Mulholland Drive (2001) has been lauded across the board since its release 15 years ago. It was even voted the best film of the 21st century so far in a much-publicised BBC Culture poll of 2016. Indeed, the very language used to encapsulate the film’s excellence in the concluding article of the survey fell back on what is now becoming familiar – though increasingly unsatisfying – shorthand to attempt to condense Mulholland Drive’s specific allure.
Comments praising Mulholland Drive as a “brilliant commentary on Hollywood machinations” and “a sort of backhanded Valentine to Tinsel Town” betray an overestimation of the film’s Los Angeles location and the fact that the large majority of its personnel play actresses, directors and producers in the movie business.
There is no denying that Los Angeles is a necessary backdrop for the magic of David Lynch’s story to play out on. That Hollywood noir canvas is merely subservient, however, to the film’s more fertile territory and the truer cause for its marked impact on audiences.
Mulholland Drive resonates because it is a profoundly unsettling and disturbing film. As with David Lynch’s other stellar works Lost Highway (1997) and Inland Empire (2006), it could almost be classified as a superior horror film. But where the majority of films in that genre exist as exercises unto themselves – audience manipulation devices – Mulholland Drive’s fundamental terror comes from a much deeper place.
It’s certainly not a self-contained experience you can easily shake off in the minutes after you leave the cinema. Mulholland Drive is so disquieting because it apocalyptically subverts two of the fundamental tropes of storytelling. It is starkly anti-cathartic, and it uses its dream-world scenario not to unravel a coherent truth but to expose a dark abyss at the heart of human affairs.
It is an unspoken rule that all narrative forms – and certainly films – should feature some element of catharsis. Catharsis essentially dictates that, even in tragedy, there should be some sense of purification and moral cleansing by the story’s close. Mulholland Drive does the absolute opposite of this.
Its initial narrative trajectory centres on Betty (Naomi Watts) – a young starlet arriving in Los Angeles – stumbling across amnesiac brunette, Rita (Laura Elena Harring), and their subsequent attempts to uncover the truth about Rita’s status and identity.
It is a form of detective story, which is a recognisable enough genre hook – but that is where any comprehensibility ends. For Mulholland Drive is, in essence, a reverse detective story – both for us, the audience, as well as Betty and Rita. It has vague echoes of the profoundly dystopian revelations at the heart of Leonard Shelby’s journey in Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000).
Of course that film’s conceit is the reverse chronology that gradually undercuts the perceived truth about Shelby’s identity, and though Mulholland Drive is not a reverse chronology as such, it is about a fundamental disconnect – as David Roche called it – between narration and diegesis.
Lynch understands the audience inclination to want to compute what is playing out as diegesis (a uniform truth about what is in the frame, what the story is) when all we are in fact seeing is narration. This is particularly problematic when there is an unreliable narrator like Shelby in Memento or an unconscious dreamer like Betty – or Diane, to use her waking name – in Mulholland Drive.
One example of this unnerving, anti-detective tangent is when Betty and Rita are in Winkies and spot a waitress with the name “Diane”. Rita is the one to apprehend the significance to this, not Betty, so this sends them on a seemingly conventional journey to connect “Diane” to Rita (they assume she is Rita’s friend), when in reality, it is leading Betty to a traumatic wakening: a Faustian discovery about her true identity.
This anti-cathartic sentiment is revealed in the plot’s labyrinthine meanderings and circular journeys. Straight after the opening Jitterbug montage, there is the disarming image of a pillow over an abject body. As well as being symbolic of the wilful descent into unreality of the main protagonist, it also foreshadows the end destination of Betty’s epic, delusionary voyage back to self. Then of course there is the standout limousine sequence.
It is the crowning glory of David Lynch’s craft here: a stately black limo, carrying Rita, winds its way along Mulholland Drive, accompanied by Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting synthesiser score and Lynch’s own series of mesmeric dissolves. It almost seems to whisper of the descent into the dream world – underscored by the subject of the scene being Rita (the ultimate dream fetish), whereas in the repeat journey at the end of the film, the passenger is Diane, in cold, dissatisfied reality, about to receive her final humiliation.
Mulholland Drive is not the first film to use dream logic to enhance its narrative. Where it differs from those films is that the subconscious realm is usually nightmarish and reinforces the sanctity of reality. Mulholland Drive diverges completely, in being about the increasingly stressful attempt to repress and deny the presence of reality.
This accounts for Lynch immersing his story in all manner of portents alluding to the fragility of Betty’s world. It almost prefigures the notion conjured up by Christopher Nolan in Inception (2010) of there being projections (defence mechanisms) attacking the dreamer.
One such sequence in Mulholland Drive, of haunting genius, is a stark cut to an ominous fortune-teller calling on Betty to warn her of her folly. Betty is shrouded in a dark silhouette – as if she’s being addressed from within her dream state – before Coco, Betty’s landlady, ushers the fortune-teller away. Other symbols that act as harbingers for reality, and transcend their seemingly incidental usage, include coffee cups, ashtrays, and telephones, alongside the more extravagant motif of the blue key and box that marks the passage to, and from, the dream world.
Unpicking the dexterity of Lynch’s craft in Mulholland Drive represents a detective game that could be continued ad infinitum (I haven’t even touched upon the depth and majesty of the Club Silencio scene). Perhaps the wider point is that by slowly deconstructing Betty’s dream world, Lynch successfully assaults our own subconscious. He riotously probes at our presumptions and securities, and lifts the lid on the gilded veneer of our dreams for an unsettling glimpse at the heart of darkness that lurks underneath.