Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Directed by David Lynch


I can only describe this film using what I understood, and the more I think about it, the less I know.  Mulholland Dr. is so purposefully mysterious, letting you know upfront that a lot of things won’t make sense unless you investigate.  The film forces you to be vigilant.

I need to re-watch it.  I’ve already re-watched the first five minutes, hoping that would clear up some of my confusion, but I figured I should write about the film with just the initial impressions and understanding that I have right now.

The film doesn’t open with the plot, but I’ll start with the plot.  We see a limousine cruising up the hills of Mulholland Dr., above Los Angeles.  A woman, most likely a famous actress, sits in the back seat.  The car comes to an abrupt stop, and the driver points a gun at her, telling her to get out of the car.  Whatever was about to happen is interrupted when two cars of joy riding teenagers races by, with one colliding into the limousine.  The two men are killed, but the woman survives.  She stumbles across the road, towards Los Angeles, drawn by the bright city lights.

Eventually she makes her way to the house of a departing older woman, and she goes to sleep.  Another woman, Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives at the same house, planning on staying there for a few months while her aunt, the owner and an actress, is away on a movie shoot.  Betty is pretty naive and in awe of everything.  She is rather nice to the woman, who calls herself Rita, and eager to help her piece together the puzzle of her life.  Rita is not her real name but just the name she saw on a poster in the bedroom (Rita Hayworth in Gilda).  She has a purse full of money and a mysterious, triangle-shaped blue key.

Betty, an aspiring actress, is excited by Rita’s mystery even though it frightens Rita.  Already there is a connection between the two women.  Rita seems to be an established actress (despite Betty not recognizing her), and Betty aspires to be an actress.  They were also similarly drawn to Los Angeles, though for different reasons.  We first see Betty as she descends the escalator with a smile plastered on her face.  She is just so happy to be in Hollywood.  Rita, as I mentioned, was drawn to the city lights, but she couldn’t really explain why.

Right away, this film never seems to be about what it pretends to be about.  By that I mean, Betty’s goal to become an established actress never feels important, and I don’t think it is.  There is so much that feels off so early in the film, that you’re waiting for something to be revealed, yet by the end it never feels like it was.

As Betty and Rita trace Rita’s mystery based on a few clues, they develop a romance.  In one scene, Betty helps Rita cut her hair, and then Rita dons a blonde wig, making her look just like Betty.  They both seem very image conscious, though for different reasons.  Betty wants to look a certain way to be able to attract the right kind of (movie) attention, and Rita wants to hide from whoever is out to get her.

As this is going on, we also meet Adam (Justin Theroux), a movie director who is losing control of his own film.  Rita appears to have been the actress in his film (though I’m still not entirely sure), and when she disappears from the scene of the car crash, the studio executives tell Adam to cast a new girl, Camilla, as his lead character.  He resists, but they tell him it will most definitely happen.  Adam goes home to find that his wife is having an affair (with Billy Ray Cyrus, no less), and then he learns that his bank account has been drained empty.  He is completely powerless, so he follows the studio’s orders and hires Camilla.

The second half of the film becomes a lot more convoluted, and Rita becomes Camilla, and Betty becomes Diane.  The name Diane first comes up when Rita remembers that name, and they go to Diane’s apartment where they find a dead woman in bed.  Based on other clues, this woman could be and probably is Betty, but I’m still not sure how the hell that is the case.

After Betty and Rita sleep together, Rita begins talking in her sleep, mentioning a place called “Silencio.”  They then go to that club where a performance is put on that brings both women to tears and briefly sends Betty into a seizure.  The show is all about illusions, and a man onstage tells the audience that nothing is as it seems.  All sounds appear to be prerecorded, and a woman sings elegantly only to faint while her voice continues on.  If there is a broader takeaway from this scene, it suggests that the human body is finite, but the soul (or something…) lives on.

