WOOOOSH – Zoom deep into blackness.  Thump.  A metallic blue box drops to the carpet:  this sequence, nearly two hours into David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), opens up a seam in what has for the most part been a linear narrative and annihilates the viewer’s expectations of solving the mystery that has to this point driven the events in the film.  At the very moment that viewers might anticipate a resolution to what has seemed to be a detective story, that story disappears – and viewers are ushered into another, radically different diegesis.

Mulholland Drive

Because of this rupture and the subsequent narrative, viewers have the opportunity to discern that what they have taken to be the “real” story of the film has merely been a fantasy narrative.  Most viewers, however, have been absolutely baffled by the film overall and by its two different stories, especially since they are performed by the same actors.  For the first two hours of the film (what I will call the fantasy narrative) the viewer is lulled into a saccharine story about a naïve, small town girl, Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), who, after winning a jitterbug contest, moves from Deep River, Ontario hoping to become a star in Hollywood (like a million small town girls before her), where she meets an amnesiac, Rita (Laura Elena Harring), and tries to help Rita solve the mystery of her lost identity.  For the film’s final twenty minutes (what I will call the “encounter with the traumatic Real” fragmented by a narrative of desire), however, this banal plot devolves into a seemingly incoherent arrangement of non-linear, jump-cut edited scenes about Diane Selwyn (who looks exactly like Betty Elms), a failed actress-turned-possible prostitute who is both cuckolded by her lesbian lover, the Hollywood film star, Camilla Rhodes (who looks just like Rita), and jilted by the machinations and politics of Hollywood.  Only after multiple viewings can a viewer begin to understand that once Diane, in the angry despair of thwarted desire, hires a hit man to kill Camilla, the consequences of her actions torment and fracture her, thus prompting her to commit suicide in the film’s final scene.  Prior to her suicide, Diane has a dream (where the film actually begins and continues for two hours) in which she rearranges her memories in an attempt to redeem and reconstruct her fractured Self – as Betty Elms.  However, reviewers have failed to agree on a singular explanation that connects these two narrative strands and have expressed utter confusion in regards to the film’s meaning, making comments like “What gives?” (1) and “There is no explanation”. (2) However, their confusion need not suggest that the film is incomprehensible.  One of the delights of this film is that its seeming indeterminacy allows for a variety of different readings.  One could use gender or Marxist theories, for example, to examine the film in successful ways.  However, the film itself offers us a ready-made key: we can understand what Lynch is doing by seeing the roles that memory plays in the film both within its diegesis and more broadly in terms of a statement Lynch makes, through his use of the cultural history of the 50’s and surrealism, about Americans’ need for escapist fantasy, as well as interpreting it in light of Lacanian film theory, especially his theory of desire.

The opening scene of the film establishes the moment which is the apotheosis of Diane’s life, her memory of which drives both the fantasy and traumatic Real/desire narratives of the film.  The scene begins with blurry, silhouetted shapes moving in slow motion against a pinkish background.  The slow motion quickens to real speed when a 50’s dance song begins to blare, and we see that the shapes are actually silhouetted jitterbug dancers in a pinkish-coloured computer generated room.  The shadowy silhouettes rack into focus and are joined by real teenagers, all of whom dance and twist, hand in hand, moving from background to foreground in various jump cuts.  Then, appearing superimposed in the foreground is a bleached-out shot of a sunny, smiling teen (Diane Selwyn) couched between two older adults, presumably her parents. The background dancing continues, and Diane gleefully steps closer to us, now alone, to claps by an unseen audience.  This is Diane’s great moment (her “jitterbug” moment), the moment when she experiences the greatest amount of fulfillment.  In Lacanian terms this jubilation represents a mirror stage moment, a “turning point…. [the creation of] a totalizing image [of the self] that has come from outside…that organizes and orients the self”. (3) After all, she is experiencing total adulation from the audience for the quality of her performance and from her parents, the most important objects of her love.  Her memory of this moment is a crucial factor in the events in the film.

