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Friday 2 November 2001

Mulholland Drive

Written and directed by David Lynch
Starring Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Justin Theroux
Length: 146 min

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

(Exclusive to Locus Online)

Less than a week after its release, I've already seen Mulholland Drive twice. The first time, on opening day. After the credits rolled—as the minutes, hours, and days passed—I increasingly realized that it had seeped deep into me, that its enigmas and images haunted me, that the film would forever be a part of my personal mythology. I knew I had to see it again, and soon. I went back to the cinema four days later and was seduced even more deeply.

I'll confess upfront that I am—and have long been—profoundly affected and intrigued by the cinema of David Lynch. Mulholland Drive is perhaps his greatest achievement so far, in many ways a synthesis of the themes and images that have permeated his previous major works. And so the torment of the protagonist by people small enough to squeeze under the door recalls the radiator sequence from Eraserhead; the amateur sleuthing and the ecstatic use of a Roy Orbison song evoke Blue Velvet; the conspiracy of violence, power, and corruption is a powerful echo of Wild at Heart; stumbling across the corpse of a young woman is as shocking an event as it was in Twin Peaks; as in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, the corrupted-yet-innocent young woman is granted heaven through supernatural intervention (or is she?); the narrative use of identity confusions is reminiscent of Lost Highway; and then there's The Wizard of Oz—clearly a film that shaped Lynch's imagination—which is more intricately imbedded within Mulholland Drive than within either Blue Velvet (featuring a grown-up Dorothy) or Wild at Heart (which uses explicit imagery from the classic Oz film).

Beyond such considerations—of interest mainly to Lynch aficionados—Mulholland Drive is a beautiful work. Naomi Watts's performance, especially, is moving and complexly nuanced. The sound design is a mesmerizing insecurity blanket. The film discloses a sequence of rich images pregnant with meanings and emotions—most of which are never explicitly conveyed. It's left to the audience to interact with these impressions of sound and light, to bring its own imagination to bear on Lynch's powerful creation. The film, much more profoundly than most films, is only completed by that imaginative interaction between itself and its audience.

All that is not to say that Mulholland Drive does not tell a story. In fact, despite its instantly acquired reputation for not making any sense, it tells a very specific story. While the film engages in some factual misdirection, it does so in order to more honestly convey the emotional experience of a young woman betrayed by reality, by her childhood dreams, and by love, driven to betray herself and to desperately imagine a better world.

So far, I've avoided giving anything away, but below I'll be dealing explicitly with the events shown in the film. I'll propose a reading of the film.

When we are first introduced to the character portrayed by Naomi Watts, we know her as Betty. What we are unequipped as yet to know is that the film is in fact following Diane Selwyn's dream, who has taken on the dream identity of Betty to flee from both herself and her life. In this sequence, landing in Los Angeles, Betty exclaims, "This is a dream place!" She remains Betty until the dream ends more than 90 minutes later, when she suddenly becomes Diane Selwyn, whom we believe dead. By that time, we have been completely drawn into Betty's story and have no compulsion to doubt its veracity. That Betty is a dream is never explicitly revealed. In fact, my first impression was that Betty had been transformed into Diane by a malevolent entity, but, on closer inspection, the film fails to support that thesis.

The key to Mulholland Drive is the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Like it, the bulk of the story occurs in a dream world, where people from the dreamer's life reappear as different characters or as themselves. The protagonist is a heartbroken young woman—Diane Selwyn—who is tortured by guilt for having had the lover who spurned her—Camilla Rhodes—murdered by a hitman. Unlike The Wizard of Oz, Mulholland Drive only unveils "Kansas" (i.e., "the real world") after the Oz (or dream) journey, lulling us into believing in the seductive dream rather than ugly reality. Rearranging the film in chronological order illuminates the story considerably.

The earliest scene is a dance competition in Deep River, Ontario. Diane wins the event, flanked by an elderly couple.

Cut to much later: Diane answers the phone. She now lives in Los Angeles. Camilla Rhodes, her lover, tells her that a car is waiting for Diane, to take her to Mulholland Drive. The car stops in the middle of the road. Camilla appears out of the night and leads her through the woods to a party at the house of film director Adam Kesher. His wife has recently left him for the pool cleaner. Adam and Camilla are very affectionate with each other. At the dinner party, emotionally troubled by Camilla's behaviour, Diane talks about how winning the dance competition, coupled with money from a dead aunt, led her to Hollywood. She mentions meeting Camilla when they auditioned for the same part.

A blond woman kisses Camilla suggestively. Both women stare icily at Diane, who is barely able to hold back her tears. Laughing hysterically, Adam and Camilla begin what sounds like a wedding announcement.

Another day, Camilla and Diane are making out on Diane's couch. Camilla breaks off their relationship. Diane becomes increasingly aggressive. Camilla leaves after a bad fight.

Soon after, on the set of Adam Kesher's film (in which Camilla has the lead role and Diane a smaller part), Adam and Camilla make out. Camilla makes sure that Diane has no choice but to see this happening.

At home, Diane masturbates, violently and tearfully, but is interrupted by the phone.

