Mulholland Dr.

Mulholland Dr. (2001 France/USA 145 mins)

Prod Co: Les Films Alain Sarde/Asymmetrical Productions/Babbo Inc./Canal + Prod: Neal Edelstein, Tony Krantz, Michael Polaire, Alain Sarde, Mary Sweeney Dir, Scr, Sound Des: David Lynch Phot: Peter Deming Ed: Mary Sweeney Prod Des: Jack Fisk Mus: Angelo Badalamenti

Cast: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Ann Miller, Dan Hedaya, Justin Theroux, Brent Briscoe, Robert Forster, Katharine Towne, Billy Ray Cyrus

Filmmaker David Lynch has been exploring dreams throughout his films since the late 1960s. Even in his mostly conventional narrative films, The Elephant Man (1980) and The Straight Story (1999), there are strange dreamlike images. 2001’s Mulholland Dr., his last completed film so far, is his most focused, least flawed film (1).

Everything in Lynch’s universe has another side, sometimes perverse, sometimes slightly out-of-synch and quirky enough for you to notice every detail, every colour, every movement, and every sound. But his surrealism is doggedly pure and naïve even when things are at their darkest. He creates cinematic poetry that makes us see things, ordinary things, in brand new ways. His films switch tones and perspectives from make-believe fairy tale fantasies to dark dangerous alternate realities that can play with time-lines and employ dual narratives. This means it is often unsettling to watch much of his work. Lynch also has a strong sentimental streak, attributed perhaps to his age and his “normal” upbringing. This sentimentality is sometimes a flaw in his films, but it is also disarming and lends a sense of warmth to his various projects – which is sometimes very much needed to contrast with some of the grisly images he puts onto the screen.

Mulholland Dr. focuses on two women. One, who we will call Betty (Naomi Watts), seems to be a naïve small town girl arriving in Hollywood after winning a dance contest in the Midwest. The other, who we’ll call Rita (Laura Elena Harring), has lost her memory after a car accident and winds up in the apartment Betty has just rented. The two attempt to reconstruct Rita’s memory and along the way meet several strange characters including a low-life killer for hire, an arrogant movie director, an elderly couple, a retired actress/landlady, shady movie producers, and a weird guy in a cowboy outfit. They also seem to fall in love with each other.

The main character also re-imagines portions of her own life in stylised cinematic fashion with moments of fantasy and dream logic-driven surrealism that attempt to make a kind of emotional sense out of the events that seem to be occurring. The line between reality and fantasy is blurred.

If Mulholland Dr. was playing completely fair you would patiently wait for the various pieces to fall into place solving the mystery and tying up loose ends. It is not that simple, however. Lynch is exploring ideas and creative impulses more than following a tightly knitted narrative. It is the journey that matters most, not a tell-all revelation or epiphany that makes everything we have seen become crystal clear. When it seems possible to assign a reasonable logic to what is going on, Lynch pulls the carpet from underneath you and spins new images and ideas – too many to make complete sense of.

Mulholland Dr. further explores, almost beyond recognition, ideas Hitchcock played with in both Vertigo (1958) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). The female protagonists in both Shadow of a Doubt and Mulholland Dr. see everything through purposefully naïve, rose-colored glasses. Reality, of course, is different and gets in the way of the fantasy. Lynch goes far beyond Hitchcock, beyond also Bergman’s Persona (1966).

As Mulholland Dr. begins you have no idea that the timeline of events is out of order, and the first section of the film is not what it appears. Fans of Lynch expect to go along for a ride that includes quirky characters, and odd coincidences complete with exaggerated sounds, ethereal music, and those idealised late 1950s pop culture references co-existing in a stylised modern era. Lynch juxtaposes a character’s naïve enthusiastic perspective with dark depravity and real world suffering. Lynch has long been fascinated with fear, emotional quirks and suffering, and you would not be the least bit surprised to learn that Lynch had a traumatic life-altering event as a child or suffered some kind of child abuse.

David Keith Lynch was born on January 20th 1946 in Missoula, Montana – the kind of town that he would use to create squeaky clean small town images in several of his films, most notably Blue Velvet (1986). His father Donald was a research scientist for the U.S. Forest Service. The family moved five times by the time David was 14. He insists in interviews that his upbringing was idyllic and he grew up in various mundane, white-picket fence kinds of small to medium towns. Although he says he had lots of friends, and was not a loner, the numerous moves also meant he was often the new kid in his neighborhood. We can assume he had a lot more exposure and experiences with a wider variety of people than most children do.

He has also talked about his life being too normal, too clean and healthy – to the point where he would imagine dark, unclean contrasts to his real life. And he could probably go darker with his imagination because of how safe and secure he felt with his family and circumstances. It is unlikely he talked about many of the things he imagined, so the thoughts became prisoners inside his head waiting to be freed to inspire and create the images and sounds he has conjured up from his early experimental film work in the mid- to late 1960s to his better known movies – beginning with Eraserhead in 1977. Being normal and feeling safe and secure allowed him to think up stranger and more bizarre things.