Mulholland Drive

The final twenty-minute segment of the film (the traumatic Real/desire narrative) reveals that Diane continually attempted to integrate her experience of that moment in Deep River, Ontario into her negotiation of her new Hollywood life, but her inability to do so trapped her in a deadlock of desire both in terms of her career and her love life.  As Diane struggles against her knowledge of having ordered the killing of Camilla, her flashbacks to memories of her experiences in L.A. reveal her desires and her frustrations.  We know from her flashback to the dinner party scene that Diane was in love with Camilla; as she walks hand in hand with Camilla up the paradisial, wooded path, the smile on Diane’s face is the look of a lover who at least tentatively believes that her wishes have come true, that Camilla indeed loves her as Diane wants her to.  Diane’s elation, however, is quickly dashed when Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) hands out glasses of champagne and turns to Camilla; they gaze into each other’s eyes and he says, “Here’s to love.” Diane looks on and her face stiffens; her eyes shift to Camilla and she registers that Camilla returns Adam’s love.  The dinner party flashback also reveals that Diane had auditioned for the starring role in “The Sylvia North Story” but had lost the part to Camilla.

In another flashback, to the set of the movie that Adam is directing, Lynch skillfully uses mise-en-scene to depict Diane’s frustrated desire for both Camilla’s love and to be a successful actress.  As the scene (within a scene) begins, Diane watches jealously as Adam helps Camilla rehearse for his movie.  In the mise-en-scene, Diane, dressed in a drab, gray dress, stands meekly with rounded shoulders and her hair in a peasant-like bun.  Lynch places her against a movie set backdrop of slummy, run down apartments (we can see that there is a “Repair” shop in the background).  In contrast, Camilla looks stunningly beautiful in a red silk dress and large diamond earrings.  She sits with Adam in a perfectly polished antique Plymouth, against a backdrop of a towering, brightly lit city.  As Diane watches Adam and Camilla kiss, Camilla, who has asked Diane to stay during the rehearsal, looks back at her, almost taunting her.   Diane looks on, defeated, jealous, and broken – essentially beyond “repair” – as her eyes begin to well with tears.  This scene mirrors the circumstances of Diane’s life.  Standing from a position of squalor – she lives in a run-down apartment, likely works as a waitress and there are indications that she may also be a prostitute – she has gazed on the luxurious image of everything she desires – love and stardom – but comes face to face with the fact that she cannot attain them.  Lynch demonstrates that contrary to her desires, Diane realizes that she is only a supporting character in Adam’s film and that she is merely playing a bit part in Camilla’s love life as well.

Mulholland Drive

These failures torment Diane.  Her memory of her jitterbug moment caused her to believe that she could realize her dreams for happiness in her career and personal life.  A moment like Diane’s triumph in the jitterbug contest is, according to Lacan, the “founding moment of the imaginary mode, [establishing] the belief in a projected image…. [At such a moment,] the self is constituted through anticipating what it will become”. (4) However, rather than actually becoming that self that she anticipated, Diane is chewed up by unrequited love and the Hollywood machine.  In Lacanian terms, she is tormented by desire for the unattainable Other – the objet petit a, or “the object that cannot be swallowed, as it were, which remains stuck in the gullet of the signifier”. (5) Todd McGowan, a critic focused on the Lacanian elements within Lynch’s work, clarifies the concept of the objet petit a by describing it as the very thing which is lacking and cannot be understood or integrated into the subject’s world. (6) In Mulholland Drive, Diane’s memory of the fulfilled self she experienced in her jitterbug moment is the objet petit a that she continually tries to locate in the Other, that is, her lover and her career.  To Diane, a successful love relationship with Camilla would give her jouissance, or the possession of a pleasure beyond even that of enjoyment, that she believes is embodied in Camilla.  The memory of the fulfillment of love she experienced with her parents is what Diane aspires to in her relationship with Camilla, but Camilla fails to reciprocate her love.  Diane’s memory of the elation of winning the jitterbug contest also causes her to believe that she can become a successful actor in Hollywood, but just as her love for Camilla is not requited, the Hollywood industry has rigidly prescribed slots for actors like Diane who lack the glamour and voluptuousness that will provoke desire in filmgoers.  Consequently, Diane cannot integrate her image of herself as a star into her actual world.  She finds that she is wanted in some way by both the film industry and Camilla, but not in the way that she wishes.  The persistent frustration of Diane’s desires places her in an unsustainable position, a position in which she is both aware of what she wants and that she cannot attain it, or what Lacan’s protégé Slavoj Zizek calls “the deadlock of desire.” (7)

