WARNING: Contains spoilers!
David Lynch’s dark insight into the glamorous Hollywood industry in Mulholland Drive divided audiences with it’s disjointed and confusing narrative. Whilst Hollywood shied away from promoting a film that attacked their very industry.
Not surprisingly the film received a mixed reaction from critics. With Mulholland Drive David Lynch finally won the approval of renowned critic Roger Ebert who wrote “I forgive him for Wild at Heart (1990) and even Lost Highway (1997)…the less sense it makes, the more we can’t stop watching it.” While with other critics the film met with harsh criticism, The New York Observer reviewer Rex Reed called it the worst film he saw in 2001 stating it was “a load of moronic and incoherent garbage.” Nevertheless, over the years Mulholland Drive has earned itself the status as a masterpiece of film-making.
The film opens with an anonymous woman, later calling herself Rita (Laura Elena Haring) surviving an assassination by a freak accident that kills her would-be murders and erases her memory. She stumbles down Hollwood and meets aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts) and the two form an alliance to discover Rita’s real identity.
Lynch’s film can be examined in two halves. In order to emphasise the devastating reality of the brutal Hollywood industry, Lynch must first explore the overly hyped expectations of those hoping to enter this mythical world. The bright-eyed, optimistic, exceedingly cheerful character Betty is in fact a perfected image of the real woman, Diane (Naomi Watts).
The film industry is commonly referred to as a form of escapism, in which viewers can escape the reality of their own lives by immersing themselves into the fictional world of the characters on screen. In Mulholland Drive Diane also escapes into a dream world in which she transforms herself into the idealised character Betty who represents the expectations and dreams she failed to achieve in reality. Meanwhile, her cold-hearted lover Camilla is changed into the dependent, loving woman Diane wished she could have been.
A more intuitive viewer may have foreseen this dark twist in Betty’s tale as her sudden raise to fame after just one audition suggests it is all a little too good to be true. However, we are in the dreamy imaginations of the human mind, in which anything is possible.
It is not just in Betty that we see a dramatic change. The sweet, innocent Rita is quite a contrast to the ruthless Camilla (Laura Elena Harring), which is later revealed to be her true identity.
For those who condemn the sudden jump in narrative and character, Lynch does drop several clues during the film’s opening scenes. Following the opening sequence of Betty smiling broadly against the backdrop of a jitterbug contest and lively 1950’s music, the film cuts into a woozy dream-like atmosphere. During this a muffled sniffing noise is heard, that some have interpreted as the snorting of cocaine, which is then followed by the sound of heavy breathing as the camera panes across a bed. The camera then settles on a still shot of a pink pillow, before seemingly disappearing into it. This short sequence alerts the viewer to the fact that someone is in fact dreaming and in which case the narrative should not be taken literally.
Finally, we enter the real life Betty’s and meet Diane Selwyn. Here is where the confusion really begins for viewers in which everything they have been lead to believe is turned upside down. It is hard to contradict viewers for wanting to give up at this point but this is all part of Lynch’s plan.
Lynch himself has stated that “I’ve never liked to bend my movie scripts to an end half way through” and those who stick with the film will realise the meaning of his entire plot is just getting started.
He is a director in which every shot in his films harbour a deeper meaning. If you pay close attention to the various clues thrown your way throughout the film, you will see the crushing realities that are awaiting Betty as they are gradually introduced into the narrative.
Lynch’s use of repetition in Mulholland Drive demonstrates to the viewer the barrier between illusion and reality. When Diane wakes from her sleep, she is lying in the same pink bed sheets shown in the brief shot at the beginning of the film, revealing to the audience that it was her dream we have been watching. The same illuminated shot of the Mulholland Drive Street sign, together with the eerie music and the blurred, shaky, disjointed shots of the black limousine during the opening credits are used later in the film. Only this time it is Diane sitting in the back who questions the driver with the line “what are you doing? We don’t stop here” albeit in a more frightened manner. The body discovered by Betty and Rita in Diane’s apartment is briefly shown both alive and dead before Diane awakens from her dream, foreshadowing her own death.
In the real world of Mulholland Drive, Lynch’s condemns the industry not only through Diane’s failed attempts to ‘make it’, but by the devious way Camilla orchestrates her own success in the corrupt field.
The corruption of the Hollywood industry are hinted at earlier in the film during the scene where the director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) loses control of his own film. A later scene involving the mysterious cowboy character (Monty Montgomery) bribes the director into casting a particular actress in his film.
In response to Camilla herself, she uses her sexuality to get ahead. The lesbian relationship that develops between Betty and Rita is exploited by Camilla’s detached approach towards her own sexuality. Her casual transitions between her relationships with both men and women suggest that, for her, sex is a mere business strategy.
Camilla’s attitudes towards sex and relationships extend to her cruel treatment of Diane, who is lured into an unrequited love affair that naturally ends in tragedy. Her devastating humiliation at the hands of Camilla drives her into a deep despair of jealous fury in which she decides to have Camilla killed.
The revelation of Diane’s hideous crime finally gives meaning to Lynch’s heavy use of symbolism throughout the film. The blue box and key that appear at various moments in the film are symbolic of Diane’s guilt and eventual realisation of the crime she has committed. Betty’s discovery of the blue box during the disorientating Club Silencio scene, in which she is made aware that “it is an illusion”, induces Betty’s return to reality. Rita’s unlocking of the box finally pulls Betty out of the fantasy world entirely.
The tramp or monster that is first seen in a seemingly irrelevant scene in which a young man describes a recurring nightmare involving this creature, is later revealed to symbolise the hideous side to Diane’s personality that as been awakened through her crime.