There are a handful of filmmakers who evoke true passion when discussed among film buffs, but perhaps none more so than David Lynch. Supporters have elevated him to the level of genius, while detractors claim his work is overly complex, inaccessible, and symbolic to a fault. Few are without opinion, and it is usually strong.
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Somewhere between those extremes is probably where I fall, having not even seen his complete body of work. I couldn’t watch Eraserhead, but enjoyed both Blue Velvet, and Lost Highway. Of those I’ve seen, Mulholland Drive strikes me as easily the best. Lynch was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for best director. Like much of his work, it’s left to the viewer to make sense of what has been seen, and to interpret any symbolism or deeper meaning. In fact, Lynch, (particularly with this film) has developed a large cult following. Like Dylan song lyrics, more analysis and interpretation exists for this than any other film that comes to mind. That may not necessarily be the mark of a great film, but it certainly indicates a level of interest bordering on the compulsive for a great many people. Let’s examine why, but if you have yet to see the film, I suggest you do so before reading further.
As the film begins, a group of 50’s era teens frantically jitterbug to big band music while an over-exposed image of a young blonde and elderly couple is superimposed over them. There is a brief cut to a red comforter covering a sleeping body. This in turn cuts to a street sign of Mulholland Drive, and a beautiful brunette woman (Laura Harring) in the back of a limo which stops in the middle of the street. There are flashes of two cars full of youngsters racing downhill on a dangerous curving road. The woman asks why they stopped, and the driver turns, points a pistol at her, and tells her to get out. The two cars barrel around a curve and slam into the limo killing all except the woman. Bloodied and dazed, she staggers down the hill, crosses Sunset Boulevard, and hides in shrubs outside a gated apartment complex where she falls asleep. In the morning she sneaks into an apartment while the occupant is in the process of leaving.
The perky, wholesome young woman seen briefly at the beginning is Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) from Deep River, Ontario. She arrives in Hollywood to “apartment sit” for her actress aunt, and pursue her own dream to make it as an actress and movie star. The elderly couple originally shown with her turn out to be her traveling companions from the plane. Betty is startled to find the mysterious brunette in her aunt’s shower. When asked her name, the woman appears confused, but seeing a poster of Rita Hayworth as Gilda on the wall, answers “Rita”. Betty quickly learns Rita is not her aunt’s friend, and is suffering from amnesia, but still befriends her, and together they try to find out who Rita is, and what has happened to her. They also discover a wad of cash and mysterious blue key in her purse which they hide in a hat box in the closet.
Betty is scheduled to read for a part at an audition arranged by her aunt. She practices reading the lines in a conventional boring manner with Rita. At the audition, Betty takes it to a whole new level. This earns her a different audition for Adam’s movie,The Sylvia North Story, but Adam, as we know, has already agreed to cast Camilla Rhodes. Betty leaves without auditioning. She and Rita follow a lead to the apartment of Diane Selwyn (also played by Naomi Watts) where they break in only to find Diane dead in the bedroom. Rita becomes hysterical, and when they get home, she cuts her hair and dons a blonde wig that looks exactly like Betty’s hair. Betty invites Rita to share her aunt’s big bed, and they engage in a lesbian encounter.
Rita has a dream in which she speaks Spanish. She asks Betty to go with her to a seedy club (Club Silencio). An extremely surreal scene ensues where performers explain things are not what they appear. Betty begins to shake violently. A female vocalist performs Roy Orbison’s Crying in Spanish causing both Betty and Rita to weep. They find a blue box in Betty’s purse. Upon returning, Rita turns to get the hatbox where she earlier hid her own purse with the cash and blue key, but when she turns back, Betty has disappeared. Rita uses the blue key from her purse to open the blue box, and the camera zooms down into the darkness of the box. This occurs nearly 80% of the way through the film, and from here on, ensuing scenes are designed to tie together the loose ends from the first two hours.
The final scenes tend to hop about in a series of flashbacks. Diane receives a call from Camilla telling her she is sending a limo for her. We see the same shot of Mulholland Drive and the limo stopping, but this time, it is Diane in the back seat. Camilla walks up to greet her, then takes her up a shortcut path to Adam’s house where a party is in progress. Many characters from earlier in the movie now appear in different persona. During cocktail chatter, we learn Diane was from Deep River, Ontario where she won a dance contest that inspired her to become an actress using some of the money she inherited from an aunt in the film business who passed away. She recounts how she met Camilla on the set of The Sylvia North Story when Camilla beat her out for the lead role. Subsequently they became friends (and apparently lovers). Adam and Camilla announce their engagement, and we see a tear trickle down Diane’s cheek followed by a look of hatred.
The scene jumps to Winkie’s on Sunset Blvd., a diner that has shown up repeatedly earlier in the film. Diane appears to take out a hit on Camilla with an unsavory character introduced previously. She pays with a roll of cash, possibly the inheritance from her aunt. He tells her he will leave a blue key “where they had discussed” when the job is done. Behind the diner is a grotesque, homeless man seen early in the film. At his feet is a paper bag with the blue box. Miniature versions of the elderly couple scurry out of the bag laughing hysterically. The scene shifts back to Diane’s where she sits on her sofa. There is a door knock, and the little people scurry under the door to attack her. She retreats to her bedroom, gets a gun from the night table, and shoots herself. Silencio!
In subsequent viewings, the story becomes clearer since Lynch left plenty of clues. The color red (similar to The Sixth Sense) is shown with comforters, lampshades, or an appliance “on” switch, and seemingly signals changes from dream to reality or at least a shift in time. In fact, Lynch lists this in the DVD package as one of 10 clues to help viewers “unlock the thriller.”
Lynch is able to mix in the right amount of his unusual humor into several scenes. Two great examples are Badalamenti spitting the expresso into his napkin, and the mob enforcer encountering Adam’s ex-wife and Billy Ray Cyrus as the pool man who was bedding her.
One of my gripes with David Lynch has always been that he goes out of his way to place the weird or bizarre in everyday settings. I first noticed that during the Twin Peaks t.v. series, when he included a scene at the vet with a Llama in the waiting room. It seemed like he was trying just a little too hard to be David Lynch. In this film, though, while there is a little of that, it never rises to the level of a turn-off and the really great elements far outweigh any negatives. Many have found incredibly rich allegorical meaning in this film citing their belief that with Lynch, virtually no single frame is ever without symbolism. Others have expressed their hypothesis of a return to themes of sexual abuse prevalent in his earlier work, or prostitution. Lynch’s exact intention can’t be known since he won’t discuss them.
My preference is to not deconstruct every scene or hypothesize about implicit meanings, although doing so surely is a hell of a lot of fun. There are definite allusions to many classics such as Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona, and The Wizard of Oz. Personally, my feeling is that this one is probably Lynch’s own updated version of or homage to the classic Sunset Boulevard, told in his own peculiar style. The similarities are just too striking. But then, that is only one opinion. How about yours?
There are many links to essays or reviews which are helpful to better understand Mulholland Drive. With the prior caveat about seeing the film first, some of the most helpful include: