I wrote this review back in 2003 and post it here in case there's anything of interest in it.
Mulholland Drive is a complex film. To understand it, two viewings are almost essential. Critics say it is disjointed, even incomprehensible. Some, like the usually-perceptive Roger Ebert praise the film but say that there is no point in attempting to make sense of it, that the director did not intended coherence.
“If you require logic, see something else. "Mulholland Drive" works directly on the emotions, like music. Individual scenes play well by themselves, as they do in dreams, but they don't connect in a way that makes sense--again, like dreams.”
Ebert couldn’t make sense of the film, but saw enough to know that it was good. However I don't agree that the film is illogical.
I think the first two-thirds of this film shows the dream of an actress, Diane Selwyn. In the final third, she wakes, and a brief real-time sequence is shown, interspersed with her real-time recollections of some key events, and culminating in a real-time psychotic episode, in which she kills herself. In light of this narrative sequence, it becomes clear that this is a lucid and internally consistent film, firmly grounded in the real world, with clear messages about Hollywood, love, and the nature of dreams. There are few loose ends.
For an excellent scene-by-scene description, see http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/geog/gessler ... -drive.htm.
The following is an account of the key scenes intended to provide an understanding of the basic sequence of events.
The film begins before the opening credits with stylised footage of a jitterbug contest, over which are shown the beaming images of a pretty blonde woman flanked by an elderly man and woman. The woman, we later learn, is Diane Selwyn, of Deep River Ontario, and she has won the contest. Inspired by her success, she fantasises about becoming ‘a movie star and a great actress’ and with a small inheritance left by her aunt moves to LA.
We cut to a shot of a red sheet and slow heavy breathing of Diane, asleep and dreaming.
In her dream, a glamorous brunette is being driven by two men along Mulholland Drive at night. They stop unexpectedly and order her out at gunpoint. Their plan to kill her is interrupted when two cars of joy-riders speed around the corner, and one car crashes into the limousine.
The brunette stumbles out of the car, dazed, and makes her way down the hill through the scrub to the city, where she curls up hidden behind a pot outside a luxury apartment, and falls asleep. She is woken the next morning by the apartment’s owner packing her suitcases into a taxi, obviously leaving for some time. The brunette takes the opportunity to sneak into the house, and falls asleep on the kitchen floor.
At this point, Diane begins dreaming of a scene set in Winkie’s diner. A troubled young man is explaining his recurring nightmare to another man – that there is an evil and frightening man behind Winkie’s. The two men go outside and walk to the back of the diner; a monstrous wild-haired hobo (actually played by a woman but referred to as male) appears from behind a dumpster and leers at the young man, who passes out.
To LA airport that same morning, where Diane’s dream-self, would-be actress Betty Elms, has arrived, naïve, awestruck and overwhelmed with excitement. As in Diane’s real life, she has won a jitterbug contest and dreams of stardom, and she is flanked by the same perpetually grinning elderly couple shown before the opening credits. Her Aunt Ruth has left for Canada, and Betty is staying at her apartment while she is gone. Betty enters, discovers Diane in the shower, and assumes she is there with Ruth’s permission. Diane has lost her memory – she can remember she has had a car accident but nothing else about her life. “There was an accident, and I came here”, she says. Seeing a poster of Rita Hayworth, she tells Diane her name is Rita.
Betty is excited by the mystery and takes it upon herself to help Rita find out who she is. They open Rita’s purse, and find a large amount of cash, and a mysterious blue key in the shape of a triangular rod.
Meanwhile, director Adam Kesher is casting for the lead role in ‘The Sylvia North Story.’ Two mafia types meet him and instruct him to cast Camilla Rhodes in the keenly sought role. Adam refuses, but under threat of bankruptcy and personal harm, and after an unsettling meeting with a mysterious cowboy, eventually agrees.
Betty strikes up a friendship with ‘Rita’, and Rita helps Betty rehearse her lines for an audition. Rita later remembers the name ‘Diane Selwyn’ and wonders if that could be her real name. Betty looks the name up in the phone book, finds her address, and insists on taking Rita there after her audition.
