Mulholland Drive (2001): Hollywood’s Poison Valentine

The great archaic illusion of the Hollywood star is worshipped, ridiculed, upheld and ripped to shreds in David Lynch’s cult neo-noir 2001 classic “Mulholland Drive”. It grossed over $20 million and won Lynch the 2001 Best Director Prize at Cannes. Yet most curious is the idea that this film remains a mystery to its audience, it continually offers us layers upon layers of questions throughout its 150 minute runtime and refrains from uttering the answer we’re starved of right from its opening. In fact, the only clear answer we get is the final line 


followed by a silent blackout, perhaps manifesting Lynch’s preoccupation with the theme of existentialism throughout his work, notably in his well loved television series “Twin Peaks”. 

This film resonates with me in particular as someone who is constantly halted by the illusions life displays through the literal interpretations of an autistic mind, the smokescreens upheld to disguise the morbid truth, fooled by what we see and pulled down the long drive to reality. It also really corresponds with my intense fascination with the haunting decay of Los Angeles as a city and the mysterious infrastructure of Hollywood, the age-old embodiment of the young star dismantled by the hidden truth they would soon discover. The fate that was echoed in the likes of Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and the dismayed, short-lived hopes of Peg Entwistle, who infamously exposed the darkness of the Hollywood dream by committing suicide on the Hollywood Sign. Its really about the “city of stars” illustrated in Damien Chazelle’s colourful “La La Land”, instead depicted as the city of disillusionment, ghost towns, Charles Manson, drugs, gangs, and washed up stars – not quite a quirky tune Emma Stone would sing whilst tap dancing near the Griffith Observatory. This is the alternative concept depicted in “Mulholland Drive,” to me, intoxicatingly refreshing yet frighteningly explicit.

Before I delve into an analysis of the plot, I want to establish the central personae and their roles within the plot. The first four are interesting to explain because its hard to really see them as characters in the film, more like ideas Lynch wanted to play around with:

1) Rita, the fantasy. A dark haired femme-fatale, who’s real name we are never certain of. She appears like a film noir heroine, strikingly beautiful and dark lipped, portrayed as a dreamer’s object of desire throughout the film – yet she’s an amnesiac after being involved in a car crash on Mulholland Drive, thus her personality is completely blank. Unable to remember her real name, she sees a poster for the movie “Gilda” starring Rita Hayworth and takes her name, becoming known to us as “Rita”. This touches on the theme of identity, losing it in Hollywood and taking someone else’s in order to live through one’s personal fantasies.

2) Betty Elms, the ingenue. Pretty, hopeful & naive, she’s travelled all the way to Hollywood from Ontario to become the next big movie star. Her name echoes classic Hollywood Bettys; Betty Grable, Bette Davis, Betty Hutton, Betty Bacall, even the cutesy pinup cartoon Betty Boop. She is bursting with anticipation and eagerness at her prospective career in movies, reminiscent of blonde bombshells of the fifties, whilst those around her scorn her foolish expectations of the world.

3) Camilla Rhodes, the star. The girl destined for success, everyone adores her through her cutie-pie face and silent charm, she’s also the girl who beats Betty in every audition. She isn’t the artist’s choice, she hardly says a thing at all to get anywhere, but the domineering powers from above have chosen her and nothing will come in the way of that, touching on corruption and typecasting in Hollywood.

4) Diane Selwyn, the failure. She’s what’s discarded from the churning Hollywood machine, forgotten, uninvited, undermined. Once upon a time she was a Betty, a young hopeful with dreams of fame and stardom, but no matter how hard she tried she could never beat Camilla, and consequently inhabits the opposite environment, a dark, fading room that seems to stink of her own corpse.

The film opens with a very typical Lynch-esque experimental moment, a flamboyant sequence of young jitterbug dancers tossing and twirling in front of a purple backdrop, each overlapping and eclipsing each other … and importantly a flaring image of a beautiful blonde young woman accompanied by an older couple – this is the girl we’ll come to know as Betty, portrayed by Naomi Watts in (ironically) her breakthrough role. She arrives in LAX with the same old couple from the opening who send her off with loving and hopeful smiles, however we then cut to seeing them in a car, laughing. This time they don’t seem to be laughing with Betty – they’re laughing at her.  As a spectator at this point, we realise that this seemingly inconsequential couple are in fact going to be the backdrop throughout the film. They have the most power; they know something that neither us nor the other characters know.

