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.

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.

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