She stuns everyone with a surprisingly moving and sensual performance at her audition, and is taken away by a top casting agent to meet Adam Kesher for a possible audition for a sought-after lead role in ‘The Sylvia North Story’. She arrives on the set in time to see Camilla Rhodes audition for the part. In Diane’s dream, Camilla is a blonde woman; later, we learn that in real life, Rita is Camilla Rhodes, and the blonde woman is another unnamed lover of Camilla’s. As instructed, Adam gives her the part. Betty leaves the set hurriedly, late for her meeting with Rita.
They go to Diane Selwyn’s place, but no-one is home. Betty breaks in through an unlocked window, and looking terrified and holding her nose, opens the front door to let Rita in. They discover a rotting corpse in the bedroom and rush out of the apartment, horrified.
They return to Betty’s apartment. Rita, fearful for her life, is cutting her hair to disguise herself. Betty helps fit her with a blonde wig. She invites Rita to share her bed that night, professes her love for Rita, and they make love.
This is a turning point in the film; to this point the dream narrative has been logical and internally consistent; now supernatural events begin to occur. It is also the zenith of Rita and Betty’s dream love affair.
Rita awakes, disturbed and fearful, repeatedly mouthing ‘Silencio’ and ‘No hay banda’ (‘Silence’ ‘there is no band’). Betty awakes, and Rita asks if she will take her some place. Though it is 2 a.m., they dress and go. ‘Some place’ is a back-street cabaret, Club Silencio. They sit with a sparse and sombre audience to watch the show. A compere announces ‘no hay banda’; he tells the audience it’s all a tape, an illusion – there is no band. He performs a few illusions then himself disappears. The next act is singer who mimes ‘Crying’ in Spanish, and collapses half way through. The song continues – her performance was an illusion.
Betty checks her bag; a blue box that seems to match Rita’s key has appeared. They hurry back to Betty’s apartment. Rita retrieves the key and in the instant she has turned around, Betty has abruptly disappeared. Rita calls for her; there is no reply. She opens the box, and herself disappears, appearing to be drawn into it. The box falls to the floor.
Diane now dreams of herself lying on the bed asleep. The mysterious cowboy opens the door and says ‘Hey pretty girl; time to wake up.’ This signals the end of the dream sequence, and loud real-time knocking awakes Diane. She gets up, drowsy, miserable and dishevelled. Her neighbour has come to reclaim some of her belongings – dishes, a robe and an ashtray. In Diane’s dream, they had swapped apartments. The neighbour mentions that two detectives had come looking for Diane again.
She takes her things and leaves. Diane makes herself a cup of weak coffee, and during the first of a number of flashbacks, a sultry Camilla Rhodes, Rita in Diane’s dream, has come back to her apartment. They are topless, embracing on the couch when Camilla tells Betty to stop, ‘We shouldn’t do this any more.”
Betty, devastated, accuses Camilla of having a relationship with her director. In a flashback to another scene, Betty remembers a scene on “The Sylvia North Story”, where Adam rehearses a love scene with Camilla, the lead actress, while she watches jealously. We cut back to Diane’s flashback of her aborted lovemaking session with Camilla; she is pushing Camilla out the door. Camilla is seeking understanding and acceptance; Diane refuses, crying ‘I won’t make it easy for you; it isn’t easy for me.’
We cut to real time; Diane is crying as she masturbates, desperate to bring back the memory of Camilla. Now, another flashback. The phone rings in Diane’s apartment. It is Camilla, asking Diane if she is still coming to Camilla’s party at Adam’s Mulholland Drive house. She entreats Diane to come. Diane, who is dressed to go but has been vacillating, agrees. Diane seeks a resumption of their love; Camilla, Diane’s acceptance that it is over.
The limousine stops unexpectedly in a dark part of Mulholland Drive; ‘A surprise’, explains the driver. Camilla appears at the roadside and escorts Diane hand in hand up a romantic walk through the bush to Adam’s house. They are greeted by Adam bearing three drinks, and his mother, Coco, the apartment manager in Diane’s dream. Adam drinks a toast to love with Camilla; Diane responds with a toast to love with Camilla too.
They go inside to the party, where Diane is exposed to a series of humiliations. Her career, social and romantic aspirations are examined and ridiculed.
“I’m starving”, announces Coco. Diane apologises for being late; everyone has had to wait for her. They sit down to dinner. Adam and Camilla are sitting together, Diane is facing them.