As Betty revels in her opulent new home on Mulholland Drive, belonging to her aunt, who is working on a movie in Canada, she discovers a dazed Rita (played by Laura Harring) cowering in the shower since seeking refuge there after the car crash and – rather than doing what any sensible person would do and call the police – she perhaps stupidly and naively introduces herself and asks “Are you alright? What happened?” Betty, brimming with a thrill-seeking nature and determined to experience life as a movie character, becomes infatuated with the mysterious Rita and they decide to work together to decipher her true identity. Meanwhile Lynch weaves several subplots into the story, a man who dreams of a grotesque monster that hides behind Winkie’s cafe, and a hitman who makes a meal out of a planned heist and later meets with a prostitute to ask her to keep an eye out for a “beat-up brunette” on her corner (implying that Rita is his next target, for reasons we do not yet know). I think however the subplot Lynch places the most emphasis on is of Adam, the young unfortunate director played by Justin Theroux. He’s a seemingly successful guy, yet during a meeting for his next movie, in comes a threatening looking group of corporate mobsters who proceed to steal the project from him, insisting the lead role goes to the mysterious Camilla Rhodes (portrayed at this point by Melissa George). In that one day he loses almost everything in his life, his career prospects, his girlfriend (to none other than Billy Ray Cyrus as the pool cleaner) and his money, perhaps suggesting how independent ingenuitive artists can fall from grace under the influence of corporate fat cat studio power. During the auditioning process we see Adam’s gaze fixed on Betty’s glowing face; he just knows in his heart that Betty is right for the lead role in his film “The Sylvia North Story”, but he knows if he doesn’t cast Camilla, he’ll lose everything.

The one character out of the four central women in the film I haven’t properly discussed in relation to the plot yet is Diane Selywn. We hear her name after Rita sees the name “Diane” on the name badge of a waitress, she remembers it from her past, unsure however if she herself is Diane or someone she once knew. The first time we see Diane in the film, she is dead. A rotting corpse curled up on her bed, discovered by a shaken Rita and Betty as they search for a trace of Rita’s identity. It seems Diane was killed, and Rita urgently tries to disguise herself in case whoever killed Diane is onto her next, her new identity significantly mirroring Betty’s appearance. At this point in the film, the sexual energy between Rita and Betty is at its peak, as they tearfully yet desperately proceed to make love. Whilst watching it I kept wondering why Lynch decided for this moment to happen at such a disruptive point in the film; nothing is really settled in the plot for either the characters or the spectator, it isn’t the culmination of a series of events. It feels a little disjointed, but somehow it seems right – it would probably make less sense for a scene like this to flow naturally with the plot, that’s just not how Lynch works, he’s portraying the idea of unity and harmony within a backdrop of complete and utter chaos and unrest. 

Even more confusing is the following scene, where Rita starts speaking Spanish in her sleep and takes Betty to “Club Silencio” in the middle of the night, where they watch a man carry out an annoyingly cryptic speech about illusion and Rebekah Del Rio sings a song that reduces them to tears. If I’m honest, its my least favourite part of the film because I just don’t really think it needs to be there. The themes of silence and illusions are very important to Lynch’s vision, yet I feel like this particular sequence doesn’t offer much extra to the film other than Del Rio’s spectacular voice and the wonderfully stylistic way it is shot. However despite my doubts I think I get what Lynch is doing: the entire sequence symbolises the dramatic change in energy, specifically from Betty’s point of view as she realises a lot of what she has been pursuing has been illusion after illusion. She reaches into her bag and magically pulls out a blue box, linking back to a blue key Rita found near the beginning of the film, suggesting a new level of understanding for both of them. This, of course, is where the film goes utterly bonkers.

As I mentioned before, a lot of the characters are more like personas, that’s why I didn’t want to state who plays them from the get go. After a chilling transition sequence, Diane Selwyn is lying on her bed in the same position as her corpse was previously in the film. She lifts her head, and we realise that Betty is now Diane (I know, confusing), waking up from a dream that most likely was everything we have seen in the film so far. Though Lynch has never revealed the truth of what anything means in Mulholland Drive, the key theory is that Diane (Naomi Watts) dreams that she is Betty, living out her fantasy, and wakes up to the reality that she is Diane, a failure, dull faced and depressed, living in a decrepit little house of disappointment. In other words, we’re forced to backtrack everything we have learned so far and erase our narrative predictions, which admittedly I found frustrating but stylistically it creates a new depth to the film, one that not many filmmakers are able to create and have it make some kind of sense; this is the start of the real story and it belongs solely to Diane.