Since he didn’t know abuse or suffering first-hand, but only through books, movies and talking to others – it holds a fascination for him. He’s also able to explore it and play with everything he imagines with an innocent detachment. The images are pure imagination fed not by internal suffering, but by imagining the suffering of others. He is fascinated with abnormality because it is something he has seen, and heard about but not personally experienced. In all of his films, there are subconscious visualisations that are explored. They are not used in merely one sequence, but integrated throughout.

Mulholland Dr. ideally should be watched without being overly analytical. Sit back and let the creative ideas flow. Be patient and give up control to Lynch if you can – if you dare. Lynch knows the audience needs some identifiable reference points and characters that resemble someone you know (or yourself). He delivers near clichés to serve this purpose. He asks for your trust, and serves some of your needs and expectations so that he can then twist, turn and explore alternate realities.

There’s a very noticeable optimistic, idealised, “I’m going to make it in Hollywood because I believe strongly that I can”, kind of back-story that drives Betty in Mulholland Dr. It feels partly like the plots of many of MGM’s best-known ‘40s musicals. Rita is an idealised twist on Rita Hayworth’s Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946). It’s not A Star is Born however, but a strange noir mystery involving amnesia. And Lynch is delivering it through his perspective, which is going to be perceived slightly differently by everyone who is watching. Some will think it’s a bit corny and clichéd, others will view it as more satiric (easily targeting the shark-like ambitions of shallow show business folks), others as a sort of homage to the movies Lynch viewed as a child.

Lynch isn’t deconstructing narrative (something Godard has been doing in his movies for over 40 years) but rather capturing surrealism (but without the skepticism or cynicism of a Buñuel) in a purer form than most have done before him. It also seems that Lynch is recreating an unreliable narrative from an obsessed perspective (fantasies and dreams of a borderline or wholly psychotic person). He has done this before, in sections of Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, and throughout most of Lost Highway (1997).

Lost Highway to many is indecipherable. You’ll perhaps enjoy it more if you take into consideration Lynch’s subconscious belief that the film was driven by the O. J. Simpson trial. The idea is that he was showing the kind of human duality that would allow someone to commit a horrible crime and then become completely detached from it – as if someone else was responsible for it. It’s the ultimate variation on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Lynch talked about this in an interview with Andy Klein for Salon.com (1). He mentions that if Simpson did commit these horrible murders, could he really just casually go and play golf like nothing at all had happened? Lynch however was not conscious at the time of the connection between Lost Highway and the O. J. Simpson case. It was something that seemed to make perfect sense after he saw Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis (1996), which was made completely independently of Lost Highway and yet has an almost identical plot and plays with the same ideas. How could two identical ideas separated only by perspective and tone appear in almost the same time period? There must be a common experience shared by the creators of the films. There was, thinks Lynch, as the O. J. Simpson case was all over the airwaves at the time both projects were being separately conceived.

Don’t expect Lynch to explain things for you, however. It is very rare that he speaks of definite influences and what his ideas might mean. He has no interest in doing DVD commentaries to talk about his movies, and rarely talks in specifics about any of his projects.

As I mentioned before, the best way to watch Mulholland Dr. is to be patient and give control to Lynch. It is not an easy thing to do because of the way we have been conditioned to watch movies. We often let a film assault us with loud, colourful, quick cut stimuli that simply wows us into a state where we don’t think about what we are watching and perhaps convince ourselves that this is what an escape to the movies is all about. Suspend reality completely. Other movies get us involved with them on a personal and emotional level. A few offer us puzzles like a mystery whodunit.

Mulholland Dr. may seem like the ultimate puzzle movie (like Christopher Nolan’s Memento [2000]), but Lynch has more on his mind than puzzles. He wags this in your face with plot complications involving a blue key and puzzle box that might represent the identity of a character or their guilty conscience. If you insist on trying to make sense of most of it, you’ll encounter several illogical pieces of information, not to mention dream logic red herrings that many will find very frustrating to try and figure out and force-fit into the puzzle of the movie. Lynch isn’t “cheating” by doing any of these things, he’s decided to follow his creative impulses, sometimes in completely improvisational ways that aren’t going to neatly conform to someone’s logic in constructing what some of this movie means.

There are many critics and fans of the film who have offered up various detailed explanations for what the movie means in whole and in part (3). Lynch admits in interviews to enjoying the various interpretations and thoughts about his film, but he is not going to explain anything about the movie. And besides, if your questions about the movie got answered satisfactorily and completely, you could stop wondering about it and move on. Better to keep thinking about it, wondering about it, and watching it from time to time.

