Mulholland Drive

David Lynch spent the late ’80s perfecting a uniquely powerful and disquieting audio-visual universe, thematically rooted in stylised, neo-noir fairytales dealing with lost or threatened innocence in the face of unspeakable evil. Over the past ten years, Lynch has consolidated his greatness by matching this audio-visual style with bold experiments in fractured narrative in three extraordinary and increasingly accomplished films: Fire Walk with Me (1993), Lost Highway (1996) and now Mulholland Drive (2001). These films tell their stories without identifying an objective reality for the viewers to identify with. Rather, the landscape they inhabit is a subjective one, created from the troubled fantasies of his disturbed protagonists. In all three films, these fantasies can be interpreted as vain attempts to escape from events too horrible to handle. Rather than relating the facts of what has happened, Lynch’s films play out like dreams inspired by them. In effect, this means lifting the lid of narrative itself to reveal the tempestuous currents of wonder and terror thrashing about beneath the specific details of the plot. This places the audience in uncommonly raw, direct contact with the terror and confusion the characters are enduring.

To lay my cards on the table before further discussion, I will outline my interpretation of what happened in Mulholland Drive. I don’t claim this to be the definitive explanation, but it’s probably as decent a working hypothesis as any. The first half of the film is a fantasy going through the mind of failed movie actress Diane (Naomi Watts, an outstanding performance) after she has hired a hit man to kill Camilla (Laura Elena Harring), her ex-lover who jilted her and enjoys a successful acting career. This fantasy takes place in Diane’s mind either just before or just after she has committed suicide. Evidence for the possibility of her being dead while dreaming is the fact that she mentions her aunt is dead in the second part of the film and in the first part she is staying in her aunt’s flat while she is away. There is also the title, Mulholland Drive, the stark citation of a Hollywood place name, which might possibly be an evocation of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), another dark view of the ruthlessness of Hollywood narrated by a dead William Holden.

Characters and details are mirrored constantly throughout the film. The first part recasts the despairing Diane as the irritatingly perky Betty, a naïve but extremely talented would be actress who has just arrived in Hollywood from a small town; she is probably Diane’s idealised vision of herself. Diane also recasts Camilla as Rita, a traumatised amnesiac, who escaped a murder attempt, the murder of which Diane hired a hitman for. There is evidence that it is the same murder because Rita has the bag of money Diane gave the hitman. The amnesiac state Rita is in puts her in a position of vulnerability and complete reliance upon Betty – a relation that contrasts starkly with the second part where Camilla has so much power over Diane. The two women make friends, then fall in love while trying to discover the events that led to Rita’s amnesia. The progress of their investigation is paralleled by Betty’s success at an important audition.

Pont du Nord

More than one critic has compared the use of two women on a mission to unravel a conspiracy in the first half of Mulholland Drive to Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie go Boating (Celine et Julie vont en bateau, 1974). It is an interesting comparison and a third film should be talked about in this respect: Rivette’s Pont du Nord (1981), which also features two women working against a conspiracy. Both Lynch and Rivette make inventive use of pastiche and tell stories which operate on several different levels of reality. But there are some big differences. The authorial point of view of Rivette’s films is the opposite of Lynch’s. Rivette is detached, viewing his characters with a distance that is very different from Lynch’s subjectivity. If Lynch had made Out 1 (1971) the film would probably have played out through the viewpoint of Juliet Berto’s unhinged character. Lynch creates a visual universe all his own, whereas Rivette plays on the contrast created by staging his characters’ fantastical adventures in everyday urban settings, captured with a documentary plainness. The tone of Celine and Julie is playful; it is a film about storytelling where the women remain in complete control. Solving the mystery is a game. In Mulholland Drive, Betty starts out on her adventure in this spirit, but she is soon overwhelmed by what she discovers: she is not a real character in a fictional scenario, but a fictional character dreamed up by Diane and pitted against a very real evil which she cannot survive. She has to turn back into Diane.