I say that because soon we find out that Betty is Diane, the woman Rita remembered.  Their romance (now between Diane and Camilla, but the same two women) ends, and Camilla begins a relationship with Adam, the director.  Distraught, Betty/Diane hires a low level assassin to kill Camilla and Adam, it seems.  She pays him the money that we earlier saw in Rita’s purse.

Earlier in the film there seemed to be men after Adam, to kill him, but it was never clear if that was the case.  At the very least it was clear that he was under a heavy fist (the studio), and ordered to carry out a plan that he (nor I) comprehended.  That plan, again, was to cast Camilla in a film, and Camilla turns out to be Rita, who he has a relationship with.

So the film jumps around in time, that much seems clear.  What I got from the story was that Betty, whom we meet as the wide-eyed aspiring actress, was effectively lobotomized or something, and she no longer remembered being Diane.  But again, we see Diane’s dead body, so what the hell is going on?  I have no idea.

Before the plot begins, the film opens with a 1950s-esque dance number, something like the scene we later see Adam directing in which he auditions hopeful actresses and casts Camilla (who doesn’t look like Rita/Camilla from the end of the film).  This is also the scene in which he first sees Betty, and they make eye contact as if they’re about to fall in love.

Over this dance number, an overexposed image of Betty and her two smiling grandparents appear.  This seems to be from a competition she won in Ontario which she alludes to at the end of the film.  The camera then cuts to a shot of a camera hovering over a bed with red sheets on which we see Betty/Diane shoot herself at the end of the film.  This comes after she is harassed (tortured) by her two grandparents from before, still smiling like their faces are frozen.

So the clues are there, I just don’t know what they mean.  Oh! Another clue is that we see the dead body in Diane’s apartment, curled up like she’s napping, and not long after we see Betty/Diane sleeping in the exact same position in the same spot.  They have to be the same person.

Okay, okay, okay, so there’s a lot I’m missing, and I’m going to read Roger Ebert’s review of this film after I finish writing to see what I missed.  But I can at least talk about the feelings I had while watching this film.

There is someone in control, and it’s not us.  We see shots of the backs of guys’ heads while they give and take orders, and we’re given the impression that there is some kind of Adjustment Bureau putting everything in place.  It makes Hollywood feel like a cult, with every form of entertainment carefully composed to control us.  The most human characters (Betty, Adam) are never in control.  The directors are never in control.  Adam exerts know force over his own film (losing control of his entire life), and in a scene in which Betty auditions for a movie role, the supposed director is bossed around by another guy.  The directors are made to be powerless.  This makes it seem like films are just constructed by people whose allegiances are to something other than the films themselves.  This could be profit (like the familiar idea of a Hollywood studio), but that’s never made explicit in this film.  We don’t know (I don’t think) what the motives are.  All that matters is that there is something going on under the surface.

Betty/Diane feels like an actress who has lost her own sense of identity.  She has some sort of fractured psyche, and this could explain why and how she snaps, possibly killing herself in the end.  The fact that she could have been Diane before becoming Betty, though, suggests that this wasn’t an internal struggle but rather something put in place by the people who are really in control.  If, hypothetically, Betty is Diane, and when she arrives to LA, she doesn’t realize she’s been there before, than it just further shows how manipulated she is.  She tries to take control by ordering the hit on Camilla (and possibly Adam), but they’re not in control either.  Her fight is in vain and driven by vanity (or maybe I just liked how that sentence sounded, and the ‘vanity’ part doesn’t really make sense).

This film makes Hollywood feel eerie.  The music is extremely tense, and there were so many scenes that, without the music, might feel perfectly ordinary but then suddenly feel like the world is about to collapse.

I don’t know what else to say without going back and watching the movie again first.  The whole film is a puzzle, like a lot of Coen Brothers films, but those films often don’t reveal that they are a puzzle right away.  They slowly start to feel more and more complex as the story goes on.  This film immediately demonstrates how convoluted it will appear.  David Lynch seems to take joy in misdirecting the audience and setting up characters to appear one way before making a U-turn and forcing you to keep up.  But watching this film, it felt like Lynch was driving a Ferrari, and I was driving a pickup truck attached to a U-Haul, struggling to keep up with him, falling further and further behind other cars until I lose sight of him.

