When David Lynch released Mulholland Drive in 2001, he took the unusual move of releasing a list of “ten clues to unlocking this thriller”, for audiences who may have needed guidance on how to decipher what was going on in the film. These clues direct us to pay particular attention to certain objects, places and to the behaviour of characters. This has always seemed an unusual move on Lynch’s part. In common with most of his films, Mulholland Drive has those qualities which have given us a new eponym – ‘Lynchian’, which we usually understand to mean a film which is non-linear, with emphasis on unconventional character and often bewildering, unsettling non-sequiturs. It’s never seemed as if Lynch is particularly given to expounding his own work, and handing out a road map seems an unusual move by any filmmaker, though especially him, a man more given to challenging audiences than guiding them. There are typically no easy ways through his films. The slathering of artistic imagery in his work is a key component, but chimes with Lynch’s idea that “if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there are always red ants underneath.”

And yet this film was recently voted by critics worldwide as the best of the of 21st century, in a recent BBC poll. Even though we’re talking about film critics here, who are more often exposed to world cinema or to films generally which are more on the challenging side of things, that’s still quite something. Mulholland Drive, of all films, has successfully nailed it – a film which burns its interpretation of mental breakdown deep into the psyche, and a film whose director deemed it necessary to hand out clues to its mysteries. These sorts of polls just don’t usually crown films which are quite so strange or quite so frightening as this.

[Editor’s note: the rest of this article discusses the film in detail and as such contains spoilers.]

And let’s face it: key scenes in Mulholland Drive are terrifying. Characters are literally frightened to death in the film, both in the ‘unworld’ and the real world, meaning that the movie is book-ended by utter, visceral terror. That first big scare – just after the guy at the diner explains his dream – always gets me, even on repeat viewings. This is one thing, but even when the film doesn’t seem to set out to scare, it does. In this version of Los Angeles as crafted by Lynch, even a knock at the door takes on a vivid and unsettling significance, unnerving me far more than a whole host of films which have absolutely set out to scare me, but failed. Lynch is a master at this kind of thing: perhaps it’s a sound coming out of left field, or a particularly unnatural facial expression, or a conversation which is stilted, non-sequential or threatening, but he makes an art form out of distrust. People suffering from psychosis have reported various symptoms of their condition (linked to escalating dopamine levels) such as: visual distortions, misinterpreting the facial expressions or body language of others as threatening, or the inference of malevolent motives on the part of others; this may be complete overkill, sure, and I don’t mean to hijack a very real medical condition, but that sounds an awful lot like what Lynch achieves with his films, and the ‘hackles rising’ sensation they often bring.

So far, though, what we have is an unorthodox film which has the power to engage the emotions in a particular way; these are fine things in cinema, but there must be something else about Mulholland Drive which explains its appeal. This is a topic which I have given a fair amount of thought since my last re-watch last week, as I pondered why each successive viewing hangs on somewhere in my mind for days afterwards.

It’s my contention that Mulholland Drive has created a fairy story out of adult life at its most tragic. It seems at first to be a mystery, where two beautiful women (Snow White and Rose Red?) set themselves against dark and gathering forces, solving clues and handling the trappings of fairy stories we’d recognise – enigmatic instructions, threatening people, even a mysterious key, in the hopes of their salvation. Adding to this timeless feel is the fact that the film doesn’t really seem to belong to any particular time; it’s not quite modern and it’s not quite set in the past. Old Hollywood seems to be represented in spades, key characters rely on analogue phones, not mobiles (which in 2001 were certainly common enough) but then director Adam’s house looks very modern, for example, which leads to a disorientating timelessness, one which possibly influenced a more recent film about the horrors of sexuality, It Follows. In any case, the LA in the film doesn’t feel affixed to any specific point. But if it’s timeless, like many fairy stories are, then it’s still a fantasy world peopled by adults, and what is at stake here is significant to adults. We’re driven alongside Betty and Rita to solve their mystery, close the story. However, when we finally do, we are faced with a world of scuppered dreams, thwarted ambitions, corrupt people, bored and cruel lovers. When we finally understand what has happened, when the key – Bluebeard-style, reveals something horrible – then there is no neat and judicious resolution here. This makes Mulholland Drive not only incredibly ambitious, innovative, and challenging; its final show of the hand is to force us to acknowledge the terrible sadness of adulthood, when deeds done cannot be undone. Only in dreams can we pretend otherwise.

All of this is slow to emerge, of course; unreality takes up the greater part of the film, long before all of the clues finally unravel themselves. Another way that Mulholland Drive is different is that its ‘it was all a dream’ revelation doesn’t feel like a horrible and unfulfilling cop-out; a great deal of this is thanks to how compellingly real-life elements float up into the dream world and take on their significance, just as they do in real dreams. The plot, as we first understand it at least, involves a beautiful young woman (Laura Elena Harring) being forced at gunpoint to get out of a car, but as this fracas is unfolding, there’s a crash; the woman emerges, injured, and staggers off, eventually managing to sneak into an empty apartment downtown. This apartment belongs to Aunt Ruth, whose beautiful and innocent niece Betty (Naomi Watts) is about to arrive; the deal is that she gets to live there for a while to get on her feet as she chases her dreams of becoming an actress. Discovering the amnesic woman there – who names herself ‘Rita’ after a Rita Hayworth poster hanging in the apartment – Betty at first assumes she’s a friend of Aunt Ruth, but sympathy for the stranger prevents her from kicking her out when she realises otherwise. Together, they try to discover who Rita really is, slowly building a picture both of her identity, and what she has to be afraid of out there.