Diane is pathetically explaining how she decided to come to Hollywood on the strength of her win in a small-town jitterbug contest, how she badly wanted the lead in “The Sylvia North Story”, won by Camilla, who befriended her and helped her get small parts in some of Camilla’s films. No matter that she might be at the start of a stellar career, in everyone’s eyes she is just another failed actress, and Coco pats her on the wrist in unwanted sympathy.
An attractive blonde woman, Camilla Rhodes in Diane’s dream, comes by, and whispers to Camilla. Both glance pointedly at Diane, and the blonde kisses Camilla intimately on the lips. Diane straightens, wide eyed; we can feel her jealous pain. Adam then tries to announce something, ‘We’ve saved the best for last” “Camilla and I…” The lovers dissolve in laughter; the sentence incomplete. Diane is shaking with rage, and there is a crash.
We cut another flashback scene at Winkie’s diner, where the waitress Betty (in Diane’s dream, the waitress’ name was Diane) has dropped a tray. Diane is contracting a hitman to kill Camilla; she wants this “more than anything in the world”. The hitman shows Diane a blue key (a standard house-type key rather than the mysterious rod shaped key of Diane’s dream) and says he’ll put the key ‘in the place I told you before’ as a token that the job has been done.
Now the psychotic episode imagined by Diane prior to her death begins. Diane hallucinates that the hobo, seen in her dreams at the back of the diner, is playing with the blue box. He puts it down, and miniatures of the elderly couple scurry out, laughing inanely.
We cut to a real-time shot of Diane in her apartment. The blue key is on the coffee table; Camilla has been killed. Diane’s hallucination continues. The elderly couple crawl under the door, grasping, reaching for Diane, still laughing and leering. They pursue her to the bedroom, where she falls to the bed, takes a gun from her bedside drawer and shoots herself in the mouth.
We see a scene of the hobo’s face, then, echoing the opening scene with Diane and the elderly couple at the jitterbug contest, an image of Diane / Betty and Camilla / Rita is superimposed over the lights of Los Angeles. They are laughing, happy, and look lovingly at each other; in death, Diane’s love is fulfilled. We cut to Club Silencio. The sour blue haired woman whispers ‘Silencio’. Then follow few seconds of silence and darkness before the credits.
What did it all mean?
Hollywood is false and unpleasant
A major thread running through this film is how nasty show business is, and how it can destroy lives. Club Silencio is the venue where Hollywood-style showbiz is exposed as a worthless illusion - it is at once a part of showbiz, and its harshest critic. 'No hay banda', the compere states - there is no band, it is an illusion, a tape. He performs some illusions, then himself disappears - literally in a puff of blue smoke. A singer, Rebekah del Rio takes his place, to sing a Spanish version of 'Crying' that moves Betty and Rita to tears. This also turns out to be an illusion - she dies during her performance, but the taped song she had been miming continues.
Not your average fans, the audience sit, jaded, quietly and dispassionately absorbing Club Silencio's message - there is nothing of substance in show business; it is equivalent to silence.
The blue box then appears in Betty's bag. An explanation of its appearance is unnecessary at this point; the dream narrative abandons any attempt at consistency when Rita awakes mouthing 'Silencio'. They hurry home, impatient to see what is in the box. Rita retrieves the key, and Betty abruptly disappears. Rita, after a perfunctory search for Betty, takes the key, opens the box and disappears too. Rita and Betty are also illusions, products of Diane's dream. The illusions of dreams and of show business are compared.
The blue box symbolises show business. It glows an otherworldly shade of blue, irresistible, impenetrable except to those with the talent to unlock it. Once opened, it consumes all, as it does Rita, yet it is empty - again, we are reminded that there is nothing of substance inside.
The hobo / monster behind Winkie's represents the ugly and malevolent force controlling Hollywood. The blue box is his plaything. Dan, the young man who sees the monster in a recurring nightmare, says "there's a man...in back of this place. He's the one ... he's the one that's doing it. I can see him through the wall. I can see his face and I hope I never see that face ever outside a dream."