To break this terrible deadlock of desire, Diane chooses to destroy the unattainable Other, Camilla, by arranging to have her killed.  Presumably, she imagines that Camilla’s death will both remove her as an object of Diane’s desire and might clear the way for Diane to get the acting roles she deserves.  However, the jitterbug self Diane believes she is could not possibly be the same self that has ordered a murder – the two are mutually exclusive – and so her action has brought her face to face with a terrible knowledge about herself, from which she must seek escape.  To do so, she retreats into a dream (the fantasy narrative), and it is in that fantasy narrative that Diane, transformed into the character Betty Elms, temporalizes her incoherent atemporal world of desire by narrativizing it through a detective story whose purpose is to resolve the conflict between the two versions of her self that she cannot reconcile and should enable her to fulfill her desires for love and acting success.  According to McGowan, in a fantasy world:

the dreariness and the dissatisfaction of…life are remade into a fully developed narrative….Subjects flee into fantasy precisely because it seems to cure the dissatisfaction they cannot otherwise escape….[It] works to cover over the many sources of discontent that plague the subject. (8)

In the case of Diane, her fantasy is an attempt to escape the implications of the actions she has taken to break the deadlock of desire that are too unbearable for her to face.


Just as memory plays a pivotal role in revealing Diane’s desires in the traumatic Real/desire narrative, memory also manifests itself in the fantasy narrative that is first framed in an early shot that includes the sound of heavy, laboured breathing and in which the camera tracks ever so slowly down into a pink pillow, suggesting a person lying down to sleep.  The frame that closes the fantasy narrative is a shot much later in the film that shows Diane awakening, lifting her head from that very same pink pillow that began the first frame.  Within this fantasy, in classic dream logic fashion, Diane’s memories are condensed and displaced in such a way that they allow her to remove the forces that created the deadlock of desire and to recapture the jubilation of the jitterbug moment.  The principle solution that is narrativized in the fantasy narrative of her dream is Diane’s repairing of her fractured self.  To do so, she must make herself a successful actor, reestablish the goodness of her former jitterbug self, and finally, merge Camilla’s jouissance into her own.

One thing that has wounded Diane’s sense of herself is the fact that she has been unable to succeed as a Hollywood actor.  She believed that she won the jitterbug contest due to her performance skills and that those would ensure that she would at least be a good actor, if not a movie star.  However, as the traumatic Real/desire narrative makes clear, Hollywood thought otherwise, thus damaging her image of herself.  Therefore one of the things the fantasy narrative must do is affirm Diane’s wonderful acting talents.  In the fantasy narrative, Betty demonstrates exceptional acting ability in the scene where she auditions for Bob Booker’s film.  Her memory of herself dressed in a gray, shapeless dress in a bit part of Adam Kesher’s movie is displaced in the fantasy into an image of Betty in a form fitting, figure flattering gray suit.  At the drop of a hat, she is transformed from little miss goody two shoes Nancy Drew detective to a seductress who can take the breath away even from cynical, seasoned Hollywood actors, producers, and agents.  Her powers as an actor are demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt.

When she went to Hollywood, Diane believed that by all rights she should get the parts that she auditioned for.  Since that was not the case, her fantasy requires a narrative that explains her failure in terms that do not involve personal culpability.  It does exactly that by showing that Hollywood is a cruel and evil place that alienates people and treats actors as interchangeable pawns that can be arbitrarily slotted into roles.  Female actors come to Hollywood, bright-eyed, hoping to be “the girl,” yet their hard work, aspirations, and optimism are completely insignificant and futile, because there are people above people who make such decisions in that world, decisions that do not involve consideration of the actual talents of the actors themselves.  At a business round-table meeting, for example, where director Adam Kesher is to discuss the film he is making, a Hollywood executive shows Kesher a headshot of an actor, and commands him, “This is the girl,” meaning “Use this girl or lose control of the film.”   Hollywood’s corrupt casting methods control everything, including the directors of films.  That is why in the fantasy narrative Adam Kesher is rendered powerless as a director by the Castigliane brothers who threaten to take away his film and are uncannily able to drain all of his bank accounts of money and even find him in the ratty Cookie Hotel where Adam hides out after discovering that he has been cuckolded by his wife and the local pool cleaner, Gene Clean.  This fantasy narrative of Hollywood’s power is a construct that dismisses any possibility that Diane has not succeeded because of a lack of talent.  All the blame for her professional failures lies elsewhere, beyond her control.


