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.

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.

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