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

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

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.

Betty and Diane: Two Very Different Women

Meanwhile, a woman named Betty Elms moves into her aunt Ruth’s apartment, after Ruth travels to Canada for a movie production. Diane later states that she has moved to LA from Ontario, Canada, and that her aunt is dead. The apartment complex is owned by Coco (who we discover at the party is Adam’s mother).

An amnesiatic Camilla, stumbling out of the car accident, ends up at Betty’s apartment. Not knowing her name, she takes the identity of Rita, from a Rita Hayworth poster. She meets Betty, who, although she looks very similar to Diane, is not the same person: Betty is bubbly and healthy in comparison to Diane’s drug-induced apathy, and it’s difficult to either see Diane as imagining herself as someone like Betty, or that Betty “became” Diane.

Indeed, as Zina Giannopoulou notes in her analysis of the film: “Diane is not, given the account of identity sketched earlier, the same person as Betty. Betty is so radically divergent in attitude, outlook and agenda that she could not possibly be Diane.” And yet Giannopoulou also writes that “Betty is surely not a real person”, a line of thinking that emphasizes the acute pessimism with which certain viewers perceive Betty’s positive demeanor. We simply reason that she cannot possibly be real, because, surely, nobody could be so optimistic.

Of all Hollywood tropes, moreover, the blonde starlet is possibly the most notable, and various critics note how all blondes are made to look the same, which explains why Adam and Diane’s neighbor all view Betty strangely, since she possibly reminds them of Diane, though Betty and Diane are not the same person, either on a physical or psychological level. The notion that all blondes look alike is further alluded to when Rita wears a blonde wig, to which Betty says: “You don’t look like yourself.” This is important as it helps to explain why Coco does not recognize Camilla (as her son’s fiancée from the party) when she sees her on Betty’s couch through the door, again owing to the theory that mistaken identity is rife in Hollywood. Or, alternatively, Coco may indeed recognize Camilla, since Coco calls her “trouble”, showing the sterner side of her that we see at the party.

Camilla, of course, does not recognize the similarities between Betty and Diane, because she cannot remember anything. All she can remember is the name Diane Selwyn and that she was heading to Mulholland Drive. Betty decides to help Camilla, and they both find the name Diane Selwyn in the phone book. When they call her, Diane’s voice mail comes on (again, because Diane is already dead). Camilla recognizes the voice and says: ‘I know her.’ Both the voice and name of Diane are familiar to Camilla, but she does not know why.

Before they investigate further, Betty has an audition. She auditions opposite a man called Woody, who says to the director before they begin the scene: “Bob, I want to play this one nice and close, just like with that other girl… what’s her name? The one with the black hair. It felt good.” He is possibly talking about Camilla, who must have had an audition with them as well, and evidently Betty does not realize this, even if Woody mentioned her by name, because she only knows the “dark-haired woman” as Rita, not Camilla.

Betty is taken to Adam’s movie set where he is auditioning girls for a part in his film. There is a connection between Adam and Betty; Betty looks at Adam with an optimistic appearance, as though she is hoping he is interested in her for a part, while Adam presumably notices the stark similarities between Betty and Diane. Betty excuses herself, saying she promised a friend she’d meet up with her.

Afterwards, she and Camilla attempt to track down Diane, and see detectives scoping the area where Diane lives. They see Diane’s name as the owner of “Apartment 12” in an apartment complex, but when they knock on her door, they encounter the neighbor. The neighbor falsely explains that they “switched apartments”, covering the truth that she and Diane were lovers and that she moved out of Diane’s place (Apartment 17). The neighbor regards Camilla warily, possibly since she may or may not vaguely recognize Camilla as the woman who stole her girlfriend.

The neighbor says she will accompany Camilla and Betty to go see Diane, but a phone call prevents her from going with them. When Camilla and Betty investigate Apartment 17 alone, they discover a body in the bed, slowly decomposing, whose face is virtually unrecognizable. The sight mortifies Camilla, presumably because it’s both grotesque and on a subconscious level she knows the dead woman. The extent of her distress is seen outside as she covers her face in terror and agony.

Later, Camilla and Betty have sex, with Betty asking: “Have you ever done this before?” Camilla replies that she can’t know owing to her amnesia, after which Betty says “I want to be with you,” and “I’m in love with you.” Camilla’s attraction to Betty, again, may be the result of her subconscious attraction to Diane. While Camilla ultimately spurred Diane’s advances, she is seen to genuinely care for Diane. And that Betty (like Diane) is attracted to Rita may simply be another one of Lynch’s strange coincidences that take place in a world beset by truths that are stranger than fiction. Camilla, after all, is an attractive woman.