Another important objective of Diane’s fantasy is to reestablish the goodness of her jitterbug self which has been destroyed the fact that she has ordered the murder of Camilla – the act of a self that is diametrically opposed to the image of herself that was fixed in the jitterbug moment.  She has become a person that her remembered jitterbug image of herself cannot accept.  The overwhelming importance of Diane’s need to regain the image of herself that she has destroyed is demonstrated in the very first scene of the fantasy narrative.  In this scene, a fragment of Diane’s memory is displaced: whereas in the traumatic Real/desire narrative it was Diane who was chauffeured up Mulholland Dr. to the home of Adam Kesher, the person inside of the car making its way up Mulholland Dr. in the fantasy narrative is Rita (Camilla), not Diane, and the purpose of the trip has changed from bringing Diane to a gathering to celebrate Camilla and Adam’s engagement to leading Rita to her death.  The important fact of this displacement is that the intended death of Rita does not take place.  Interestingly, it is Diane’s jitterbug image of herself that in her fantasy becomes the teenagers who collide with the limousine, yet in doing so save Rita.  In two shots that are easy to miss because of their short duration, the wild teenagers in the car that hits Rita’s limousine hang out of the sunroof with arms extended in positions that match those of the dancing teens in the jitterbug contest.  Since we know that Diane is the champion jitterbugger, dream logic associates her, then, with the teenagers in the car.  Diane, transformed in her fantasy into the reckless teenagers, threatens to be the agent of Rita’s demise (just as in her “real” life she is the agent of Camilla’s death); however, her fantasy narrative alters the outcome so that the teenagers’ crash with the limousine actually prevents Rita’s certain death at the hands of the hit men.  Thus, the fantasy constructs a scenario in which Diane actually saves Camilla, therefore allowing Diane to escape the dreadful implications that ordering the killing of Camilla have for her remembered image of herself.

After “undoing” the crime that involved the destruction of Camilla, the fantasy must also reestablish the positive agency of Diane’s jitterbug self.  Therefore, the narrative must be a detective story, since that genre always involves a movement from disorder to order, always implies a mystery that can be solved.  Thus, by placing Rita as an amnesiac at Betty’s aunt’s Hollywood bungalow, Diane’s fantasy gives her, as Betty, the opportunity to identify the clues and use her powers to follow them to unlock the solution to Rita’s identity.  Most importantly, Betty must be the sole hero, the detective who is able to solve the puzzle, because in order for Diane to repair the fractured qualities of her jitterbug self, the power of the qualities that she has lost must be restored.   Just as the hero of any detective story uses his or her own personal qualities and style as tools to solve the mystery at hand – for example, Colombo uses his bumbling, off the cuff, indirect manner as a sleuthing strategy – so the fantasy narrative embodies Diane’s memories of her jitterbug-self qualities, such as her naiveté and an optimistic belief in law and order, in the character of Betty, who uses them as sleuthing strategies to solve the mystery of Rita’s lost identity.  Betty, for example, hides the huge wads of money from Rita’s purse in her aunt’s hatbox in a closet – where, of course, it’s sure to be safe – and convinces Rita that they can start looking for clues by calling the police anonymously from a payphone, which Betty says will allow them to play detective “just like in the movies.”   Perhaps Betty is at her most naïve, however, when she suggests that they might figure out Rita’s identity by walking around L.A. on foot to look for Mulholland Drive, the place where Rita thinks she might have been travelling when she was in the accident that caused her amnesia.  In other words, Betty’s mystery solving strategies are as innocuous and innocent as Diane’s good girl image of herself established in her jitterbug moment.

Another task that Diane’s fantasy must accomplish is to merge Camilla’s jouissance into her own in order to repair the part of her self that has been broken by her unattainable desire for Camilla.  Diane’s memories of the qualities of Camilla that she most desires are retained as qualities of Rita in the fantasy narrative, and her memories of Camilla’s qualities that prevented Diane from attaining her love are reversed or transformed.  The main quality of Camilla that remains in Rita is her physical attractiveness and voluptuousness, because Diane believed that she once gained access to Camilla through their sexual love affair.  This is a part of Camilla’s jouissance that Diane continues to wish to recapture.  For example, Rita is in the shower the very first time Betty sees her, and Betty can only discern Rita’s curvy, naked body through the semi-opaque glass of the shower door. In other words, the fantasy materialization of Rita emphasizes the importance that her body held in Diane’s memory.  In addition, Rita’s full red lips and incredibly rounded breasts are the same as those of Camilla.