If Lynch mourns his characters’ inability to transform themselves into fiction, in Pont du Nord Rivette demonstrates that this can also be a trap. Pont du Nord is the dark mirror image of Celine and Julie. Whereas in the earlier film the heroines appear in charge of their stories and the fictional personae they creat for themselves, here they appear grimly possessed by them, any identity or contact with reality draining away until they seem to be nothing more than images of old stories or movies, empty yet somehow movingly monumental figures. As Jonathan Rosenbaum remarked, the dilemma for Rivette’s characters is being torn between perceiving everything as having significance and nothing having significance, with both views leading to madness. (1) This implies a neutrality in existence, which the characters are left to interpret in their own ways, whereas Lynch’s world is never neutral. His characters usually aren’t looking for meaning so much as fighting off attack and manipulation from hostile forces, coming from without and within but experienced in a way they can’t differentiate. In Lynch the problem is not seeking to understand in a traditional way, but rather being able to see through the blinding emotional trauma of revelation that has shattered the world into dreamlike fragments that obliquely reflect the reality of the situation.

Mulholland Drive

As their investigation progresses, the two heroines come upon the decomposing corpse of Diane Selwyn, a woman they have tracked down as being the only name Rita can remember. This is the moment when the playful element Betty has brought into their investigation turns serious and soon afterwards Betty wakes up as Diane. In the second half, we see all the elements of the first half reversed. Diane is desperate and embittered, her career going nowhere and the successful Camilla leaving her for a film director, Adam Kersher (Justin Theroux). There was a subplot in the first half featuring Adam being bullied by sinister studio bosses into accepting a lead actress he does not want for a film. She is Camilla’s namesake and embodied by a woman Diane spots at a party, which occurs in the second half, as possibly Camilla’s new lesbian lover. In Mulholland Drive, the personal and the professional are as closely interweaved as fantasy and reality. Every sexual betrayal is mirrored by a career setback to the extent that one could almost read the personal drama as a metaphorical commentary on Diane’s stalled career or vice-versa. This is Hollywood and in the context of a David Lynch film the expression ‘dream factory’ is bound to be more loaded than usual. Mulholland Drive is a film about the death of dreams.

In the first half both Betty and Rita appear as movie clichés. Betty, the naïve but determined newcomer who would like to be a star, “but would rather be known as a great actress”, is a direct descendent of Janet Gaynor’s character in William A. Wellman’s A Star is Born (1937). Her constant refrain is that their investigation is “just like a movie”. Rita’s identity is even more explicitly linked to cinema – having forgotten her name, she picks ‘Rita’ after glancing at a poster of Rita Hayworth in Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946) on the bathroom wall. Although filtered through the unbalanced vision of the heartbroken Diane, the party scene in the second part is quite realistic, although full of characters which will appear in Diane’s dream in slightly different roles in a strategy reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz (1939). The first part, that is her dream, appears entirely movie influenced. The scenes not directly involving her, particularly Adam’s story, are gangster film pastiches. The deadpan, unashamedly adolescent sick humour that runs through many of these scenes at times seems like pastiche or even parody Tarantino, especially in a gratuitous and rather off-colour murder-gone-wrong gag scene that involves the complicated killing of an enormously fat woman. Even the studio bosses persecuting Adam are seen as caricature Mafiosi. Lynch invests these figures with grotesque, comic behaviour, at once hilarious and all the more threatening for it, due to their unpredictability and, by extension, their inscrutability. Lynch has a unique gift for making his bad guys, from Frank (Dennis Hopper) and his friends in Blue Velvet (1986) onwards, rather ridiculous but in a very disturbing way that adds to their sense of danger.

The element of manipulation even enters Betty’s fantasy view of her career, as is shown in the audition scene, one of the most intense and interesting in the film. Uncharacteristically, the audition is shot almost entirely in one long take close-up. The scene she has to play is a dialogue between a girl and her father’s best friend who is trying to seduce her and is refused. She is acting opposite a lecherous older actor and before the presence of a much older director and producer. The transformation of her ingratiating submissiveness before these old men into the violent scorn of her performance which involves rejecting and threatening to kill a father figure, and the subsequent return to submissiveness illustrates the less comfortable aspects of what amounts to selling herself to a group of old men. This is underlined by the nature of the scene they are acting and the telling detail of the older actor’s hand, which hovers indecisively over her behind at the start of the scene. She grabs it and places it firmly on her ass, pleasantly surprising the actor with her forwardness. She is, of course, a willing participant in this ‘sale’, knowing that the more intensity she generates in her performance refusing the older character, the more she will please these other old men she is trying to ‘seduce’. Whatever tensions are evident in this dynamic, there is something pathetic and even benevolent about these old men, very different types from the ‘gangsters’ actually in charge of the studios.

