David Lynch’s filmography is filled with protagonists vying for control over their own story. I kicked off this series discussing Eraserhead in that context, and Lost Highway’s protagonist serves as an obvious example when he states that “I like to remember things my way…not necessarily how they happened.” More subtly, Alvin Straight’s story is so immaculately crafted that it almost removes all traces of his personal wrongdoing, while Blue Velvet’s Jeffrey Beaumont does a fine bit of detective work to reinstitute order in a small town in a less direct bit of narrative-making. Perhaps it is for this reason that Lynch so often draws on film noir, understood by some to be a genre in large part defined by a battle for narrative control—think of the posthumous narration of Sunset Boulevard, the retrospective clarification of Double Indemnity or the appeals to fate in Detour. We can also see the femme fatale, the detective and low-key lighting throughout Lynch’s work, but nowhere do these noir motifs rise to the surface as prominently as in Mulholland Drive.
Before getting there, it helps to zoom out a bit, to look at Mulholland Drive in how its tone and narrative structure relates to previous Lynch films. From this point of view, it isn’t a stretch to say that Mulholland Drive plays like a film that Lynch had been working toward his whole career. In addition to the self-conscious narrating, it contains the noir/melodrama/soap mix of Blue Velvet and “Twin Peaks,” the bifurcated, complementary storytelling form of Fire Walk with Me and Lost Highway and an abundance of Surrealist imagery—to name just the obvious similarities. But with Mulholland Drive, Lynch seems to have upped the ante, moving from a small town to a big city, giving his first story far more time than the second, as if confounding the audience is even more important, and disintegrating the boundary between dream and reality even more than normal as a result.
Indeed, the traditional understanding of Mulholland Drive—in which the majority of the film is the dream of a failed actress, Diane (Naomi Watts), making her life more ideal as “Betty,” while the final quarter is the reality from which she sought to escape—goes out the window as soon as you consider that this “reality” follows a logic far more dream-like than the “dream” section. It is in this final quarter, after all, that characters materialize and disappear; that a knock on the door is transformed after an extensive flashback (or some form of mental digression) into a sound effect of the subconscious; that linear time and space are finally broken with flashbacks and memories. If Lost Highway is a Möbius strip, a demonstration of the Freudian uncanny that will continue to lead Fred back to the realization that he is a murderer, Mulholland Drive avoids such metaphors altogether. It is remarkably open, with a character—the “monster” behind the dumpster—further from diegetic space-time than Lost Highway’s Mystery Man or “Twin Peaks’” Killer BOB that exists primarily as a psychic displacement and rationalization of unthinkable horror.
On the other hand, if we understand Mulholland Drive as a noir, this understanding shows Diane/Betty splitting the “fatale” bit of the femme fatale away from the desirable bit, reimagined as Rita—an explicit nod to Rita Hayworth and Gilda. But that’s the beauty of Mulholland Drive: looking at it one way seems to disprove a conclusion that seems perfectly sensible from another perspective.
Unavoidable in conversations of both Surrealism and noir (itself influenced by Surrealism in its frequent equation of sex and death) is the issue of gender politics, an understandable sticking point for many in some of Lynch’s works, particularly Lost Highway, which either borders on misogyny or indicts it (and possibly its generic permutations throughout noir) depending on how you look at it. The reversal of the noir protagonist’s gender and subsequent circumventing of the narrative makes it arguably Lynch’s most complex (and at the same time most favorable) depiction of women.
Moving on, Mulholland Drive is compellingly watchable in part because of the precision and care with which it registers details. In the first Winkie’s scene, as the two men walk slowly toward the back alley, the camera, presumably assuming the point of view of the man who had the dream, turns for a moment and seems to focus on the pay phone. Within the context of the scene, it is a curious but not ineffective form of misdirection. But Betty uses that phone later to call the police to inquire about the accident Rita was in the night before, retroactively providing a link between the vision of the dreamer, our vessel into the world of the Surreal, and Betty, a link that informs the entire film. A bit later, the hitman asks a prostitute for information, and although the scene plays out in longshot, we can see bruises on her arms in the shape of a hand—a narratively-unnecessary but atmospherically-telling detail that reinforces the notion of unseen threat that permeates the film.
Indeed, the visibility and invisibility of threat in Mulholland Drive extends far beyond the femme fatale’s unknowability that so often constitutes threats in film noir. Here, we have a bumbling, incompetent hitman whose reason for stealing a phone book is unknown, a cowboy who speaks cryptically and whomever is driving Rita near the film’s beginning all registering as threats. If this section of the film really is Diane’s dream and an attempt to separate the good girl in Camilla (registered as Rita) from the bad, where does that threat resurface? Great as Lynch’s ‘90s films are, they suffer slightly in that they are far less open than his earlier and later work, and Mulholland Drive’s scenes, which barely register as diegetic at all, push Lynch’s narrative formulations into heretofore unseen territory. He seems to be telling parallel and spiritually true stories purely for the sake of atmosphere, teasing their significance through editing and sequencing without ever clarifying how, exactly, they relate. As such, we are left with abstract notions of the “Bum” (as the credits call him) behind the Winkie’s, the faceless characters of Hollywood, the blue-haired lady who compels the film to end and the emcee in Club Silencio all acting as relatives of Lost Highway’s Mystery Man, except they can never terrify us in as concrete a way as the Mystery Man does. They instead remain compellingly enigmatic.
But forget trying to “make sense” of it. If you have made it this far into Lynch’s oeuvre, you know that the “answers” to the plot’s open questions, despite being potentially revealing, can distract from the sheer sensation Lynch pours into his work. Mulholland Drive is an exemplary example of Sontag’s “erotics of art,” images possessing emotional potency on their own, but with this emotional potency is a reward for those willing to intellectualize. The Winkie’s diner scene, Betty’s audition and the subsequent cut to the musical audition across the street, the horrifying peek into Diane’s apartment, Club Silencio and the unforgettable finale are all among the best scenes Lynch has ever done, each worth warranting a shot-by-shot analysis if space were to permit.
Part of what makes Lynch such a great director is that his movies always work on multiple levels and lend themselves to multiple interpretations, but Mulholland Drive epitomizes this tendency. As provocative as it may be as a film noir or an auteur film, it’s equally stunning as Surrealism, horror, melodrama or a movie about movies.