Mulholland Drive (2001)

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

David Lynch, who hopelessly addicted a host of television viewers to the sordid, sensational Twin Peaks series in the early 90s, developed Mulholland Drive as his return to prime-time TV. But the studio pulled the plug on the soap opera, even though it was filled with the eccentric characters, bizarre comedy, surreal plot twists, and mood-music that characterizes all of Lynch’s work. As a result, the cast and crew were stranded and disgruntled. And Lynch fans feared his latest work would be buried forever

But then the inventive director announced he would re-edit the material, condense it, film a new ending, and release it as a movie.

How could he condense thirteen hours of television into two hours of Big Screen and have it make sense? Lynch’s response might be, Who says it needs to make sense? It’s me!

Judging from reaction among the critics and Lynch’s fans, Mulholland Drive may be the magician’s greatest hat trick yet. And that’s no ordinary rabbit. It’s got big nasty teeth.


Drive‘s finished product seems right in step with the director’s multi-movie exploration of evils that reside beneath the surface of America’s shiny happy goodness.

Just as Alice in Wonderland took us through the looking glass, Blue Velvet took us over the white picket fence of the Ideal American Community. The naive hero discovered astonishing conspiracies, a world of secret lust and violence, and even as he looked on in horror, he discovered capacities for the same terrible evils in himself. His grip on innocence was lost.

Lynch’s Twin Peaks television series told a similar story, but on a grander scale. The series turned everyday American neighborhoods into a battleground for good and evil forces of the spirit world. Its cast of hormone-driven adolescents were consumed by their passions, and an evil spirit fed on all of the selfishness and lust, claiming lives along the way.

Lynch may well be on a mission to prove that there is no such thing on earth as an incorruptible American dream. And we could use the reminder. But so far in his career, Lynch hasn’t included much light in his stories. Outside of his Disney movie The Straight Story, he hasn’t done more than shove our face into the mess of darkness and leave us to figure out what to do. Each successive film feels like another circle of Lynch’s hell. Dante had the decency to offer visions of beauty and hope as well. Can Lynch?

The answer is still no. Mulholland Drive is, literally, the central character’s worst nightmare. I’m not spoiling any surprises by telling you: the film opens by zooming in slowly on a big red pillow. Who is dreaming? What’s real and what’s dream? These questions dominate the rest of the film. And, sadly, they don’t let up. Even if you do sort out the movie’s mysteries, it doesn’t amount to anything but bad news and despair.

The film opens with a horrendous car crash, from which “Rita,” a brunette bombshell (Laura Elena Harring) escapes with bruises and, perhaps, a concussion. She plunges straight down the hill from the Mulholland Drive accident and into Hollywood, where she hides out in a newly-vacant apartment and promptly goes to sleep. Perchance to dream?

What follows seems a common, linear mystery. At first.

While “Rita” sleeps, we are introduced to “Betty” (Naomi Watts). “Betty” is a young perky blonde, following her dreams to Hollywood. She resembles the Betty of Archie comics, with more than a touch of Doris Day. Betty says she wants to be a serious actress, but a monster slowly emerges from behind that Barbie grin. It’s stardom she’s hungry for. And she’s willing to compromise more than just her integrity in order to be a star.

(These first scenes will seem to most viewers to be extremely amateurish and unconvincing. But Lynch is too good a director to let dialogue and acting sink to such lows. As later scenes show, he’s in complete control.  He wants this to sound like a cheesy television show, so that later, when things turn frighteningly real, we see everything that has come before as a charade.)

Betty checks into her aunt’s apartment while her aunt is on vacation. The complex might as well be called Hotel California, or Hotel Hollywood. It’s managed by “Coco,” an aging survivor of Tinseltown’s glory days, played perfectly by Ann Miller, who is an aging survivor of Tinseltown glory days.

As Betty tours her new digs, she finds “Rita,” dazed and bruised, hiding in the shower. This truamatized stranger (she steals the name from a Rita Hayworth movie poster), the brunette confesses that the accident has given her amnesia.

Betty is just bubbling over with goody-goody goodwill for “Rita” (who, when they sit together, might as well be named Veronica). The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane describes these two heroines perfectly: “To see Betty … gasp with girlish anticipation at the treasures of Hollywood is like watching Fay Wray setting off for an island vacation,” but meanwhile, “All [Rita] has left, like Mulholland Drive, is a full set of curves.”

