Moving Beyond the Dream Theory: A New Approach to 'Mulholland Drive'

Siobhan Lyons

With doubles, strange coincidences and nightmarish elements, David Lynch shows us the reality of Hollywood living.

Mulholland Drive

Director: David Lynch
Cast: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux
Year: 2001

Dream Theories

It has been 15 years since the release of David Lynch’s enigmatic Mulholland Drive (2001), and it continues to provoke interpretation.

While film theorists critics such as Roger Ebert and Jonathan Ross note that there are possibly no real answers to the story and that the film defies solution, others are adamant that the film’s more esoteric elements are explained by the inclusion of what may be a drug-induced dream, or fantasy. The “dream interpretation” is one of the more popular theories levelled at the film, and one that does, indeed, seem fairly accurate regarding the overall narrative of the film.

In Mulholland Drive Mulholland Drive, we are exposed to what Slavoj Žižek calls the “flawed synopsis” and “senseless complexity” of Lynch’s worlds in which “numerous crucial details and events […] do not make sense in the terms of real-life logic.” It should come as no surprise then that narrative formats based on illogical momentum such as dreams and fantasies are relied upon to give sense to a seemingly senseless film.

Theorists such as Jean Tang, Todd McGowan, and Neil Roberts agree that the “dream” character of Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), represents the early, child-like innocence of the now-jaded Diane Selwyn (also played by Naomi Watts), and that the film shows her descent from naive ingénue to a woman rejected by both directors and lovers, representing the shattered dreams of Hollywood starlets. J. Hoberman, for instance, calls the film a “poisonous valentine to Hollywood”.

The two- realities (dream) theory follows that Betty is merely Diane’s projection of desire. Betty is seen as successful in an audition, as opposed to Diane, who recalls: “the director, he didn’t think so much of me.” The name Betty, too, is particularly linked to fame (Betty Davis -- the great actress, and Betty Grable -- the blonde pin-up)and, the epitome of old Hollywood stardom (Betty Davis: the great actress, and Betty Grable: the blonde pin-up, for example). As Betty admits, she would rather be known as a “great actress” rather than a “big star”, but that “sometimes people end up being both”.

In the dream world, Diane’s friend Camilla [Laura Harring] is now attracted to her, whereas in reality Camilla rejects Diane. As with the split of Diane/Betty, Naomi Watts believes that “Rita [also Laura Harring] is Betty’s fantasy of who she wants Camilla to be.” Jean Tang notes that in Diane’s fantasy, Camilla (as Rita) becomes wholly dependent on Betty, and Samantha Jane Lindop agrees, saying: “As Rita, Camilla is passive, dependent, and grateful. Importantly, she also fondly reciprocates the love Betty feels for her.”

These elements are indeed convincing as they seem to portray the first half of the film as a rose-tinted mirror held up to less-than-stellar reality. Why else would the characters appear to be so different in terms of attitude and personality? How else could we explain the nonlinear format of the film’s events and details?

Yet if Lynch’s breadth of work tells us anything, it's not only that humans are more complex than we assume, but that reality itself can become uncompromisingly strange without the aid of dreams and fantasies. By trying to separate characters into their light and dark sides, the film would neglect the complexity inherent in the human condition. As Michael Atkinson writes, Lynch “proceeds from dreams toward ideas”, and that “his best films don’t resemble dreams as much as a version of reality sick with the poison of dream making.”

The Double

In contrast to the majority of interpretations regarding the film, I put forth the theory that rather than Naomi Watts’ characters Betty and Diane being opposing sides of the same character, they are in fact two entirely different characters within the same reality.

For Lynch, the double is not at all new territory; his cult television series Twin Peaks explored the notion of doubles with characters who were seen to be undeniably similar (again played by the same actors), but who were, in fact, two different people (Laura Palmer and Maddie Ferguson, for instance, were both played by Sheryl Lee). This also occurs in his 1997 film Lost Highway, with two sets of similar characters: Renee Madison / Alice Wakefield (Patricia Arquette) and Fred Madison / Pete Dayton (Bill Pullman/Balthazar Getty). As with Lost Highway, Lynch adds to the confusion in Mulholland Drive Mulholland Drive by having two characters played by the same actress (Naomi Watts), alongside two similar characters played by two different people (Laura Harring and Melissa George both play a Camilla).