Mulholland Drive

However, Diane’s fantasy must alter her memories of Camilla’s qualities that obstructed the fulfillment of Diane’s desire.  For example, in contrast to the poise, confidence, and secure, unchanging identity that Camilla used to block Diane out, a malleable, vulnerable Rita is essential in the fantasy narrative, and they are established in her first interactions with Betty.  In the first few scenes in Aunt Ruth’s bedroom, Betty sees that Rita is bleeding and confused, and she tells Betty, “I don’t know who I am.”  The qualities that Rita possesses are those which allow Betty to help her, and especially which allow Betty to refashion Rita in Betty’s own image.  This is the fantasy trying to enable Diane to capture Camilla’s jouissance.  Therefore, each quality of Camilla’s that prevented Diane from accessing the objet petit a of her desire is transformed in the fantasy so that Betty can bring it into herself.  The goal is to imbricate the qualities of Camilla that Diane most desires with the qualities of Diane’s jitterbug self.  A clever and subtle hint that this is one of the objectives appears early on in the fantasy narrative, just as Rita tells Betty that she wants to sleep.  Betty covers Rita with a plush velour robe and removes a note that has been safety-pinned to it.  At first glance it appears that the note reads, “Enjoy yourself, Bettie.  Love, Aunt Ruth.”  Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes apparent that the name “Bettie” is inscribed on top of the name “Rita,” thus materially demonstrating that the only way for Diane to reach happiness is to unite Betty with Rita within the fantasy narrative.

That hint merely symbolizes in language the union between the two women; however, the culmination of Diane’s desire to bring Camilla’s jouissance into herself is demonstrated physically in the lovemaking scene between Betty and Rita.  Immediately prior to this scene, events have progressed to the point that Rita must alter her appearance, and she begins to cut her hair.  Betty stops her and insists that Rita let her do it.  While there are plenty of hair dyes and wigs available, Betty chooses to create an image for Rita that could not more closely resemble Betty herself.  As they stand facing the vanity mirror, their faces appear nearly identical to one another; however, their bodies remain separate.  It is the lovemaking scene that will bring their bodies together and therefore represent the fulfillment of Diane’s desires.  In the scene, Betty lies in bed dressed like the jitterbug self of Diane – she wears conservative, pink pajamas – but Rita gets into bed naked, precisely what Diane desires.  Even more desirable to Diane is to have her love reciprocated (just as her love for her parents was reciprocated by them), and in the fantasy that wish is realized as Rita indicates her desire by initiating sex and giving herself over wholly to Betty.  Most importantly, this scene emphasizes the uniting of selves that Diane most wished for.  Perhaps this is the most crucial shot in the movie, because the jouissance that Diane had once experienced in Deep River, Ontario but had been lacking and seeking from others in her Hollywood life, is finally regained, providing Diane with the moment of jubilation that she longed for.  The camera pans from a close up of the couple’s clasped hands to a close up of their sleeping faces.  The effect of this shot gives the impression that their two faces are actually one.  In other words, the profile of Rita is juxtaposed with Betty’s so that together they share the features of the same face, one coherent self.   This image represents the healing of Diane’s fractured self.  Unfortunately, it also hastens the end of Diane’s fantasy, for, in Lacanian terms, a coherent, unified self, or ego ideal (which is what the fantasy just created) is based on an illusion, (9) and Betty’s recognition of that illusion occurs in the very next scene at Club Silencio.  The performance there emphasizes that “Everything is an illusion,” and Betty’s realization of this truth literally shakes her to the core.  Not surprisingly, the blue box that fits the blue key which lies at the heart of the fantasy mystery quest is discovered at that moment, and the subsequent events within the narrative quickly lead to the rupture back to the world of the traumatic Real.

Mulholland Drive

Thus far, this discussion has focused on the role that memory plays in the diegesis – the world of the film and its characters.  However, if we step back and look at the film from the perspective of what the director (Lynch) is doing, we can see another role that memory plays; that is, Lynch uses cultural history – images of the 50’s and surrealism – to make a pessimistic comment upon contemporary American life and the role that the Hollywood film industry plays in luring people to believe in fantasy rather than face the “reality” of that life.

