the night before. Just before their encounter, the camera glides past an illuminated reproduction of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Rita, who left her own pearl earring behind at the accident scene, is like the girl in Vermeer’s portrait, often staring into space with an unexplained insistence that seduces both Betty and the viewer.

At first, the women appear as two classic Hollywood archetypes: Betty is the plucky blonde, Rita is the brunette femme fatale. By referencing these well-known types in his take on a noir plot, Lynch imbues the film with a masculine gaze typical of the era he invokes. Still, the film complicates the familiar, in the fact that the women share a romance. Love scenes between Betty and Rita are filmed like pornography, graphic and without convincing emotion. When Betty tells Rita she loves her, the words are delivered with a combined emptiness and urgency that foreshadows how their relationship will play out in the second half of the film.

The differences between them fade as the film progresses. Eventually, Rita disguises herself under a platinum wig that transforms her into Betty’s oversexed doppelganger. At this point, in the second half’s through-the-looking-glass variation on the first, Lynch resorts to cliched connections among narcissism, homosexuality, and crime, and by the end of the film, both women must pay for their sexual indiscretions.

The seductive enigmas surrounding Betty and Rita are contrasted with a subplot rife with Lynch’s typically black humor. Adam (Justin Theroux) is a successful young director; through him, Lynch represents two aspects of the role of director or storyteller. In the first half of the film, Adam appears to be a hack at the mercy of the film financiers (who force him to recast the female lead in his latest project), and has various comic run-ins with eccentric goons and his wife’s new lover, a white trashy pool guy named Gene (Billy Ray Cyrus). These scenes contrast with Adam’s appearance in the second half, as a powerful artiste in control of his film and commanding the sexual attention of his female lead. In the two parts of the film, Lynch alternately comments on the impotence and the power of a filmmaker at different levels of the Hollywood pecking order.

Lynch’s focus on Hollywood follows his usual technique of re-framing familiar aspects of American life so that they look sinister. After examining the squalid underbelly of small town U.S.A. in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, Lynch here turns his surrealistic imagination to LA’s Spanish-style apartments, lush mansions, and imperious movie studios. Filtered through Lynch’s vision, even the Hollywood sign is rendered painfully bright and alien. The mundane Winkie’s restaurant becomes nightmarish when viewed through skewed camera angles. Again and again, the viewer is made to feel like an outsider, listening in on a mysterious conversation, underlined in Lynch’s signature clipped dialogue.

Mulholland Drive leads the viewer through a narrative that continually frustrates expectations in creative, comic, and terrifying ways. While Lynch’s pranks sometimes come off as pretentious, nevertheless, Mulholland Drive is a lush film showing an artist’s imagination on the loose, and is especially satisfying when compared to the bland fluff currently playing in most theaters. As critics have observed before, viewers tend to leave Lynch’s movies feeling that the familiar world has been altered. Mulholland Drive is no different. Under Lynch’s vision, the City of Angels becomes a grotesque dreamscape, beautiful and bizarre, distressing and provocative.

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