Lynch puts forth the notion that although certain characters, particularly Laura and Maddie in Twin Peaks, look the same, they are not the same person. It's therefore my belief that Lynch may have applied this same approach to Mulholland Drive Mulholland Drive, and that, rather than Betty being a psychological manifestation of Diane, they are in fact two different people: a point that is further accentuated in the film with the setting of the Hollywood hills: a place where the archetypal blonde actress is often physically indistinguishable from others (despite inner differences), and coming to represent, as Diane does, sameness and reproduction.

I believe it's inaccurate to wholly assume that Betty is simply a more naïve version of Diane, whose aspirations were eventually crushed, and whose dream makes Camilla newly dependent on her (contrasting Camilla’s rejection of Diane in “reality”). I also contend that the character of Camilla does not die, and that her amnesia as the result of a bungled hit is the cause for much of the confusion that ensues.

Although the film, particularly in the first half (often referred to as the “dream” or fantasy segment), features strange and characteristically Lynchian elements that would otherwise categorize this segment as undoubtedly a dream, it's my view that this simply serves as a red herring used to play with the audience, and that such a superficial interpretation undermines the strength of the absurdity of reality that often takes place in Lynch’s universe.

The dream interpretation alleviates the need to look more closely at the film’s elements. In this instance, it's not enough to separate the dreamlike from the real, as the film initially seems to do, but to see the inherent bizarreness in reality itself. That the film is set in Hollywood further stresses the inherent strangeness of reality. One of the few critics to dismiss the dream hypothesis is Jane Douglas of BBC Online, who writes: “I’m not a subscriber to the theory that the first half of the film is a dream and the second half reality because I think it's too easy. There was much more to it than that.” She notes that there is a lot of evidence to consider, but that “in the end only some of the clues will be relevant.”

Australian philosopher Robert Sinnerbrink, too, is wary of the dream theory, saying: “There are certainly many visual and aural cues to think that this is the case. Yet this approach presupposes that we should reconceptualice what we see in the first two-thirds as a subjective fantasy, taking what we see in the last third as the ‘objective reality’.” For Sinnerbrink, the concluding sequence in particular undermines the separation of fantasy/reality, with its “reprise of the image of the abject ‘bum’, seemingly only a fantasy projection of Diane’s murderous impulses.”

All One Reality?

The second part is often interpreted as “reality”, with Camilla and Diane engaged in a love affair. While Diane’s full name is eventually revealed to be “Diane Selwyn”, the dark-haired Camilla (Laura Harring) is not given her own surname. Camilla Rhodes, in fact, is the identity of the blonde starlet played by Australian actress Melissa George.

In the 2002 DVD release, Lynch provided a list of “clues” to help viewers “solve” the film, though retrospective analysis suggests that these, too, may have been red herrings. This notwithstanding, they invariably assist in dissecting elements of the film which prove crucial to at least prompt initial theories.

For example, in reply to Lynch’s question, “Did talent alone help Camilla?”, Thespear on the “Lost on Mulholland Drive” webpage argues that Camilla “already had a reputation of sleeping her way to the top.” This question becomes important as it informs the reason why Camilla and Diane might have been in a sexual relationship, and why Camilla broke it off. Camilla is primarily interested in succeeding, and therefore, sleeps with Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) and, as we are led to suspect, Luigi Castigliani (Angelo Badalamenti).

Yet Diane ends up falling in love with Camilla, and sees their relationship as something more. Although Camilla attempts to maintain her friendship with her, Diane cannot help but see through the torrid lens of jealousy. As Thespear writes: “Diane chooses to make it seem like Camilla was trying to make her jealous. Perhaps Diane was truly jealous. I doubt that was Camilla’s intention.”

After a fight that leads Diane to throw Camilla out of her house, Camilla calls Diane to ask if she is okay, and to remind her of a party being held at a luxury house on Mulholland Drive, telling her a car is out front to pick her up. Notably, we see here the phone beside the ashtray and the red lamp -- the importance of which I will come to discuss as two of Lynch’s clues include: “Notice appearances of the red lampshade” and “Notice the robe, the ashtray, the coffee cup.”