In Mulholland Dr. we are tipped off about dreams (if you watch carefully). The mundane and ordinary could be disproportionately important or exaggerated to absurdity for no particular reason. Lynch explores the stuff of dreams literally, psychologically (but without meaningful explanation or analysis) and viscerally. It matches perfectly with this story of Hollywood – the city of dreams and the Hollywood of phony facades and perfect but shallow beautiful people.

It’s a rare movie that makes you consider what it is you are watching (and why) and demands that you grab a friend or a stranger to discuss the film after you have seen it. Is it supposed to be funny? Is it as dark and creepy as I think it is? We aren’t used to viewing films that want us to decide for ourselves what we think about them. Most films tell us what to think, and make sure we know exactly what they are doing with winks and nudges and reminders of obvious plot points or repeated jokes. Music and editing drive home important points and tell us how to react and feel. In Lynch’s films much is left completely unexplained.

“Dreams are experiences that accept and rebel against internal logic”, Lynch explained to me in a phone conversation several years ago.

The significance and meanings of one thing to one person can be very different for someone else. What I write and how it turns out in its finished form changes. I sometimes create moments or have brand new ideas while I’m on the set. I don’t exactly know what will happen when I begin shooting a film, do you?

So if you insist on trying to explain MOST of Mulholland Dr. – knock yourself out. Have fun. It’s all conjecture. Lynch did not have an extremely detailed master plan, or work backwards obscuring answers by weaving an intricate web.

Mulholland Dr. was originally written and then filmed to be a two-hour pilot for a new television series that was commissioned by ABC. After Twin Peaks and the short-lived comedy series, On Air, you would think Lynch would steer clear of ABC and network television, but he wanted to return to the challenge of an open-ended story. ABC approved the script, but when they screened the pilot, they lost faith and interest in the project. Lynch supposedly did an alternate, shorter cut, but the reception remained chilly. The project was too expensive to acquire from ABC and re-launch on cable television.

However, the French, Canal + and Les Films Alain Sarde, agreed to finance the project as a theatrical feature. Lynch approached the material differently now that he knew it would not wind-up being an open-ended story made for television. Lynch re-assembled the cast and shot several new sequences (over 45 minutes of new material), including the famous lesbian lovemaking scene. THAT scene would seem to be a completely male fantasy view of lesbian sex – yet it works in context in a film with two female protagonists because how else would such a scene appear if it were imagined (even by a female) as something you would see on a movie screen? It would be shown in a commercial feature as a male fantasy – and so we get to see it that way. It’s not real or realistic, but it’s valid.

As a result of Mulholland Dr.’s production history and long gestation period Lynch took a complex project that had many potential story and character arcs and re-conceived it as a theatrical film. He needed to compress his ideas down to their essentials, and cut out the fat he might have left in if Mulholland Dr. had remained a television series. The result is a very rich meal with multiple courses full of flavours (ideas); more than you could possibly eat at one sitting. Since most of the characters have back-stories that could have been developed in a variety of ways, there’s a lot to conjecture and consider.

So whatever form of analysis you choose to use and whatever conclusions you decide work for you in explaining Mulholland Dr., remember that things can always change. Even if Lynch decides to talk about subconscious influences on his project, that doesn’t mean you have to see things the same way he does. That’s the whole point. To escape pre-conceptions so that you can interpret what you are seeing for yourself. What you are watching may not have any specific meaning – yet there’s a meaning for you. Figure it out.

In the end, the puzzle of Mulholland Dr. is merely an excuse for the audience to pay closer attention to the entire movie and is not something Lynch is completely committed to. It is his device and he plays with it, comments on it, but refuses to completely embrace it or allow his movie to become a completely packaged narrative. It breathes, it dances, and even after it ends you can continue driving on the winding road imagining even more than the movie has given you.


  1. Mulholland Dr. is Lynch’s last released theatrical film. He has been working for at least two years on Inland Empire (featuring Jeremy Irons, Laura Dern, Harry Dean Stanton, etc.) which he is shooting entirely on digital. He has said, “I am done with film”, liking how he can immediately see what he is creating in the digital realm. No official release date has been given. He began production without a script, just an outline and is writing it as he shoots. Look for updates at: http://www.lynchnet.com.
  2. Andy Klein, “David Lynch’s Hollywood Nightmares”, Salon.com.
  3. See, for example: http://archive.salon.com/ent/movies/feature/2001/10/23/mulholland_drive_analysis. I would only read these AFTER seeing the film since they contain spoilers.

About The Author

Christopher J. Jarmick is an author (The Glass Cocoon), poet (Red House Tavern Tales), and Financial Advisor. He is executive Vice President of the Washington Poets Association and the President of PEN-Washington. His previous Senses of Cinema contributions include essays on Doris Wishman and Black Sunday. He lives in the Seattle, Washington area.

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