But Betty isn’t real; she’s actually a woman called Diane Selwyn, whose real name had swam into the dream as a possible ‘clue’ regarding Rita’s real identity (leading to that rather wry scene in which Betty says it feels strange to be ringing herself, when she dials Diane Selwyn’s number). Only at the point where Diane’s dream had reached the significance of the key – which in the dream is deemed somehow linked to Rita’s identity – does she suddenly start out of sleep. Then, flashback replaces dream, mingling with real time to fill in the blanks, before finally, hallucination has its moment, too. In reality Diane is dangerously delusional, a thwarted lover not of ‘Rita’, but Camilla, whose name had been in the dream but as part of a sequence about the nefarious goings-on in the film industry, where directors stand to lose control over their artistic endeavours if they don’t satisfy the mysterious demands of a back-stairs cabal of money men. There was no conspiracy of this kind in real life; Camilla had become involved with the director, Adam (Justin Theroux) and had deliberately humiliated her lover, Diane, at a party, where it seems that Adam and Camilla were planning to announce their engagement. Diane’s heartbreak led her to take the ultimate step – getting Camilla murdered by a hit man. Her trauma and her regret did the rest, and her exhausted, guilty sleep recast events in a more acceptable light.

Much has been said about the sex scenes in Mulholland Drive, but those dream sequences relating to sex tell us what it isn’t rather than what it is for Diane. There seems to be the spectre of sexual abuse in her past; Betty’s audition for her first part is about a much older man, a friend of the family who, had his actions with the young female character (Diane) been known, would have ‘ended up in jail’. Then Diane’s imagined Camilla, Rita, is loving, naive and dependent, a Boxing Helena character who needs Betty – the inverse of her real character, and pure wish fulfillment for the abandoned, criminal and delusional Diane. At the Club Silencio, Betty breaks down under the weight of the revelation that everything they are seeing is fake, even the monumentally moving song which they hear – like Hollywood at large, it seems, which has sent Diane into this unfortunate sequence of events. Camilla, it transpires, didn’t just break Diane’s heart; she also robbed her of an acting part which she had wanted badly, which might explain the other wish fulfillment in the film – of the director having everything taken away from him, in the way that he had taken everything away from Diane. Lynch even sees fit to crack jokes at Adam’s expense during some key scenes; if it’s daring to do the whole Bobby Ewing reveal, then it’s just as daring to drop some gags into a film which is ordinarily quite as dark as this one, but it works, and Lynch gets to indulge his liking for poking fun at inept law enforcement too, though not letting inept criminals off the hook, later pausing for some physical comedy (!) during a botched assassination scene. These are odd moments of levity, but they allow some breathing space without detracting from Diane’s trauma. The difference between Betty and Diane is staggering, incidentally, and Naomi Watts gives one of her best performances here.

This isn’t a film which yields everything it has to offer very readily, whether you’re trying to unlock the clues given or not. The plot shift between Betty and Diane kept me at arm’s length initially, and it took a lot of thinking to feel that I’d in any way ‘got’ what the film was trying to do. Some of its metaphors are still at arm’s length for me now, though no less compelling for it. The down-and-out who releases the elderly couple – are they symbolic of lost childhood, or some sort of Norman Rockwell universe gone wrong, the presence of whom finally shoves Diane into the cold, hard realisation that her Hollywood dream has made her into that down-and-out, or worse? I have read fan theories that this old couple are the jitterbug dance contest judges who initially sent Diane to Hollywood in pursuit of her dreams; this would make a lot of sense, and it would be fitting that they are morphed into monsters at the end, as they in turn set her on the path she now finds inescapable. It’s a disorientating, scary way to end the film, but perhaps the most horrendous thing about this finale is how it underlines our final truth about adult stories – they make us feel sympathy for monsters. Diane has behaved abhorrently, but she has been treated abhorrently too. Can we really say we hate her, or feel she deserves what happens to her? I said that I felt the film operates as an adult version of a folk or a fairy tale, and that involves a complete lack of a happily ever after here. We’re back to Club Silencio just before the credits, where a bizarre, but utterly dispassionate audience member closes the book. It’s left to our judgement whether the ‘silence’ which closes the film is peaceful.

Mulholland Drive stands for me as one of David Lynch’s most successful films. It’s also his last but one planned film, according to a recent interview – making Inland Empire, in 2006, his final cinematic work. Whilst I think Mulholland Drive could have worked in a television format, as it was originally planned, and the medium in which Lynch will be working from now on, it is instead one of those rarest of beasts – a film which doesn’t underestimate its audience. It’s challenging – even with guidance – and it can be bewildering, but it’s a completely unique telling of a tale, and it holds up as a staggering film of immense, lurid proportions. The critics were right about it, and it absolutely deserves the slow-burn reputation which it has built up over the past sixteen years.

Studiocanal will release a new, director-approved Blu-ray release of Mulholland Drive on 22nd May 2017.

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