#6 in my definitive ranking of David Lynch’s films.
Rather famously salvaged from a television pilot made for ABC, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is a delirious and mad descent into depression from two different, mutually exclusive directions. This is kind of the perfect Lynch movie in a way, where the specifics and literal realities are wildly open to questioning, but the central thematic idea, the story, is never in question.
I’m fairly certain that it’s not just that the first 90 minutes are the original television pilot and everything after that is the footage shot two years later, but it’s pretty close. The first 90 minutes feels like a television pilot with the introduction of a whole cast of characters that would have gone on to play large parts in a series. It has the same sort of feel as the pilot to Twin Peaks as a host of characters start at different distances to a central mystery begin their swirling motions that will bring them closer. The center of the mystery is Rita, the brunette in the back of a limo about to be murdered when another car careens into it on Mulholland Drive, knocking her senseless and leaving her without memory as she walks away from the scene. There’s Betty, newly arrived in Los Angeles, wide-eyed and ready to start acting while taking up residence in her aunt’s apartment. There’s Adam, the director nearing the end of pre-production on a new movie being forced into choosing a particular actress to play the lead. There’s Robert Forster as the detective in charge of the crash scene. There’s Dan Hedaya and Angelo Badalamenti as brother financiers who work for Michael J. Anderson in a suit that makes the little person look like a very odd normal sized person in a glass enclosed room. There’s the mysterious Cowboy who talks to Adam. There’s the hitman who kills a buddy in his office, steals a book, and ends up having to kill two more people to keep the crime scene convincing. There’s Adam’s wife who sleeps with the pool guy, and then the large man who shows up at Adam’s house looking for Adam only to fight off both the wife and the pool guy.
This is a lot to set up, and it doesn’t set up like the first sixty percent of a movie. It sets up like a television pilot that will have a minimum of eight more episodes to explore.
Through all of this there end up two main storylines. The most prominent is Rita slipping into Betty’s aunt’s apartment and Betty deciding to help Rita discover who she is while, at the same time, going for some auditions. The other is the bit about Adam needing to bow to mysterious pressure to choose the actress he’s never seen in the lead role. Where the original pilot ended, I’m convinced, is when Rita and Betty go to the house of a woman whose name Rita recalls, Diane Selwyn, and discover her forgotten corpse in her apartment bed. The way the scene ends feels like the way some Twin Peaks episodes end with a slow down in footage to a stop, ready for the credits to roll.
It becomes all the more obvious that the new material completely takes over after this because suddenly there are bare breasts and cursing.
My only problem with the film is that the first 90 minutes sets up so much that never comes to fruition in the final product. I end up focusing in on the hitman in particular, but what is actually in the final hour is amazing. That almost entirely functions as an extension of Betty and Rita’s story, and this is where people begin to get lost.
Lynch, presented with the opportunity to find some kind of ending to his pilot through the kindness and hard work of his producer but finding that all the sets were destroyed and the props gone, he had to come up with something completely new. So, he took the large canvas of the pilot and narrowed it down to Betty and Rita, and this is where things get really interesting.
It’s arguable that from the point they discover the body on is a dream, but there’s another argument that everything up to that moment was a dream and everything that comes after is reality. Either way works because the movie is about the unreality of dreams, not just those we have asleep but those we have about our lives. In this particular instance, it’s tied to the City of Dreams, Los Angeles itself. Whether you move forward or backward, we have our central pair of characters, Betty and Rita (or is that Diane and Camilla?) being confronted with their dreams falling apart. If I were to pick a direction, I’d say the backwards direction is more interesting.
With heavy echoes of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona where the line between two women blurs, Betty and Rita end up falling in love, going to a club called Club Silencio where they watch people lip synch as the announcer highlights the fake nature of the place, ending with Rebekah Del Rio synching to her own rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”. When they get home they open a mysterious box Betty found in her purse at the club with a mysterious key that Rita has had since the beginning. Upon opening the box, Betty disappears, reappearing in Diane’s apartment as Diane herself. This is either jumping forward or backward in time, but what’s actually important is that Diane and Camilla (Rita’s alternate) are in a relationship that’s falling apart. Camilla is finding success as an actress while Diane is really just hanging onto Camilla’s coattails. Even Adam, the director, is seducing Camilla willingly and successfully right in front of Diane.
That we see Diane’s corpse earlier in the film should tell the audience where this ends. The idea is fascinating as it plays out, though. This land of dreams can’t come true for everyone. We see the bright glitter of Hollywood at its height with Camilla at her engagement party to Adam and then the forgotten refuse left behind as Diane finds her gun in her bedroom.
So which is the dream and which is the reality? Is Betty the dream of Diane before she kills herself? Or is Diane the nightmare of Betty as she confronts the uglier side of Hollywood? There’s really no answer because, again, it’s not the point. Either forwards or backwards the same idea works. Lynch has consistently made movies about outsiders looking for acceptance their own way, and here he creates a character (either Betty or Diane) who wants acceptance into Hollywood and Rita/Camilla’s life only to find that she cannot find a way in. Diane’s end is a tragedy that is both the end of her story and the moment of realization for Betty that Hollywood is not the ideal she imagined it to be.
This isn’t the only meat of the movie, for sure. Betty has a great audition with an actor she’s never met, and she’s more alive and genuine in that moment than at any other point in the film (as Betty). She’s most alive when she’s pretending to be someone else, does that mean that she’s actually someone else and not Betty? Okay, that kind of question is circular with no real meaning, but there’s an interesting implication around a woman who is more genuine when she’s someone else. Lynch calls his hoped for approach from audiences as “feel-think”, and there’s not much to dig through intellectually, but it’s the sort of thing that feeds the overall idea in an implicit way.
Again, as I wrap this up, I have to note that I think this movie would have worked better if Lynch had cleaned up the first hour and a half more. There’s too much just hanging around that gets either no payoff whatsoever or single lines in the final hour. The hit man does get hired by Diane to kill Camilla, but the book he stole from the murder in the early part of the film is just there in the scene. The attention given to that wonderful bit of black comedy that opens the hitman in the film seems to come to pretty much nothing by the end. The actress forced on the director is seen in the final scenes, and little else. The Cowboy floats in and out of two scenes. They all feel like they’re there to keep them from falling out completely instead of finding vital things for them to do to help advance the overall story. I wanted either a lot more or a bit less from them.
That’s a relatively small complaint against a film that has so much to chew on. It’s a mystery box where the central idea is never in question, so it can engage two completely different sets of audiences who are looking for different things. The more literal minded can argue over the symbols and reality of each scene, but others can just appreciate the collapse of a woman’s dreams in a city that David Lynch loves.
It may not be one of Lynch’s best considering due to the fractured nature of its production (an interesting juxtaposition to the production of Eraserhead), but it’s still a meaty, engaging mystery.