Consistently blue connotes show business - the blue neon sign and the blue entrance of Club Silencio, the puff of blue smoke, the blue box. In the case of the blue haired woman in the balcony, it tells the viewer that she is a performer. She repeats the club's message, 'Silencio', and with the film's last word, again damns show business.
Maybe the elderly couple symbolise showbiz fans - superficial, easily amused, unquestioning, with fixed inane grins, they crave entertainment and push Betty to pursue her dream of stardom. Betty welcomes their encouragement and assistance at first, but in her insane vision they persecute her, scurrying like cockroaches from the monster's tawdry bag, under her door leering and grasping, demanding her attention. Their desire for her to succeed contrasted with her failure drives her to suicide.
Diane and Rita are two examples of characters 'burned' by Hollywood, but maybe David Lynch feels he is a victim too. Knowing that Mulholland Drive was the pilot for a proposed TV series, and knowing of Lynch's dissatisfaction with ABC's treatment of his pilot script, could it be that he took an intentionally unfinished product - a pilot script that left questions for a series to answer - and 'finished it off' as a damning critique of showbusiness? This might also explain Lynch's reluctance to discuss the meaning of this film in too much depth and risk burning his bridges. What network executive would like to be compared to the monster behind Winkie's? To be fair though, many artists don’t like to explain their work. As Lynch himself says,
"I think all the clues are there for an interpretation, but probably as many different interpretations as there are people viewing it," Lynch said. "The mind is so active putting together pieces of puzzles. That's a valid thing, whatever it comes up with that solves the problem." - USA Today, June 20th 2001.
The structure of dreams
Another of Lynch’s main objectives is simply to accurately portray a dream. In some scenes, the characters appear so briefly (e.g. Dan in Winkies in the hit-man scene, or the cowboy at the party) that the point of their appearance, if there is one, is simply to reinforce how dreams can incorporate and twist real-life fragments. With few exceptions, characters appear both in real life and in Diane’s dream.
Inexplicable things happen in dreams, and in the second half of Diane’s dream, a blue box appears and people disappear, without explanation. This is both a clue to the fact that we are seeing a dream and an exposition of the nature of dreams.
Lynch repeatedly states that the film is about love (see below). Diane’s unrequited and ultimately tragic love for Camilla occupies much of the film and gives its most moving moments – their moonlit walk up to Adam’s party, their bedroom scene and their ghostly appearance over Hollywood before the closing credits.
What Lynch said
While avoiding a detailed deconstruction, David Lynch has given some clues to the interpretation of Mulholland Drive, both to the sequence of events and the underlying meaning.
On the back cover of the Mulholland Drive video, he describes the film as follows:
“Act one: She found herself the perfect mystery
Act two: A sad illusion
Act three: Love”
The perfect mystery presumably refers to Rita’s identity, and ‘she’ is Betty – but note the ambiguous words Lynch chose – ‘she found herself’, rather than the ‘she found’ – it could be read ‘she found herself to be the perfect mystery’. “The mystery” could refer to Betty’s real identity, as well as to Rita’s.
‘Act Two’ begins when Rita wakes up crying ‘Silencio.’ The ‘sad illusion’ is show business, and also perhaps the unreciprocated love of Betty for Rita. Act three begins when Diane awakes; it shows Diane’s abiding love for Camilla, in the face of Camilla’s rejection, and her unwillingness to permit a world in which she and Camilla are apart.
Lynch described Mulholland Drive for the Cannes Film Festival programme as a “Love story in the city of dreams”. Again he tells viewers that love is a key theme. The ‘city of dreams’ is Los Angeles, where dreams are created by the show business industry, and where performers dream of success.
These have been well picked-over and in the main are clues to help viewers understand the narrative.
1. Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film: at least two clues are revealed before the credits. 2. Notice appearances of the red lampshade. 3. Can you hear the title of the film that Adam Kesher is auditioning actresses for? Is it mentioned again? 4. An accident is a terrible event... notice the location of the accident. 5. Who gives a key, and why? 6. Notice the robe, the ashtray, the coffee cup. 7. What is felt, realized and gathered at the club Silencio? 8. Did talent alone help Camilla? 9. Note the occurrences surrounding the man behind Winkies.10. Where is Aunt Ruth?