The ‘dream factory’ atmosphere of Mulholland Drive is compounded by an element common to all Lynch’s neo-noirs but never more appropriate than here: the retro-’50s imagery. While not quoting any particular film, Lynch uses this look to evoke media-memories of an ‘innocent’ America. It is the ideal pop culture iconography for his characters’ dreams of purity and fulfilment, and thus equally ideal for subversion. This is definitely the case in Mulholland Drive – Betty/Diane was brought to Hollywood after winning a jitterbug contest and, from what we see of the film she wants to star in, it appears to be a ’50s set romance with musical scenes. But the ’50s was also the classic decade of film noir which, like Lynch, embraced such themes as paranoia and conspiracy, the constant questioning and subversion of accepted identity, the fragility of sound perceptions of reality when attacked by desire, guilt and/or curiosity as well as the fragility of fantasy and its attendant hopes. Many of the more interesting examples follow the narrative logic of a nightmare, normality just barely redeemed by the demands of conventional conclusive Hollywood storytelling. And there isn’t always even that comfort – take for example, Kiss me Deadly (1955) or Vertigo (1958). This cycle of films sometimes probed so deeply into the darkness and madness of both society and individuals that it occasionally seems it was just waiting for someone to push it over the edge into surrealist horror. It was waiting for David Lynch, whose body of work can be seen in many ways as completing the work begun by such directors as Welles, Aldrich, Lang and Ulmer some 50 years ago and bringing film noir full circle, back to its origins in ’20s German Expressionist horror. It does so by recasting what was more or less a realistic, albeit frequently stylised, vision of ’50s America as a representational pop art universe suspended from time in a vague but evocative archetypal arena. This abstract world gains its power from being rooted in very real emotions and anxieties that have haunted cinema since The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), another powerful film about the fragile nature of identity in the face of fantasy.

Mulholland Drive

Lynch also frees the paranoia of noir from the straightjacket of narrative. One of the most unique and fascinating aspects of Lynch’s ’90s noirs is that rather than creating terror as in most horror films as a sort of engine to drive the plot, he drowns the plot in a great tidal wave of emotion, leaving the viewer adrift with only the odd floating fragment of story to cling on to. In films that take as subjective a viewpoint as Lynch’s, this is probably the most realistic method to employ. But for audiences whose only point of entry into a film is through narrative logic that privileges the viewer with full understanding of what is happening, these films will always be problematic. Perhaps the most baffling thing for them and maybe the most unsettling aspect of these films is that the fear seems to come from a source that is deeper than the plot indicates. In most films the amount of any given emotion is equal to the circumstances and events it stems from. In Lynch, the unease is never quite equal to the events that cause it. There is always the nagging suspicion that there is another, more frightening, more powerful dimension just beyond our grasp.

This is especially the case with Mulholland Drive, where this aspect has a physical embodiment. Sitting amid all the conspiracies and betrayals, there is a sort of demon, a homeless person with a scarred, blackened face sitting over a small fire behind a diner. He appears twice in the film, once towards the beginning and once at the end. In the first half, there is a scene featuring two friends. One of them only appears in this scene, the other appears once more. They meet in a diner where one of them confesses that he has been having a nightmare in which he meets his friend in this same diner and sees a face that terrifies him. He has brought him to the said diner in an attempt to exorcise the power of the dream by enacting it. He asks his friend to stand in a certain place that he occupies during the dream. Then they proceed to the back of the diner where he sees the homeless man, the face in his dream. He dies of a heart attack.

In the second part of the film, after Diane has woken up, she arranges for Camilla’s assassination in that same diner. The man who died of a heart attack in the first half is seen standing in the position he earlier asked his friend to stand in, the position he occupied in his dream. The demonic homeless man appears in the next scene. Throughout the film, a strange blue box has kept cropping up, most notably in the transition from the first part into the second part, in which the camera moves into its dark recesses. In the scene where Diane hires the hit man, he gives her a blue key. When she asks what it is for, he replies that she already knows. In this scene the homeless man sits at night, hunched over a fire. He drops a paper bag. The blue box is inside it, open.


