Mulholland Drive still confounds us.
From the outset, this dreamlike tale of how Betty (Naomi Watts) came to Hollywood is an engaging yet nuanced investigation of the nature of expectation in filmmaking. This is achieved through a thorough cross-examination of the psyche of its lead. Significantly, in her breakthrough role, Watts brings a fragile yet intuitive understanding of the character and this rooting allows for a basic desire from the audience for her success. This is aided by Watts’ birdlike demeanour and unabashed investment in the role which turns decidedly opaquer in later scenes.
Nonetheless, despite Watts’ character adding some ‘tangible’ sense of structure to this film, Lynch’s frequent and seismic shifts in genre and tone are as entrancing 16 years on. Commencing confidently as a neo-noir in the classic mould of Out of the Past, the 1947 masterpiece by Jacques Tourneur, Lynch establishes the hard-boiled edge which will insinuate itself into this film; ‘Rita’ (Laura Elena Herring) is embroiled in a visceral car crash which in turn, causes her to lose her memory. Consequently, Rita wanders into the house of Hollywood hopeful Betty, seeking safety. Yet safety or security are not themes which Lynch aspires to flesh out with any great desire. The director, not content with simplicity as a rule, transitions adroitly into a classic 50’s mystery thriller. This transition is complete with the classic amnesia trope which, known by its distinctly scientific moniker, ‘Applied Phlebotinum’ is a recurring motif of every form of fiction, from Noir novellas to mid 90’s romantic comedies.
This transition has led many critics and members of the public to discount Mulholland Drive as a Lynchian dive into the surreal. Rather, I argue that the strength of this picture comes from its seductive realism offset by the dream-like quality of the fugue state produced by this opening stylistic gambit. This is because it allows for the meditation on the meaning of memory and perspective.
However, the crux of the film, the relationship between ‘Rita’ (Laura Elena Herring) and Betty does not yield to easy interpretation or reflection. Indeed, the sequence of events and plot strands are akin to the snaking road which coils through the San Fernando Valley, from which this work takes its name. Furthermore, with each genre shift we are hypnotically entranced. It is portrayed as if one event or development leads to another but none come to fruition. Indeed, the use of vignettes underscores the cinematographic fracturing of the characters into multifaceted shards which then coalesce into different forms. As such, the relationship which forms the centre of this maelstrom of Lynchian tropes, is in my eyes, a Gothic fairy tale in which nothing is solid.
For instance, close-up shots such as those where Rita is considering the mirror could be the proverbial looking glass, with the camera fading and refocusing accordingly and to great effect. Yet, what is undeniable is the fluency of the central relationship between Rita and Betty which builds from subtle desire to a naked kind of eroticism not seen since the heyday of Goddard or De Sica. Certainly, the couple mirror each other, in which their mutual interactions conflate their actions and investigations with a slow-build of erotic desire. Nonetheless, this never delves into gratuitous or overwrought sex scenes, all is perceived as a natural development of the two characters’ motivations and desires.
However, this film represents a carnival of dream logic in which nothing is as it seems. What are the implications of the scenes at the Silencio nightclub? Who is the Cowboy? And whom are the laughing old-couple? These questions continue to perplex and confound even the most ardent Lynch fans, some 16 years after its release.
Indeed, you can imagine this post-modern masterpiece to be a lost work in the hands of a lesser director, yet as Lynch has continuously demonstrated in a patchwork career which ranges from the art-house to Twin Peaks, the formal control he employs brings out a level of intensity which is a blessing in disguise. Note for instance, the famous diner scene in which the deranged composition of the score, haunting mid-level shots and inherently macabre acting from Patrick Fischer as the Cowboy sets the tone for the film, a tone of lasting eeriness. Here, the camera rather than intrude on the scene, is a careful witness, the laconic presence which neither judges or insinuates, rather it acts as the testimony to the mise en scène which progresses with acerbic and dark glee.
Underpinning the entire work are themes which Lynch has previously scoured for meaning in Blue Velvet or other more twisted tales such as Eraserhead, including Eisenhower-era naiveté, a healthy dose of misogyny (audition scene) and of course, middle-America fascism. Moreover, this subtle investigation of the nature of our human relationships in Mulholland Drive by a director renowned for his twisting and ultimately jarring mental processes feels most technically like the works of Buñuel. Yet, whereas with Buñuel, there is a profound sense of some internal function, or logic which dictates the purpose of the narrative, Lynch’s technique verges on the synaptic destruction of any sense of logic. Puzzle pieces such as the Blue Box or Key allow for misdirection to abound throughout and add no sense of narrative coherence. Indeed, this is exactly what Lynch was aiming for.
Ultimately, for over 16 years, people are still debating this film’s myriad meanings. From my critical perspective, the strength of the piece as a piece of cinematic art is that it offers little in the way of interpretation, rather interpretation functions as a leap of faith into the cosmic and Freudian nightmare of Lynch’s soul. Essentially, Lynch favours the narrative in lieu of simple narrative diegesis, the very act of deciphering and seeking meaning the whole theme of the film. Overall, Lynch’s captivating film is a descent into the rabbit-hole, a twisting labyrinth of dead-ends, in which questions, are perennially unanswered; “Hey, pretty girl, time to wake up.”
Mulholland Drive is in cinemas now.
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Words by James Hill