In a diner, Diane meets with a hitman. She hands him a snapshot of Camilla, saying, "This is the girl." She pays him with money packed into a small black handbag. The waitress's name tag says, "Betty." The hitman shows her a blue key, saying that Diane will find this key in a prearranged spot after the deed is done. A man overhears their conversation.

Later, Diane is in bed sleeping, dreaming.

In her dream, she becomes a sweet girl called Betty; and Camilla, an amnesiac in a car accident who now calls herself Rita. The two share a beautiful love. In her dream, Diane Selwyn is dead (Betty and Rita find her corpse). In her dream, there is horrible conspiracy in Hollywood, with the mysterious Mr. Roque (the story's Wizard of Oz) at the centre.

In her dream, people, events, and objects from her real life are transmogrified. As Betty, Diane embarks on an exciting and thrilling adventure (which takes up most of the film). In her dream, no one and nothing stand in the way of her love.

Nevertheless, the real-life murder of Camilla has left a darkness within Diane. Near the end of the dream, Betty and Rita witness an unsettling rendition of Roy Orbison's "Crying" at the Silencio theatre, where they find a mysterious blue box, which, when opened with an equally mysterious blue key, reveals that gaping darkness. The darkness swallows up Diane's dream.

Waking up, Diane is told by another woman that two detectives have been looking for her. The blue key lies on Diane's coffee table. Diane makes coffee, remembering the events that led to this.

The next scene is one of two not from Diane's point-of-view (although the dream cuts from character to character, it is still Diane's dream). There was a dark creature lurking in Diane's dream. We now see it, outside the dream, holding the blue box from the dream, the blue box that, when opened, unleashed the darkness within Diane. The creature puts the box in a bag and puts the bag on the ground. No taller than fingers, the elderly couple from the dance (and from the airport scene in the dream) walks out of the bag, laughing hysterically.

There's an insistent knock at Diane's door. She is crying. The diminutive couple squeezes inside from the crack at the bottom of the door. The knocking continues. The couple grows to full size, laughing menacingly. Diane screams. She is backed into her bedroom, where she gets a gun from the bedside table. She shoots herself in the head and collapses on the bed.

Ghost images of Betty and Rita, happy and in love, hover over Los Angeles. We briefly see the dark face of the nightmare creature. At the Silencio, the stage is empty. In the balcony, a woman says, "Silencio."

That this is the chronological sequence of events—that this is story told in Mulholland Drive—I now have no doubt. Nevertheless, some things are still open to interpretation.

In the end, is Diane the victim of a supernatural assault? Or is she going crazy? Or both?

There's the matter of the elderly couple. Who are they? What were they doing at the dance? What's the significance of their appearance in the dream? In retrospect, it appears that they dropped her off in the dream world with false words of support and then laughed menacingly behind her back. Are they agents of the dark creature? Are they Diane's parents or grandparents (or possibly, shades of Oz, aunt and uncle)? Are they really Diane's tormentors at the end of the film? Or is it shapeshifters pretending to be the couple? Or is their appearance only a guilt-induced hallucination?

The Silencio causes the dream to end. Similarly, the film cuts to the Silencio after Diane kills herself. What is the Silencio?

The dark creature, in the dream, is suggested to be a manufacturer of evil. Outside the dream, the creature is (perhaps) responsible for sending the couple to torment Diane. Does Diane hallucinate the creature? Or was it drawn to her, as happens in the novels of Jonathan Carroll, because of the gaping darkness she'd let into her life? Perhaps, as is the case for so many other characters, the creature's true identity is hidden in the dream?

Let's go back to the Oz parallel. I never understood why Dorothy would ever want to return to Kansas, where everyone treated her badly, instead of staying in Oz, where she had made so many friends and where her one true friend from Kansas—her dog Toto—was with her.

In Mulholland Drive, Diane is ejected from her private Oz, from her dream life as Betty (she never expressed any desire to leave), to find a real world that she loathes and that has betrayed her time and again. The Oz parallel and the subversion of its portrayal of Dorothy's desires further suggest that the old man and woman are parental figures for Diane, parents who failed to give her the care she needed. Pushing that further, Deep River, Ontario, in Canada becomes the initial Kansas Diane escaped from. The dance is the tornado that brought her to the Land of Oz, Hollywood. But Hollywood was still the loveless hell of Kansas, and Diane only reached Oz in her dreams. When she kills herself, does she do so to return forever to Oz, to the dream world where Betty and Rita love each other so perfectly? Certainly, the ghost images of the happy Betty and Rita suggest as much.

Both Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me featured unlikely angels leading the protagonists to their personal paradise. Perhaps the dark creature is in fact such an angel. The angel has taken possession of Diane's darkness (in the shape of the blue box) and then driven her to kill herself. Relieved of her darkness, nothing will shatter her dreams of love ever again.

Claude Lalumière is a freelance writer whose criticism has appeared in The Montreal Gazette, The National Post, January Magazine, Montreal Review of Books, Blue Coupe, and Black Gate; his humour in Safarir and TheFunniest ToGo; and his poetry in L'Écrit Primal.  He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his website.

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