Rita, on the other hand is now Camilla (Laura Harring), and seemingly more seductive and voluptuous than before, since now she is the sweetheart and the star. The one character who doesn’t seem to change personas is Adam, yet he has grown to be enthralled by Camilla (Diane’s ex-lover) casting her as the star in “The Sylvia North Story”, and they aren’t afraid to show their passion for each other on set, noticeably irritating Diane. Nevertheless, Camilla still seems to have a soft spot for Diane and makes sure Adam keeps her in. Meanwhile Lynch keeps us closely aligned with Diane as she starts seeing startling visions of Camilla, once the object of her physical desires and now beyond her reach. From this angle it makes sense that Diane would dream Camilla as Rita, still keeping her sexuality and augmented beauty, yet with a completely blank personality for Diane to fill with whatever she desires. Perhaps this infers that she thrives on having control over people in order to live out her vivid fantasies – consequently leading her to be where she is now, looking as if Camilla has sucked the life out of her, pale, dismal and disillusioned. Whilst in a car similar to that of where Rita was before the crash, Diane is stopped by Camilla and led through the foliage to a grand house where a party is happening; a party she is not invited to. It seems that fate is never on Diane’s side, she feels isolated at the dinner table, opposite Camilla and Adam who can’t take their hands off each other, Camilla casually kissing another woman (curiously the woman Diane conjured up as Camilla in her dream (Melissa George)…is she now Rita?). And then the pièce de résistance – Adam and Camilla announce their engagement, which seems to hurl Diane onto a different level of mania. 

She goes on to be shown with the hitman from earlier in the film in Winkie’s, her costume echoing that of the prostitute, also encountering a young, glowing waitress who’s name is Betty (perhaps an ingenue like the Betty of Diane’s dreams, perhaps Diane wants to warn her…but she doesn’t). Diane pays the hitman to kill Camilla, which also makes sense with Diane dreaming of Rita being mugged before the car crash, she wants her to lose everything like she did, and start from square one so Diane could control her. The hitman shows Diane the blue key, saying he’ll leave it in her house once the job is done. From no clear perspective of any character, Lynch takes us behind Winkie’s, where we see the grotesque, diseased monster from the nightmare of the man in Diane’s dream, fiddling with the locked blue box which we have come to realise symbolises fate – if Diane receives the key she unlocks the most grotesque and baser element of her human nature. It is a very sinister image, yet one that really investigates the hidden truths of the human psyche, our desires overcoming our sense, revenge and decay overpowering intellect. Once Diane finds the key, stricken with guilt, she falls into an even deeper state of madness. In true David Lynch surrealist style, critters scuttle like cockroaches under the doors, but they aren’t critters – they are the old couple from the beginning, laughing and laughing at Diane for being so foolish, for forever being the butt of the joke, coming back to bite her after all these years of being oblivious to the Hollywood illusion. Their haunting laughter seems to be infecting her like parasites whilst inside her head a piercing scream floods the scene with horror and mania, chasing her through her home until she eventually falls onto the bed and commits suicide. The room is filled with smoke, almost like a dream, and the unsettling image of the monster flashes over the screen followed by another dreamlike vision: Betty and Rita’s once glowing faces projected over the view of Hollywood from Mulholland drive – the fantasy that Diane desired and could never have. 

Finally, we’re back in Club Silencio, and the strange old woman from the balcony utters “Silencio”, and we’re left with a black screen for an uncomfortably prolonged amount of time. It’s that prolonged silence that scares every single one of us during our lives, the empty baseness of our minds that leave no trace of us when we’re gone, provoking us to strive for our desires whilst blind to their false promises. Perhaps that’s what Shakespeare was talking about when he said “Our little lives are rounded with a sleep”, our existence is ultimately futile and to leave without fulfilling our desires leaves an uncomfortable silence lingering in the cosmos. It’s really the only clear answer Lynch gives us throughout the whole film, this is how our feckless endeavours result if we unlock that blue box of instinct and lose track of consciousness, especially in the perfect example of the corporate film industry which is extremely infamous for leading people to dream of success and leaving them high and dry to battle their inner demons. As an autistic person, it’s interesting to see that idea put into a form of art, I often miss subtle cues that warn of danger, like Betty’s old couple, and have a very narrow view of the world; Mulholland Drive has definitely opened that up for me and given me a perspective I never thought I’d be able to see, warning all of us to be constantly aware of falseness and illusion.