In the traumatic events that follow — What would a David Lynch film be without the discovery of a dead body? — Betty and Rita are transformed from determined Nancy Drews into desperate lovers. What draws them into this reckless affair? Perhaps Betty envies Rita’s Hollywood connections. Perhaps Rita wants to get back Betty’s naiveté and childish enthusiasm. Whatever the reason, they’re headed for deeper and deeper trouble.

And then, suddenly, the story itself loses its identity.

Scenes blur and get mixed up.

Flashbacks begin-sometimes the same, sometimes different.

And some characters morph-there’s no better way to say it-into other characters.

At the end, we’re in territory as symbolic and non-rational as a Fellini film (which Lynch clearly knows and even references). We don’t know who “Betty” or “Rita” really are; now they’re called by different names.

Not only that, but they seem to behave like different people. The search for Rita’s identity seems to instead rob Betty of her own. Her smiley surface slips off like a bad costume, and we’re left with a battered, bitter, snarling woman driven to mad jealousy by selfish, wicked desires.

Most critics will tell you that the second half of the film is fascinating nonsense. Some have accused Lynch of just laughing at the audience, creating a mystery that has no solution. But I am convinced the movie does make sense… if only in the realm of the subconscious. Its symbols tell a story similar to that of poor dead Laura Palmer (Twin Peaks). I’ll offer my interpretation below, but I recommend you avoid it until you’ve seen the film, because I have to discuss all of the film’s big surprises.


Regardless of whether the film makes sense, viewers should be heavily cautioned: I’m not suggesting we embrace Mulholland Drive. The film contains explicit sex scenes that will be easy for many to pull from their context and exploit. While Lynch probably hopes we will consider what these scenes tell us about the characters’ reckless foolishness and self-absorption, but serving this up to general audiences is like dangerous chemicals to children. He would be a more effective filmmaker if he exercised the “less is more” principle here.

As art, Drive‘s strengths are admirable, even extraordinary. As a feature film for general audiences, it is too dangerous, bound to be misunderstood and either condemned as pornographic or exploited for cheap thrills. Instead, it’s a subject to study, a nightmare to take to heart.

Lynch’s study of evil has the ring of familiarity; you get the feeling he has seen a lot of people slowly destroyed by their desires. Like his previous works, this film serves as a lament for those who suffer from evils without and within, And his technical mastery alone makes this body of work an important contribution to cinema. With Mulholland Drive, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway…and, yes, The Straight Story, Lynch strikes me as a man who makes movies to express and explore a great deal of grief and despair. Like Farnsworth at the bar in Straight Story, he may well be a good man so hurt and haunted by evil that his movies are where he weeps.

Notice: The movie is dedicated to an aspiring young actress, Jennifer Symes, who played a junkie in Lynch’s Lost Highway, and then died at 28 years old.

MY INTERPRETATION OF THE STRANGE GOINGS-ON IN MULHOLLAND DRIVE

CAUTION!! SPOILERS AHEAD!!

Here’s my speculation about what this madness might mean:

Mulholland Drive is the story of one woman, not two. Her name is Diane.

At some point in her sad life, Diane is involved in a car accident. This happens at the low point of her life. She’s in Hollywood, a failure, driven mad by regret, jealousy, and lust. Traumatized and in denial, her prideful self staggers back into Hollywood, drawn as though on some evil invisible leash directly through the underbrush. Hollywood has her in its tractor beam.

Back in Tinseltown, bruised and confused, she hides out. Suddenly, she encounters her younger self… “Betty.” Quickly calling herself “Rita,” she introduces herself. Somehow, she has returned to the beginning of her own Hollywood story, but her mixed-up memory is clouded and she doesn’t realize it. She’s facing her younger self.

The two parts of Diane’s personality journey together in a timeless dream world, slowly, to the realization that the “Betty” side of Diane is actually dead. That’s the solution. Diane has gone past the point of no return.  Her innocence is lost. Her young idealism is ruined. That girl is dead. The enthusiastic dreamer is decomposing, while all of Diane’s worse traits remain alive.   She’s a compromising Hollywood prostitute who has watched her dream of being an actress go up in smoke.  The turning point of the movie is when both “Rita” and “Betty,” the two primary halves of the whole, face the terrible truth for the first time… Diane has ruined her own life.