Wilkins and his dog
Coco calls to Wilkins in an early scene, complaining about his dog’s faeces on the courtyard. Wilkins is credited but does not appear. In the TV pilot script, he is a writer and has a small part with Adam Kesher. The dog do’s reportedly caused conflict between the ABC executives, who felt they could safely be omitted, and Lynch, who favoured a lingering close-up. In the end, they agreed they could occupy up to an eighth of the screen. In the film, I can’t see any reason for keeping them, or Wilkins, other than Lynch thumbing his nose at his tormentors, possibly not for the last time in the film (refer to the hobo scenes).
This is an example of a subplot from the TV pilot that persisted, and is of uncertain relevance to the movie, as perhaps with some of the other loose ends.
Who is trying to kill Rita and why?
Pervading Diane’s dream is a Rita’s sense of unease - she has a bleeding head wound for much of the dream and a perpetually troubled air, at times fearful for her life. The rapidity with which she switches from warmth to anxiety sets the mood. It remains unclear, to me at any rate, who is trying to kill Rita and why; perhaps Lynch is simply showing again how the reality can be distorted in a dream; the fact of Camilla’s murder is diluted to Rita’s sense of disquiet.
Use of colour
The use of vibrant primary colours is striking and frequent. Featuring in the scene where Adam discovers his wife in bed with the pool man are a pink deckchair, what appears to be a pink spray-painted pot plant and a pot of pink paint in which Adam dips his wife’s jewellery, and which then is daubed on Adam’s clothes. Betty arrives in Los Angeles wearing a glittering pink top. The female characters’ lipstick matches their tops, and in some cases the background (e.g. blonde Camilla’s audition for ‘Sylvia North’). Is Lynch playing interior designer? It’s been said he is a photographer as much as a filmmaker. Does he just want his set to look nice, or does it all mean something? Some speculations on the use of blue were given earlier.
Random observations and speculations
Lynch contributed personally to the background music in Mulholland Drive. It is very skilfully done, in particular, the subtle change in tone from raunchy, when Diane and Camilla are kissing on the sofa, to icy just after Camilla says ‘we shouldn’t do this any more’.
The triple homicide
Rita’s dream runs the gamut of classic Hollywood genres – drama, western, mystery, and thriller. The bumbling triple homicide scene may have been included simply for completeness, to include a film noir sequence a la Pulp Fiction.
The French connection
In one scene a small book with a mauve cover is shown, titled ‘Tout Paris’. It is subtitled in print too small to see “the Source Guide to the Art of French Decoration”. It is described on Amazon as “a guide to the Best that France has to offer for the collector, decorator, architect or designer.” Lynch apparently likes French things; maybe this was just a favourite book of his. Maybe mauve means something too!
A French company Canal bought Mulholland Drive, then a rejected TV pilot, and gave Lynch the opportunity to complete it (with carte blanche?)
The compere lapses twice from Spanish into poor French – ‘Il n’est pas d’orchestre’ – instead of ‘il n’y a pas d’orchestre’. In her earlier trance state, Rita had used the Spanish ‘No hay orchestra’.
Why was it made so hard to follow?
This is a difficult film to decipher, principally because the narrative structure is so unusual. The initial two thirds is a dream, and very few viewers would deduce this from the scant clues given - the initial shot of a woman sleeping, the cowboy calling on Diane to wake up, and the supernatural occurrences in the second part of Diane’s dream. So why did Lynch make a film about which very few people would understand even the basics on first viewing? Did he want to set an intellectual challenge for its own sake, to create mystique, controversy or publicity? I’d rather not think his intent was so trivial. Was it an accidental consequence of the fact that it was pilot script converted into a film? Lynch could no doubt have made it perfectly clear that Diane was dreaming had he chosen. Maybe he wanted to convey again that illusions can seem very real – he wanted the audience to imagine they were seeing the tale of a actress named Betty and her amnestic friend, then to realise, like the audience at Club Silencio, that it was actually a dream.
The acting was outstanding, particularly from the lead actresses. Almost all the lines were clearly enunciated - too often actors mumble key lines or they are drowned by intrusive ‘background’ music. Lynch believes that his script is worth hearing.
Similarly, the camera work is precise – what you need to see or hear is put across clearly.
In its ambiance, its production and its messages, this film is a work of art.