The final twenty minutes of Mulholland Drive reveal that the first two hours contained a fantasy narrative created in Diane’s dream.  The second segment, then, destroys the illusion that viewers may have had that the world depicted for the first two hours was a “real” representation of a preferable version of contemporary American life, one that by and large tries to hold onto nostalgic 50’s-like values.  Though Lynch selects images that are not strictly speaking all created in the 1950’s, the images that he uses suggest the world of the 50’s that was the world of his childhood.  Lynch himself has reminisced on growing up in the 50’s, saying “It was a fantastic decade in a lot of ways…. It was a really hopeful time, and things were going up instead of down.  You got the feeling you could do anything.  The future was bright.” (10) Despite his nostalgia for that time, Lynch as a contemporary filmmaker recognizes that though we may long for an ideal past, to do so is simply a fantasy.  By using images from the 50’s in Mulholland Drive, he makes us see that the attempt to live in current times according to values from an idealized past is a creation of the imagination, a fantasy we invent to escape from the “disastrous” present.  The world created in the fantasy narrative looks in many ways much like contemporary middle class America; however, Lynch takes pains to weave images and values of the 50’s into that world.  There are plenty of examples that might not play a large role in the narrative itself, but nonetheless create a look and suggest a world that is comfortably incorporating 50’s pastiche.  For example, Coco Lenoix is played by Ann Miller, a star dancer of the classic Hollywood years.  In Miller’s role as Coco, her demeanour toward Betty is not that of a cynical, hardened landlord.  She greets Betty with open arms, a big smile, and chatter about the “prize-fighting kangaroo” which was long ago owned by a former tenant – hardly the way most modern-day landlords interact with their tenants.  Besides this former star, there are also references to another Hollywood star, Rita Hayworth, as well as a film of the 50’s, Sunset Boulevard, one of Lynch’s favorites. (11) If Lynch thinks that the 50’s were a “bright” time, that brightness pervades much of the look of the fantasy narrative.  He uses primary colours to establish the sunny optimism of that time.  This is especially noticeable when Betty first arrives in Los Angeles, exits the airport to catch a taxi, and steps out into a sunny, bright day, uncharacteristic of contemporary, smog-laden L.A.

Betty’s character and experiences most embody the look and values from the 50’s past.  In that same airport scene, as she leaves the terminal it appears that her luggage may have been stolen; however, this is not a world where such things happen; instead, the taxi driver has cheerfully placed her luggage in the trunk of the cab for her and is eager to take her where she wants to go.  In addition, Betty’s outfits always hint more at the 50’s than they do of our times.  Whereas Todd McGowan reads her dress as hip and “stylish,” (12) her look is always much more conservative and girlish than any woman of Betty’s age would affect in a big city.  She first shows up with her girlish hair pinned out of her face with a barrette, wearing a sweater emblazoned with sparkling rhinestones, and carrying old-fashioned blue suitcases.  Most of her shirts have collars or high necks, thus not revealing much skin, and especially no cleavage.  Her language, mannerisms, and gestures are frequently those of a young, naïve girl and express an optimism that Lynch saw as a characteristic of the 50’s.  Betty often has a wide, shining smile on her face, and she demonstrates a “gee whiz” disposition.  For example on the escalator in the airport, she looks around at everything she sees and, with an attitude of awe, exclaims, “I can’t believe it!”  It is particularly her resemblance to a Nancy Drew-like detective that recollects an era when all it took was a little pluck and stick-to-it-iveness for the girl next door to simply follow the clues to solve the puzzle.  Betty’s methods are illustrative of an approach to detective work radically dissimilar to the forensic sophistication of contemporary crime solving.

The contrast of these images from the fantasy narrative to the world portrayed in the traumatic Real/desire segment is sharp.  That world is dark, flat, and shadowy, and Diane appears ragged and worn.   Lynch is positing that world as a more “real” representation of current times; therefore while most viewers likely would have accepted the world of the fantasy narrative as representative of our own, they are shocked by the second segment into recognizing the illusion of the fantasy narrative’s world.  In this way Lynch is saying that recreating our world to look and seem like that of a regressive past is, in effect, a way of keeping ourselves asleep.  We create a vision of the comfortable, simple life that we long for, yet, Lynch tells us, doing so is all a fantasy.