One of the scenes in the film that does appear distinctly “dream-like” in quality is the Club Silencio scene, signified by the red curtains which do suggest, in Lynchian works, an alternate, dream-like space. Arguably the scene is Camilla’s dream after she and Betty fall asleep after having sex.

In the club, Rebekah del Rio sings a Spanish version of the song “Crying”, and afterwards, back at the apartment, Betty disappears suddenly in a very dream-like fashion, to which Camilla asks: “Donde esta?” (‘Where are you?’). The inclusion of Spanish is important insofar as both Adam and Camilla speak Spanish at the party. This, alone, is something that pervades Camilla’s subconscious, which then comes out in a dream that features Spanish singing and talking. The inclusion of Spanish suggests that it’s Camilla’s dream, not Diane’s.

Furthermore, given that both the Club Silencio scene and Diane’s suicide involve flashes of lightning, it ‘s possible that Camilla is dreaming during the very moment in which Diane commits suicide, further explaining the overwhelming tone of depression that seeps into the dream. The ultimate “Silencio” uttered by the blue haired-woman signifies Diane’s death, as does the collapse of Rebekah del Rio. Club Silencio, therefore, is a place of death; it’s visited in sleep, as well as in death, almost as though Camilla and Diane are in the same extra-dimensional space of alternate consciousness at the same time, as Camilla is dreaming, while Diane is dying.

Strange Coincidences

While the dream theory is an easy way to explain many of the elements in the film that resist explanation, arguably Lynch seems to be deliberately placing odd things as subconscious cues, such as the cowboy, the phrase “This is the girl”, the waitress’s nametags, etc., that are used to suggest someone may be dreaming. These act as red herrings, put there to make the audience suspect that they are viewing nothing more than subconscious elements contributing to a dream (the appearance of the cowboy at the party, for instance, assumed to be something that becomes part of Diane’s subconscious while she is dreaming), when in fact it may be more accurate to suggest that the cowboy is, like the Castigliani brother seen at the party, simply a high-powered production figure. As we know, Hollywood is a strange place, filled with even stranger people.

The notion of reality itself containing terrifying, dream-like qualities, or the disconcerting crossover between dream and reality, is witnessed in the “Winkies” scene, where a male character, Dan, describes a horrible dream he has of a monster that lives behind Winkies. He says: “I hope I never see that face ever outside of a dream,” but as he approaches the back of the restaurant in broad daylight, the monster appears, the sight of which is enough to make Dan collapse with fright, and die.

That the monster exists within and outside the man’s dream is an important symbolic point that suggests how seemingly nightmarish elements can in fact be part of the fabric of reality. Or alternatively, the entire scene may be part of a dream Diane is having, in which her neighbor’s call of “Diane, are you alright?” falls into Diane’s dream at the very moment Dan’s friend asks “Dan, are you alright?”, just as the sound becomes muffled. This remains one of Lynch’s more eagerly ambiguous elements since, as Sinnerbrink points out, the monster/bum reappears at the film’s end.

The phrase “This is the girl”, uttered by both Diane and the high-powered Castigliani brothers, may be a mere coincidence of Hollywood-speak, and the different nametags on the same waitress a simple fact of waitressing jobs. Anyone who has worked in the industry will know that nametags get mixed up frequently, and this very mix-up in the low-paying hospitality industry represents more broadly the identity mix-ups that occur in the high-paying film-making industry.

Indeed, the strange and bizarre elements of the film, from the cowboy to the eerie coincidences of there being two Camilla’s and two women who look the same registers as simply the odd occurrences that are invariably part of the same unhinged reality. Indeed, I feel that although there remain various inconsistencies in such a reading of Lynch’s notoriously eccentric and esoteric film, invariably Lynch’s filmic project is dedicated not to separating seemingly incompatible realities, but to unearthing the strange, nightmarish, and dream-like elements inherent in reality as a whole.

Siobhan Lyons is a media scholar, lecturer and tutor at Macquarie University, where she is also a member of the Centre for Media History. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Overland, Kill Your Darlings, and PopMatters, and she is a regular contributor to The Conversation and Philosophy Now. Her publications can be found here.