Thus, it makes sense that the young idealist Betty would fall for Rita, because Rita is beautiful and mysterious… she’s the Hollywood-style icon that young Diane wanted to be. When Rita falls in love with Betty, that’s Diane desiring to have her younger, undamaged self back again. Thus, the lesbian sex scene is not a lesbian sex scene at all… but rather, a depiction of one woman’s obsession with her own glamorized, idealized version of herself.

After their lovemaking, Rita drags Betty to a nightclub. It is as though the two of them (and thus, Diane) are having an epiphany. At the nightclub, they see a show that tells them this is all an  illusion. 

The dream is almost over.  The truth is about to appear. When they return to the apartment, Betty disappears. Rita puts a mysterious key in a mysterious box, and she is swallowed up by the box.  END OF DREAM.

We THEN see a NEW version of Betty. This is the real Diane, waking up from the dream.   Her head is on the red pillow.  And she looks just like the corpse… same room, same bed, even the same position. Thus, I believe the dead girl in the dream represents “Betty,” the young self, ruined and abandoned and falling apart. .

And thus, the rest of the movie, while still warped (because we’re in Diane’s muddled perspective), is the real world. People call her Diane now.

Diane in reality is a bitter, snarling, contentious woman.  She appears to be living in that same apartment, but she’s having an argument with a neighbor.  It looks to me like the neighbor is Diane’s ex-girlfriend, a lesbian that has moved out and has come back to get her stuff.  This would explain why there is stuff in Diane’s dream about divorce and heartbreak and vicious spats between lovers.

We see Diane around the house, having a personality disorder.  She calls for her alter-ego, “Rita.”  Rita appears. But Rita promptly turns into Betty, and then back to Rita again. Clearly, Lynch is suggesting Betty and Rita are the same person. When the two make love again, it looks like a ridiculous porn flick fantasy. That’s because it IS a fantasy.  Diane desires to be loved by Camilla Rhodes, the actress that has it all. Rita, Diane’s alter-ego fantasy girl, is modeled after Camilla Rhodes. Later, we see Diane masturbating, which lets us see what’s really going on while Diane is having lesbian fantasies. There is no sex in this movie… just Diane’s sad fantasies. They’re an illusion, a lie.

Meanwhile, Diane gets invited to a party by the real Camilla. Camilla invites Diane out of pity. Thus, when Diane arrives, she sees everything that is not hers, her Hollywood dream.  The dream belongs to Camilla, and Camilla has earned it by being a wicked, worldly vamp.  Diane tells her sob story to the mother of director Adam Kesher.   Kesher’s mother is the woman who appeared in the dream as the hotel complex manager.  It’s clear here that, contrary to Diane’s dream, the two are not well-acquainted.

In the end, Diane is left jealous, bitter, alone, and suicidal. Camilla has received, and become, everything Diane wanted to have and to be. Diane has also lost her innocence (the dead girl on the bed). And she doesn’t dare go back home…she sees her family as having greased the slide into hell. They come back to haunt her in the film’s terrifying climax.

But what about the rest of the movie? There is the story of Adam Kesher, the director who must choose between his vision and the studio pressure. There’s the story of the assassin who kills one man, only to have to kill others in order to cover it up. And there’s that strange dreamer, who envisioned a devil-man hiding behind a restaurant.

Clearly, these were all going to be subplots of the television series Mulholland Drive. But here, Lynch uses them as further figments of Diane’s dream. Perhaps these characters represent further splinters of Diane’s self, confronting moral dilemmas, having premonitions of doom, and not being able to stop the evil that has been set in motion.

The Cowboy is Hollywood’s greatest icon of Good. He is the conscience. He is exhorting the director, and Diane by default, to be careful and do the right thing. He says, “You’ll see me twice, if you do bad.” Actually, the director never sees him again. But WE do. We are in Diane’s head, and thus, Diane sees him twice more. Diane has done bad.

And that’s my interpretation of the film. But it’s as surreal as a dream. What we say it all means may say a whole lot more about us than about the film itself. Time will tell.

One Response to “Mulholland Drive (2001)”

  1. Mark R. Young Says:

    Thanks! This is the cleverest interpretation I’ve read.

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