Originally intended as the pilot episode of a TV series, half-way through shooting Mulholland Drive (2001) became a film. The story centres around a Film Noir mystery: ‘Rita’, suffering from amnesia, befriends and seduces Betty, and together they attempt to unravel ‘Rita’s’ mysterious past. ‘Rita’ turns out to be a poisonous character — a classic femme fatale. She selfishly uses Betty’s connections and aspirations for her own success.
This is a film about illusion and reality: identity, and dreams. There are thematic and stylistic parallels with Barton Fink (1991): both stories incorporate surreal elements, and examine the business side of Hollywood. A naïf actress in one story, and a talented but uncommercial writer in the other; both come face-to-face with the harsh realities of a dog-eat-dog world. The cynical take on Hollywood is echoed in The Player (1992), where another shark-like character destroys the competition, and the much earlier Sunset Boulevard (1950), where the dream of hanging onto the dream causes an up-and-coming writer to fall apart.
‘Rita’ and Betty are attracted to one another, and their friendship turns into a romance, and then, finally, ‘Rita’s’ domination of Betty. It’s refreshing to see a film with two female leads, and to observe the changing power dynamics between them. Betty is a sweet natured naïf, while ‘Rita’ is a hawk, who dominates everything and everyone around her. She is the monster in the story, like beast in Predator (1987), a hunter looking for its prey. Betty is a symbol of innocence; unable to see what kind of a person ‘Rita’ is, before it’s too late. ‘Rita’ (suffering from amnesia) is simply readjusting back into the person she really is.
The story explorers ‘Rita’s’ take-over of Betty’s life: turning the wholesome American cliché of Hollywood success into a darkly traumatic event: psychosis, breakdown, attempted murder, and suicide. This is handled through the director’s surreal, and artistic vision. David Lynch interprets reality as a surreal experience, one could argue, presenting the real as surreal makes it more ‘realistic’. But he also enjoys using the language of surrealism, which makes Mulholland Drive an ode to the power of the sub-conscious. It pays games with audience expectations — this discord was probably accentuated by the film changing mid-project from a TV pilot into a film. The downside of the ‘artiness’ is that the conceptualisation and symbolism can get in the way of the narrative, and the story can feel artificial.
It does feel conceptual, philosophical, in a Duchampian and Wittgensteinian way, with layers of personal symbolism applied to the conceptual elements; the strange Club Silencio, for example, which is metaphorical: an intellectual theatrical art performance within another intellectual art performance: the film. The intricate autobiographical meaning, like Duchamp’s ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even’ (‘The Large Glass’) can only be understood by closely examining Duchamp’s comments: not through the artwork itself. The author is the interpreter of the artwork. Because we are not David Lynch, who relishes the ‘creative accident’, we can never really know what this means — if it does mean anything.
The personal symbolism is like a cryptographic code. Some of the symbolism is obvious, the importance of the colour blue: the blue key, blue box, blue lighting in the Club Silencio, the blue haired woman at the end (also from Club Silencio), and the blue smoke after Betty’s suicide. The meaning of the colour blue is opaque, more of a thematic or tonal motif: in Blue Velvet (2001) it resonates with eroticism; here it feels more associated with death. These, often cryptic, motifs are very much a part of the art house director’s toolset, and the personal ‘branding’ of the director, according to the ‘auteur theory’. It’s also about creative self-fascination, the artist’s internal gaze — the opposite of most Hollywood films where everything is laboriously explained (externalised): reducing everything to the lowest common denominator.
Mulholland Drive is an idiosyncratic, artistic interpretation of the world, echoing the poetry of films like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975), and Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2001) — which also break-up the conventional linear narrative. The delight comes from the thought-provoking aftertaste — an intellectual challenge. With its Film Noir and horror elements, Mulholland Drive is also a warning about the dark side of humanity.
According to Wittgenstein, we should silently pass over the unknowable, and perhaps echoing this, the last word of Mulholland Drive is ‘silencio’ — but, paradoxically, here at least, the unknowable provides a focus for conversation.