by Frank Olson
Mulholland Drive is David Lynch’s magnum opus, a masterpiece that incorporates virtually everything that the director had attempted in his three decades as a filmmaker, and that presents each of those elements in an ideal light. The distinctive mixture of noir, soap opera, and Americana that Lynch had been pursuing since Blue Velvet finds its fullest expression here. Off-kilter film references and experiments with genre are more logically integrated into Mulholland Drive's aesthetic than they were in the awkward Wild at Heart. The unusual narrative structure of Lost Highway (in which the protagonist’s story is interrupted mid-film by a fantasy that recalibrates the events of his life) is inverted here, to even greater effect. Mulholland Drive climaxes with a lengthy descent into outright surrealism, a section of pure cinema that tops even Eraserhead in its incredible formal mastery. Originally conceived as a TV pilot for the ABC network, Mulholland Drive ultimately became the film that Lynch was born to make.
Director: David Lynch
Producers: Neal Edelstein, Tony Krantz, Michael Polaire, Alain Sarde, Mary Sweeney
Writer: David Lynch
Cinematographer: Peter Deming
Editor: Mary Sweeney
Music: Angelo Badalamenti
Cast: Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Ann Miller, Dan Hedaya, Justin Theroux, Brent Briscoe, Robert Forster, Katharine Towne, Lee Grant, Scott Coffey, Billy Ray Cyrus, Chad Everett, Rita Taggart, James Karen, Lori Heuring, Melissa George
Premiere: May 16, 2001 -- Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 12, 2001
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
Mulholland Drive’s plot is deliberately elusive, and though many commenters have attempted to piece together a rational explanation for the film’s events, this is clearly a film that’s meant to be experienced more than understood. Narrative has never been Lynch’s strong suit, and the attempts to bring his beguiling mysteries to a close in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks were the weakest parts of those projects. That Mulholland Drive becomes increasingly cryptic as it heads to its climax is one of the film's greatest strengths, as it allows the viewer to concentrate on Lynch's ravishing formal achievements and frees the filmmakers from having to resort to any narrative contrivances meant to wrap things up.
What plot there is in Mulholland Drive is set in motion when a fortuitously timed car crash allows an unidentified woman (Laura Elena Harring) to escape from an attempt on her life. Suddenly afflicted with amnesia, the woman is later discovered in an apartment where aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts) is staying. The mystery woman adopts the name Rita after noticing a poster for the Rita Hayworth vehicle Gilda, but quickly admits to Betty that she can’t remember who she is. After finding a huge wad of cash and an ambiguous blue key in “Rita’s” purse, the duo set out to discover her true identity. Meanwhile, slick young Hollywood director Adam (Justin Theroux) has to deal with the demands of shady men who appear to be mobsters and/or studio executives. The thugs insist repeatedly that Adam cast a young actress named Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) as the lead in his new film, which appears to be a ‘50s-set biopic.
That’s a basic enough setup for a modern film noir, but Lynch quickly upends normal genre expectations by jumbling the timeline, incorporating strange asides that don’t include (and don’t seem to be from the perspective of) any of the main characters, and by repeatedly calling the characters’ identity into question. While searching for her true identity, Rita recalls the name Diane Selwyn, whom they discover (in an incredibly tense scene) is a decomposing corpse; but late in the film, the woman we know as Betty responds to the name Diane, and appears to be living in the same apartment where she and Rita had discovered the corpse. Rita is referred to as Camilla Rhodes in some scenes of the film, and it is suggested at one point that she is involved in a sexual relationship with Adam and/or the woman previously shown as Camilla, despite the fact that this is one of the only times that Lynch shows the Rita and Adam storylines intersecting. Character identities and the chronology of the film’s events have been put through a narrative blender, but Lynch’s fetishistic repetition of key details makes the film seem all of a whole. Obtuse as its story may be, Mulholland Drive is the most stylistically coherent of Lynch’s major surreal films apart from Eraserhead.
Like many Lynch films, Mulholland Drive plays out less as an
unfolding story than as a moody experience. On a pure audio-visual level, this is the director’s most powerfully transfixing film. The blue-pink-black color palette established by cinematographer Peter Deming is perfect for both the film’s Hollywood setting and for its dreamlike tone. Angelo Badalamenti provides a wider range of music than he’d been asked to in previous Lynch projects, and his antic jazz, melodramatic string sections, and ambient synth compositions perfectly compliment the tone of the scenes in which they are used. Lynch has always paid greater attention to sound than most of his peers, and he and his audio team really outdo themselves here, whether exaggerating the metallic hiss of a burning out light bulb or building white noise to a crescendo just as a terrifying charred face is revealed.
Entire scenes that make no sense on paper prove incredibly hypnotic in Lynch’s hands. Despite the director’s track record, one can understand how ABC executives looking at his original pilot script might have been unsold on the effectiveness of, say, a theoretically inconsequential scene where a very nervous man (Patrick Fischler) relives his nightmare about finding a decomposing creature behind a coffee store dumpster, but the sequence is staged, edited, and scored in a way that is genuinely frightening. Compelling as Mulholland Drive's central mysteries are, what lingers in the mind are unnervingly bizarre little moments: a shot of a ridiculously grinning elderly couple that’s held just long enough to be menacing, one of the gangster/producers methodically spitting unsatisfying coffee into a napkin, a group of actors lip-synching slightly unconvincingly to a doo-wop song. In the film’s most insane scene, Betty and Rita go to a club to watch Rebekah Del Rio perform a beautiful version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” her voice continuing to soar long after she has inexplicably collapsed. The club’s MC declares that everything is an illusion, which seems to sum up the film even as it explains nothing.