One reason why I feel that Mulholland Drive is a great movie to return to in 2018 is because its technically a massive reality check; in the last year we’ve seen outrage and activism both outside and within Hollywood to end the injustices casually woven into its infrastructure. We’ve seen outings of corruption and sexual exploitation, the #MeToo movement creating a platform for people to speak out and expose the flaws that have been hidden for decades. Hence I find it interesting that when Betty gets her audition, she impresses the critics by not performing the script as she rehearsed with Rita, but by taking the hand of her audition partner (played by Chad Everett wearing way too much fake tan) and placing it on her ass, going on to create an outrageously sexual and provocative scene. Of course she does it brilliantly, and everyone in the room is blown away – but it does make me wonder if there’s something else to be read here. Did Betty know that in order to be successful it had to involve augmenting her sexuality in her performances? Is she auditioning for her talent or her sex appeal? I may be simply reading to far into the fact that  she is just performing incredibly and feels sexually liberated, which I think is a great thing, yet with Lynch making the film within a framework of darkness and exploitation in the industry, I get a sense that he wanted to highlight the change in Betty’s trajectory. She has come to realise that perkiness and innocence does not a movie star make, what will move her forward is sex – which isn’t always a bad thing, I should mention that the porn industry in San Fernando Valley (which is the prominent view from Mulholland Drive itself) is very successful. But in this context it emphasises how talented actors, regardless of gender, can be reduced to merely sexual objects to be sold to hungry consumers internationally, an ideology that I personally feel epitomises the shameful state Hollywood is in today. 

Whilst researching the film after viewing it, I found it interesting that the title of the film “Mulholland Drive” carries a symbolic meaning in accordance with its geography. The street sign we see in the film pertains to the infamous road in Los Angeles, twisting around the mountain ridge from downtown to the Pacific Ocean, first an average road, then turning gradually into dirt – very dangerous for driving due to blind curves and unsafe ground. Mulholland Dr is renowned for its awe-inspiring views, showcased in the brilliant cinematography in the film, and being the location for some of LA’s most expensive and lavish properties. Its a great viewing point from south LA to north LA; interestingly overlooking major landmarks and progressively leading over the San Fernando Valley and reaching Simi Valley – where the majority of the porn industry operates. Hence I find the gradual transition from success to decay within the extended metaphor of “Mulholland Dr” very interesting and foreshadowing much of the content of the film. We’re blinded by the spectacular views and epicentre of wealth, unaware of the treacherous future it leads to, eventually resorting to exploiting one’s own sexuality in order to survive. This reminds me of one of the main attractions in the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard when I visited back in January. There’s a foot trail of testimonies on the ground, weaving through the courtyard, telling the stories of young hopefuls in Hollywood, leading to a grand view of the Hollywood sign just above a sculpture of a 1920’s chaise. The artist assures people it is to symbolise the glamour of Hollywood and the elegant furnishings and riches people could enjoy once they achieved their dream, certainly reflecting on the Camillas of Hollywood. However over time it has been seen more and more as a sinister representation of the industry, specifically representing the infamous symbol of the “casting couch”, thus inferring that the road to Hollywood leads you to an exploitation of sexuality, as Betty perhaps realised in her audition. I appreciated the fact that they put a notice next to the sculpture acknowledging the sensitive issues surrounding it and denying any intentions, but it should be taken into account that multiple interpretations can be drawn from anything, everyone has a different experience, even if one person’s past isn’t that different from the other, just like the Betty’s and Camilla’s and Diane’s of the world. 

As I mentioned before, putting Mulholland Drive side by side with a film like La La Land is extremely telling of different artistic interpretations of Hollywood. La La Land teaches us to keep on pursuing our dreams, and promises that your dream will come true if you keep your integrity. I think if Mulholland Drive was made in 2018, Lynch would absolutely revel in making digs at La La Land throughout, turning each glamorous dance and sparkling romance into a harrowing account of truths and lies. I’m sure as well if it won the Oscar in 2017, Mulholland Drive as a concept would become even more of a discussion point, people striving to debunk the myth of Hollywood being a “la la land,” and more of a treacherous winding road, stretched across the mountains like the body of Marilyn Monroe, slowly decaying and warning travellers of the danger to come.

I really hope more people will watch Mulholland Drive and, even if they are frustrated by its choppy chronology, they appreciate the mastery captured by David Lynch and the extremely challenging nature of its content – its definitely worth using as a statement in 2018.

Score: 9/10

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