By including past images from the 50’s in the first two-hour segment of the film, Lynch shows us that the bourgeois world people want to believe in is a fantasy created to escape darker realities of American life.  He also borrows a surrealist aesthetic from the past to challenge film viewers’ belief in the “reality” of the worlds created and perpetuated by the Hollywood film industry.  Instead, Lynch wants people to go ahead and enjoy what are very likely necessary fantasies – but not to mistake them for the “Real,” since doing so will lead to the failure of fantasy, just as Diane’s total investment in her fantasy left her with nowhere else to turn but back to the traumatic Real from which she originally tried to flee.  We need to create and enjoy our fantasies, Lynch tells us, but we should not believe they can fulfill our unresolved conflicts and desires from actual life, since doing so will only lead to tragedy.

It is well known that Lynch cites the influence of surrealism in his artistic career. (13) Some critics believe that Lynch’s surreal aesthetic is weak and mostly a superficial allusion (14); however, just as the classical surrealists saw their art as a means of effecting change (15), Lynch, too, uses surrealism with an activist purpose.

The classical surrealists had specific goals with their disorienting representations, goals beyond teasing the viewer with unconventional and highly stylized techniques.   Andre Breton, for example, thought that surrealism could lead to a total liberation of man, morals, and an intellectual rejuvenation and solve social, political, and capitalistic problems. (16) The classical surrealists aimed to destroy the false values and rationality of modern bourgeois society.  Breton was disgusted with the way that bourgeois society reduced people to commodities and confined individual desires; therefore he and other members of the surrealist movement exploited the material of unconscious and conscious states in efforts to expose man’s greed as well as society’s constraining values. (17) In other words, the surrealists hoped that their aesthetic could provoke revolt and promote social transformation. (18)

While Lynch may not hope that surrealism can today lead to the kind of change that the classical surrealists wanted, without question his use of the surreal aesthetic from the past has a subversive purpose.  In his films, Lynch frequently juxtaposes bizarre images and disrupts time through non-linear, circular narratives and discontinuous editing. These are techniques which the surrealists, like Breton, believed held the “power to disorient” the viewer’s traditional perception of the world. (19) Lynch uses such surrealist techniques and images to poke holes in the fantasy narrative of Mulholland Drive to disrupt its linearity and causality.  For example, in the scene where Adam Kesher is negotiating casting for his movie, the conversation unfolds for the most part in the way we would ordinarily expect a meeting to proceed.  We may be perplexed by the eccentricity of the espresso-drinking Castigliane brother, but his strange actions do not puncture the narrative.  However, when the time comes for the Castiglianes to report to their boss, viewers would expect to see a man in a plush high rise Hollywood office, but instead, Lynch gives us a midget, Mr. Roque.  What is a midget, dressed in a life-sized dummy outfit, who breathes through a respirator and lives in a dark, hermetically sealed room with a speechless butler looming in the shadowy background and underlings who can only speak to him through intercoms, doing as a representative of the “loftiest strata” of Hollywood decision makers?  This image is so bizarre that it disorients viewers, almost grinding the narrative to a halt.  An equally unusual character is the satanic-looking monster behind the dumpster at Winkie’s.  Not only is this character visually disorienting because of his grotesque appearance, but his presence literally stops the narrative: once the man from the diner sees this monster that he dreamed about, he faints.  At this point Lynch distorts sound and cuts to a shot of Rita sleeping and then quickly to a shot of Mr. Roque’s ear.  This sequence of shots leaves the viewer completely baffled; they do not cohere, they confuse.


Besides these shocking images, Lynch jars us from the linearity of the fantasy narrative with an assortment of other surreal images, such as the witch-like seer, Louise, who appears at Betty’s aunt’s bungalow door and babbles incoherently about impending doom, the Cowboy who speaks to Adam in riddles and wears garish western clothes, and the rotting dead body of a woman which certainly foreshadows Diane’s death, even though until that point we have not learned that there is such a character as Diane.  Most viewers would likely scratch their heads over these anomalous images, but it is easy to dismiss them because Lynch always takes us back to the main causal chain of events in the fantasy narrative.

Even cumulatively, the appearance of these images within the fantasy narrative are not enough to cause viewers to question that what they are viewing is a story that will eventually be solved – to break them out of the expectation that a Hollywood film detective story will end with the solution to the mystery revealed.  However, because the second segment of the film reveals that the first was just a fantasy, the presence of the surrealist images acquires greater significance and demonstrates Lynch’s challenge to the Hollywood film industry.  The sudden break into the traumatic Real/desire narrative is itself a subversive technique that defies the conventions of classical Hollywood cinema.  It is a surrealist violation of time and expectation that completely destroys the linear chain of events that had been building to that point, prevents closure – one of the primary features of Hollywood films – and creates utter confusion rather than clarity for the viewer.  Within the traumatic Real/desire narrative itself, time seems fractured and non-linear, and it is difficult to discern past from present.  Since we learn from the second segment that the first is an illusion, we therefore realize that we have duped ourselves into viewing the fantasy narrative that begins the film as the real story just like we approach the viewing of mainstream Hollywood films.

