Something I’ve always been meaning to write for a long while was about how my own discovery of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive changed my own life and probably for the better at that. This was actually my second David Lynch film after having fallen in love with The Elephant Man and even at only two films I knew he would already become a favourite of mine. I first saw Mulholland Drive at only fourteen years old and immediately claimed it a favourite yet I could barely even put out a word to describe why I loved it but rather instead I just watched it again and I still couldn’t put as much as a finger on it. I almost wanted to say that David Lynch may have done the impossible but over the years I’m still struggling to capture a clear perspective because I don’t even know if I fully understand what I believe to be the greatest American film of the 21st century and at that, David Lynch’s finest work.
In order to get the basics out of the way, we have the story of an amnesiac and an aspiring actress driven by her dreams and how their encounter sets them out for something more. This premise alone only lays out the basic pieces of the puzzle for a number of vignettes follow that involve a filmmaker named Adam Kesher, a faded actress, a rising star, and a hitman. At first they seem unconnected but in the film’s clever reveal a new cleverness arises. Originally having been conceived as a television pilot, the final results of Mulholland Drive only have ever managed to find a much more fitting home through the cinema where it goes to make Lynch’s experiment probably his finest cinematic achievement to date. The idea that it takes what appears to be something as simple as a mystery behind an amnesiac’s identity in order to go about with the studio system while reveling in Lynch’s deepest fascinations.
One layer of the film’s brilliance only comes about from how it subtly observes Hollywood for he takes pride reveling in the glamour but resents it at the same time. Through a subplot regarding Adam Kesher, he is shown to be a director struggling with the final decision of whom he should cast in the leading role and under pressure by mobsters he is forced to cast an unknown actress by the name of Camilla Rhodes. On one end, there’s a nice bit of irony when we come to consider how it managed to bring Naomi Watts to stardom on the spot, but clearly there’s a clever condemnation through this subplot that only opens one door for the film’s mastery. David Lynch, a man who was so clearly fascinated with how the studio system controls a vision together with desires to draw audiences – exposes a perfect moral deconstruction of this system for beginners through Kesher’s role in the film, before ultimately a big push comes along.
Duality is yet another running idea that creates the haunting impact Mulholland Drive leaves behind. The pairing of Naomi Watts and Laura Harring draws back towards Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Persona in some manner, whether it be through atmosphere or through nature. For David Lynch, it is a term with incredible broadness, but it is always present thematically as made clear from the imagery. We have dreams conflicting with reality, colours conflicting amongst one another, repetition, images of the real and a reflection of fantasy, or references towards other sources to the point of a copy. But how does any of it tie together with Betty and Rita’s pairing? Putting the obvious chemistry aside with the wonderful performances from both actresses, we have two hopefuls as shown to us inside of our first half as they are wandering through Hollywood for what they believe to take them closer to “Rita”‘s identity. When the second half comes along, a reveal twists these hopes a different path: towards fate.
The way the star system works comes in, together with a certain mood to come out from another recurring trademark from Lynch’s end: the dream. As noted in a previous paragraph, we have a dash of irony with Naomi Watts’s eventual rise to stardom after her role in this film but at the same time, one can watch attention come to new stars and how it greatly affects someone within their prime. The figure of Diane Selwyn is an essential one to understand for the idea runs that she once was a star who had everything only to have lost it at a later point. Camilla Rhodes was an unknown who gets to become Hollywood’s darling with ease. With Diane’s fate having been made clear, another thought comes about, what happens with Camilla after her prime has come like Diane’s has?
How well does all of this work in order to create the perfect noir? It could be that “noir” may not be the best word to describe David Lynch’s directorial choices for it takes a different approach towards mystery towards his acclaimed Blue Velvet. But the idea still runs clear in how David Lynch assembles the puzzle and puts the pieces together. In a recreation of what we would already recognize from the start as unconnected fragments all that take place within Hollywood and like he would have done from Blue Velvet, suspense only rides up as the film keeps moving. As a noir, the typical archetypes are present if distorted, but its final reveal ultimately forms something special. Yet it isn’t a reveal that feels cheap, rather instead it is one that makes sense thematically.
Where do all of these vignettes connect? The film’s first half only shows everything seemingly out of order and without any sort of ties but by the time the film reaches its conclusion, small details from these vignettes only allow everything to tie it all with ease. It would already be hard enough trying to catch up on so much of this from the first viewing, although subsequent revisits have only went on to give Mulholland Drive even more power, but what’s undeniable is how this dreamlike universe is absolutely mesmerizing from first frame to last. Then an image as baffling as the opening jitterbug sequence and its subsequent fade only begin to tie things even more as the work continues to speak while it lasts. David Lynch creates a new logic out of Mulholland Drive and its flow, but one in such a sense that feels nothing short of alluring.
Ultimately, what does any of this mean? If there were a reason as to why it all works so well, it would be because Hollywood is essentially the perfect place for David Lynch to let out all of his greatest fascinations with dreams and the surreal come to be. In the City of Angels, dreams are born to eventually die just as humans do. One’s own desires ultimately lead them towards where they head at one point of their life and their eventual fate. But the whole film doesn’t reveal itself from its transition between halves to be a twist so simple, rather instead a perfect mirror of fantasy and reality, and how we see art playing a factor into our own lives. It plays out as an imitation of our own lives and becomes the space in which all our deepest feelings are locked.
For how much it all may seem, Mulholland Drive actually proves itself a relatively easy film to understand – if it still is just one that inspires a lot of thought to write about. From the film’s origin as a failed television pilot comes one of the most mesmerizing works of art to have been laid upon the big screen and a reflection of art’s effect on reality. But the fact so much is still left unclear only allows such a work to become all the more haunting, especially from how Lynch has formed a universe that creates a parallel perfect for the work. This parallel being one that goes beyond dreams and the real. But like a dream, everything feels so hypnotic. A transcendent piece of work that only leaves more desire to be found, calling for revisits, for it only inspires more thought coming as one picks up on small pieces they may have missed – and quite arguably the greatest American film of the 21st century.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Universal.
Directed by David Lynch
Screenplay by David Lynch
Produced by Neal Edelstein, Tony Krantz, Michael Polaire, Alain Sarde, Mary Sweeney
Starring Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux, Ann Miller, Robert Forster
Release Year: 2001
Running Time: 146 minutes