EDIT – I did some reading, and the first half of the film (Betty) is all a dream.  Well, based on what I read and some other assumptions, what I have is that Betty is never real, just a character Diane uses to project onto herself in her dream.  The real characters are Diane and Camilla as well as the director, Adam.  Diane and Camilla had some sort of relationship, but Camilla broke it off, and then she brought Diane to a party on Mulholland Drive where she announced her upcoming marriage (?) to Adam.  This was highly stressful to Diane, who hoped for some sort of reconciliation, and the next thing we see is her ordering the hit on Camilla.  When she pays the hitman, the waitress who serves them is named Betty, and that’s how Diane got that name for her dream.  What’s especially interesting is that in her dream, as Betty, she sees her own dead body.  I still don’t understand how she could see the future, but that’s really just one of a number of confusing details.

So all the secret Hollywood-underworld type of stuff, is that real to the story or all in the dream?  From what we see of Adam in ‘reality,’ he’s a suave dude, has some power as the director and that’s about it.  In the ‘dream,’ he’s weak, powerless and subject to the control of a secret organization that threatens to kill him.  So is Diane dreaming all of this?  It could just come down to her perspective of how the Hollywood industry feels.  It’s not like anything else in the world.  In her dream, as Betty, she is outside this industry yet still yearns to be a part of it, almost as if she wants to forget all the pain it has brought her.  It’s like a broken relationship, I suppose.  She hates what it has become, but she loves the person (or the idea of Hollywood) at the start of it, so she desperately wants to forget the bad times and fall in love all over again.

In that way, the film compares Hollywood and romance.  Betty/Diane is outside of it and can only see the magic, not the creepy underworld beneath it, just like she can only see Rita/Camilla as idyllic and not as the person she really is (whoever that may be).  By the end of the film this dream ends or simply just folds into itself too many times to count, and Betty is now Diane, surly and miserable.  She is disenchanted by both Hollywood and her broken relationship with Camilla.  Who knows how bad her time with Hollywood and with Camilla really was, but all that matters is that she saw it all as fucked up and dangerous.  She doesn’t seem to be the most reliable narrator, though, so this is probably all heightened and exaggerated.

The fact that Diane feels compelled to order a hit on Camilla suggests that she’s part of the problem or that Hollywood has dragged her down into the weeds.  She is as messed up as the world she imagines.

But Diane’s dream implies that she regrets what she did.  In her dream, Rita/Camilla gets away and is brought right back into her arms (though Betty doesn’t know Rita at the time).  It’s all wishful dreaming, and it’s all too late.  The fact that she sees her own dead body shows how final her actions were and how aware she was of that finality.  In that scene with the body, Rita/Camillia is particularly distraught, more than Betty.  I took that to be a reflection of how Diane reacted or would have reacted to Camilla’s death, particularly because of her role in it, and as a reflection of how she would have wanted Camilla to react to Diane’s own death.  In other words, it was how she wanted to be seen, which… I know, it’s pretty twisted that she would want to be seen as this rotting corpse, but I really think it’s how she wanted to be seen.  She wanted Camilla to see what had become of Diane (herself), as if Camilla had something to do with it, a perfect inversion of what really happened.

So, to backtrack a little bit, Diane was an actress, and she was possibly mentally unstable (or the whole thing was just a fever dream that emphasized certain, crazy details).  So as an actress she recast herself in her dream as Betty, and was willing to play a completely new role, as if she could convince herself everything up until then wasn’t real.  She lost herself in this new role and in the industry as a whole, and everything in the first half of the film reflects how she felt about Hollywood.

Saying “it was all a dream,” usually feels like a copout, particularly now after the popularity of Inception and this film as well, but here it makes sense, or I think it does, or I just want it to.

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