Here is Lynch striking at the heart of the Hollywood film industry.  Since we are forced to see the first portion of Mulholland Drive as a fantasy narrative, we can consider that entire segment as a metaphor for mainstream Hollywood cinema.  When we look at it from that perspective, we can see what Lynch is asking us to do.  He wants us to realize that the fantasy worlds that Hollywood films present us with offer a certain degree of wish fulfillment and escape by presenting us with comforting images of nostalgic ideal worlds and values.  According to critic Norman K. Denzin, America still sees the world according to the political ideology of the early twentieth century, and Lynch’s films show people locating regions of safety in fantasies, dreams, and nostalgia of the past, which allows them to sustain the key elements of a conservative, small town ideology in the face of an increasingly technological, violent, and fragmented world. (20)  Lynch, too, may wish for a world of unity and coherence, yet in the end, Lynch says that this coherence can be found only in fantasy creations of a 50’s fantasy past.  Lynch wants us to know that wish fulfillment fantasy is all Hollywood films offer – and that we should not approach them as if they are faithful representations of the world we live in.  Lynch seems to believe that people misrecognize the worlds created for them in Hollywood films as “real” instead of seeing them for the fantasies that they are.

In Mulholland Drive, David Lynch reminds his viewers that we, just like Diane Selwyn, live in a world that has become so cruel and arbitrary that it requires us to create mental fantasies in order to help us construct some sense of identity and unity, yet he, like Lacan, emphasizes the illusory nature of the hope that such fantasies can completely detach us from that world.  We need to escape from conflicts, and like Diane, we use memories and the past in creative, fantasmatic ways to try to do so.  Lynch is not telling us to abandon the pleasure that we take in escaping, but he wants us to be wary.  He doesn’t want us to stop remembering or looking to the past for potential images of worlds that we hope will provide us with a solution to the problems of the present – he himself has done exactly that – but he doesn’t think it is possible to completely inhabit lost worlds or to use them to totally block out the difficulties and obstacles that our world presents us with.  Lynch is telling us to use the past imaginatively and advocates a kind of film that encourages viewers to keep one foot in the fantasy world and one foot in the world of the real.


1. Lopate, Philip and Amy Taubin.  “Welcome to L.A.: Mulholland Drive.”  Film

Comment.  37.5.  (Sept-Oct 2001): 44-50.

2. Fuller, Graham.  “Babes in Babylon.” Sight and Sound.  11.12 (Dec 2001): 14-17.

3. Gallop, Jane. Reading Lacan.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985, p. 81.

4. Ibid.

5. Lacan, Jacques. Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis.  Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller.  Trans. Alan Sheridan.  New York: Norton, 1978, p. 270.

6. McGowan, Todd.  “Finding Ourselves on a Lost Highway: David Lynch’s Lesson in Fantasy.”  Cinema Journal.  39.2 (2000): 51-73.

7. Zizek, Slavoj. The Plague of Fantasies.  New York: Verso, 1997, p. 32.

8. McGowan, p. 78.

9. Lacan, p. 256.

10 Rodley, Chris. Lynch on Lynch. Faber and Faber, London, 1997, p. 4-5.

11. Ibid, p. 71.

12. McGowan, pp. 67-89.

13. Rodley, p. 18.

14. Rosenbaum, Jonathan.  Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks.  Ed. Lavery, David.  Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995.  25.

15. Kovacs, Steven.  From Enchantment to Rage: The Story of Surrealist Cinema.  New Jersey: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1980, p. 250-2.

16. Ibid.

17. Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms.  New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999, p. 310.

18. Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity.  Cambridge: Blackwell Press 1990, p. 173.

19. Hammond, Paul.  The Shadow and its Shadow.  San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2000, p. 73-5.

20. Denzin, Norman K.  Images of Postmodern Society: Social Theory and Contemporary Cinema.  London: Sage Publications, 1991, p. 232.

About The Author

Clint Stivers is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Tech., USA. His research focuses on American cinema from 1967 to the present.

Related Posts