While at the party, Diane discovers that Camilla is now engaged to director Adam Kesher, who we hear say to some of the guests: “…So I got the pool and she got the pool boy. I wanted to buy that judge a Rolls Royce.” Adam is referring to the events in which he catches his wife cheating on him, and suggests that they have since divorced. This is also important as it suggests the events in which Adam is being pressured to hire a particular actress -- Camilla Rhodes -- happened before the party, rather than in the sequence in which they appear.

Because Diane is so taken by her jealousy, she feels that Camilla is openly flaunting her various flirtations. The blurred vision which we see in the party scene, (which also appears in the masturbation scene), suggests Diane is still on drugs, with the image of Camilla and the blonde starlet kissing being a drug and jealousy-induced illusion. Diane is imagining that the two of them are lovers.

Dejected and angry, Diane decides to hire a hitman to kill Camilla; the hitman tells Diane that once it’s done he will leave a blue key in her apartment, signifying that Camilla is dead. As we see at the beginning of the film, Camilla is in a car, driving to the same luxury house on Mulholland Drive, when she is about to be killed. The car gets hit, however, by another one driving along the same road too fast, leaving Camilla with injuries that contribute to her amnesia.

As the first segment shows, this particular hitman bungles an assignment. After talking about a “car accident” with a friend of his, the hitman shoots him in order to steal a phone book containing the numbers of important Hollywood figures, before he accidentally shoots another woman and has to kill her and a janitor before fleeing. The hit, we are shown, is neither sophisticated nor efficient, leading us to believe that this hitman is not entirely proficient.

Later, the audience sees the hitman conversing with a young blonde about whether or not she has seen a woman (presumably Camilla), who is “a little banged up.” We know that Camilla fled the crash scene, so we may then be invited to speculate that Camilla is not dead, because the hitman bungled this assignment as well and is still trying to find her.

When we first see Diane, however, she notices the blue key on her coffee table (possibly before the hitman realized the hit on Camilla was unsuccessful). So Diane is now under the (false) impression that the deed is done. She is apathetic and despondent, snorting cocaine and lapsing into heavy, drug-induced sleeps. She wakes up to the sound of her neighbor (and seemingly a former partner), knocking on the door. Her neighbor says she wants to collect some of her belongings, presumably after being forced to move out when Diane was with Camilla (which explains the awkward tension between them). The neighbor asks for her dishes and her lamp, and leaves without it, but not before she tells Diane that detectives are looking for her (possibly in connection with the car crash). The lamp is one of the most important consistencies in the film that suggests that the segments are all part of one reality.

Unable to cope with the guilt of getting Camilla killed, Diane shoots herself in a drug-crazed hysteria. Camilla, however, is still absent, as evidenced in the scene where film production bosses call around, saying: “The girl is still missing.” They call Diane’s apartment, and we see the same phone beside the ashtray and the red lamp. However, Diane does not answer because she is already dead. The production giants order Adam to hire Melissa George’s character, Camilla Rhodes. Adam is visibly irate He also eventually discovers that his wife is having an affair, and ends up having a meeting with “the cowboy”, who also threatens to shut down Adam’s production if he does not hire the blonde Camilla.

Later we see Adam auditioning actresses for The Sylvia North Story, but as is revealed at the party, The Sylvia North Story has in fact already been made, directed by Bob Booker (Wayne Grace), in which the dark-haired Camilla had a role -- directly clashing with the events as presented to the audience in the first half of the movie. The party in particular is a significant part of the film as it reveals many truths that seemingly “undo” the audience’s knowledge and perception of events so far. While this supports the dream sequence theory, we may also speculate that it's another ploy of Lynch’s to confuse the audience, and that in fact Adam was initially the director of The Sylvia North Story (casting both Camilla and Diane), but was fired, and as we have seen, this would not be an unusual event, given Adam’s tenacity.

We may be invited to speculate that Adam is now filming what may perhaps be a remake of the movie -- a common Hollywood act -- from which he was dismissed, and is being forced to cast a woman who is coincidentally named Camilla Rhodes. Again we are initially misled to believe that Camilla Rhodes is a projection of the “real” Camilla, instead of viewing them as entirely different people. Both film sets appear to feature characters with ‘50s style clothing, though both are invariably different (the dresses Diane and Camilla wear verses the sparkling dresses that Camilla Rhodes wears).

In line with Lynch’s use of the double, there may simply be two versions of the same movie, something not at all uncommon, especially in Hollywood.

Next Page

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.