At the beginning of the film when Betty arrives in Los Angeles for the first time, she is accompanied by an old couple, probably the judges of the jitterbug contest which brought Diane/Betty to Hollywood in the first place. They are precisely the sort of sinister, over friendly old monsters Polanski used to populate his various apartment blocks with in Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976). After saying goodbye to her, they are seen in a cab driving away, their faces contorted with grotesque, gloating smiles. When the homeless demon drops the box, two tiny models of the old judges come scuttling out. They run in under the door of Diane’s apartment and, grown to full size, chase her through the living room into her bedroom, scaring her into committing suicide. Meanwhile, the homeless man sits impassively, his eyes glowing red. He seems like the film’s heart of darkness, the face of the unnameable fear, which lurks beneath the layers of dreams and nightmares that float over Mulholland Drive, but is probably unique to Diane’s crushed soul.

Perhaps the film’s most crucial scene is the turning point between the first and second part, probably the most beautiful scene Lynch has ever created. After sleeping together for the first time, Rita awakes in the early hours of the morning and takes Betty to a strange theatre, where a magician on stage keeps declaring, often in Spanish, that there is no band, that it is all a tape recording. A musician appears on stage with a trumpet and begins to play, but halfway through the piece he takes the trumpet from his mouth and the music continues. Then a singer appears who launches into a Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”. Halfway through, she collapses, apparently dead, but the song continues. This scene appears to me to be Lynch’s statement of intention. Whatever story the film chooses to tell, the sadness behind it will always be there, a ‘tape recording’ that will continue whatever identity a character chooses to take.

Lynch’s later work has been compared to Raul Ruiz’s labyrinthine narrative puzzles (2). In this scene that kinship becomes incontestable. Although there is an important fundamental difference in that Lynch’s films seem to deal with real emotions caused by real situations filtered through the protagonists’ subconscious, whereas Ruiz is engaged with ideas on a more abstract plane, their storytelling has much in common. In films like Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983) and City of Pirates (1984), Ruiz constructs a vertiginous cascade of stories around a same theme that bleed into each other with a baffling, hypnotic fluidity. Every time any kind of conclusion appears imminent, the films simply move into another tale. Yet there is something repetitive about these ever shifting details, a sense of being trapped within some master plan that remains just beyond our reach. Characters change identity constantly, sometimes echoing the identity of another character. In City of Pirates, for example, the apparently sole inhabitant of an island plays an entire family, the stranded heroine being obliged to ascertain who he is every time he appears to her. In Lynch, this identity swapping is perhaps more readily explicable. In Fire Walk with Me, Laura Palmer blocks the fact that it is her father who has been abusing her by mentally creating a different rapist. In Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive it could be argued that leading characters change not only the identity of those around them, but also their own identity to escape other traumas. In Lost Highway the hero, Fred (Bill Pullman), inexplicably changes into a much younger man, Pete (Balthazar Getty), while on death row for the murder of his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), which he appears to have committed unconsciously. In his new incarnation he meets another version of his wife, Alice, this time as a gangster’s moll. In Mulholland Drive Diane sees herself as the idealised Betty and the powerful Camilla as the vulnerable Rita after having arranged her death.

In both films it is at a moment of romantic consummation that the characters change back into their real selves – in Lost Highway, when the young version of the hero and the moll make love in the desert just before their escape for a new life, she suddenly leaves him and he turns back into his original form; in Mulholland Drive, it is soon after the two women have sex that Betty/Diane wakes up. Whatever else he might be, David Lynch is a great romantic. Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart (1989), Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive all deal with innocence and pure, almost naïve romantic love under threat from the savage sordidness of their characters’ real life. Only in Wild at Heart does good gain a decisive victory. In Blue Velvet good has an ambiguous triumph, but co-existence with evil is established. In the three ’90 films the romantic illusion is doomed, and a potent but ultimately futile escape fantasy from a world of degradation, self-betrayal and terrifying, semi-defined forces of evil is created. In these schizophrenic narratives, either all of this evil (Lost Highway) or at least contact with evil (Fire Walk with Me, Mulholland Drive) appears to be, rightly or wrongly, the lead character’s fault. Nothing short of destroying their own identity can cleanse them of this guilt and even that fails. All three films are poignant testaments to the fragility of our dreams.


  1. An unpublished comment made at the Garrel Éternel conference, June 26 – 27, Dublin.
  2. See Adrian Martin’s “Ruiz in the ’90s: Three Lives and Only One Death”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 4, March, 2000).

About The Author

Maximilian Le Cain is a filmmaker and cinéphile living in Cork City, Ireland.

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