BFI David Lynch Season – Mulholland Drive (2001)
Silencio……The key to surpassing the first of the many interlocking mystifying mysteries of Mulholland Drive begins with Jennifer Syme, an actress whose ‘in memoriam’ dedication during the closing credits provides the central buttress to this elegiac dream story, conjured in an endless labyrinthine cavern of counterfeits and counterfeints, as this Hollywood augry inextricably melds with a subconscious speculation on love and loss in the city of dreams. As a bit-part player in Lost Highway and one time partner of Keanu Reeves her sad life, cut short at the age of 28 is ostentatiously the driving emotional force that inspired David Lynch to craft what Cahier Du Cinema elected as the finest film of the decade in 2010, a troubled life gnawed by aspiration and tragedy, a conundrum now concealed in a looming obscurity. The second key is the genesis of the film as a TV pilot which was subsequently rejected by the abominable executives, one of many real world echoes that the fictional designs repeatedly oozes, the film arising like an atramentous phoenix from that wreckage when Studio Canal stepped in with funding to amalgamate the apparently unconnected episodes (roughly two-thirds of which ended up in the final movie) into a satisfying and coherent whole. Seemingly incongruous scenes such as the botched and amusing hitman sequence, or the terrifying diner consecution were subsumed into a larger tragedy that Lynch plays as the final abstracted thoughts of a soul in distressed descent, in the first film masterpiece of the century and to my mind the second piece of perfection of Lynch’s career alongside Blue Velvet.
Appropriately enough the film begins in gloom and luxury, as an obsidian limonene prowls the Olympus hills of Hollywood, it’s single voyager yet another Lynchian sultry brunette, the mysterious Rita (Laura Harring, her career now almost MIA ten years later) who utters the first, crucial line reading – ‘What are you doing? We don’t stop here?’ – an ominous inauguration that is repeated by her doppelgänger. An accident occurs and Rita wanders dazed and confused from the scene of the crime, finding shelter in an apparently vacant domicile deep in the Tinseltown suburbs. Cue ‘Betty’, an ambitious, starstruck young actress who arrives at her Aunt’s apartment while she is away on a foreign shoot, desperate to begin her career in the movies. Inquisitive and eager Betty strikes up a friendship with the amnesic Rita to discover who she is, why she’s carrying so much money and what exactly will unlock the blue box? Meanwhile quizzical film director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is having some troubles of his own with his 1950’s set musical project, what with a cadre of eerie, stoic executives instructing him in no uncertain terms whom his next leading girl is going to be, not to mention the discovery of his trophy wife’s infidelities with none other than Billy Ray Cyrus, a terrifying prospect indeed. Soon the narrative strands begin to intersect and both Betty and Rita’s fate seems linked to the film, as Rita is hunted by shadowy figures and Betty wins her first part after a staggering audition;
Viewing this in the midst of Oscar season was uncanny timing given one strand of its festering, multi-dimensional themes and ambitions, if in Lost Highway Lynch took his first hesitant first steps to muster character malleability within a dream film context he mastered this technique in Mulholland Drive, with different players presumably haunting the avatar of the same character, with half imagined and barely glimpsed symbols and icons littering the mise-en-scene and soundscapes, all enigmas and illusions, phantoms and spectres compounded by (in some instances) Lynch’s literal deployment of smoke and mirrors. Characters drift off to sleep or fall unconscious throughout the film and a dreamy, sundered consistency is provoked by a drifting, malingering hand-held cinematography at key intersection points, when the divergent narratives are contaminated and polluted with a dyadic absorption. Just as the audition scene above is a glimpse of a scene within a scene, a Russian doll concealment of a movie within a film the narrative warps and wanes, and Mulholland Drive’s imperceptible mysteries have also bleed through to (dare I say it) the real world….
This was Naomi Watts first starring role, like the naive Betty she had recently arrived in Tinseltown from Australia and seen her initial optimism crushed by repeated auditions and promised call-backs, before finally securing this career making role that was a stepping stone to A list stardom. Similarly the exposure of Laura Haring as the evocative Rita potentially heralded a major career but she has faded into semi-obscurity, only noted now for subsequent B-Movies, direct to DVD fare and TV work, two real world trajectories that emulates their fictional counterparts dual (yet inverted, another mirror?) professional fates. Mulholland Drive also populates its supporting players with half remembered faces from the history of Hollywood, it was the last film of Ann Miller, a quiet bit part player whose long career stretched from the 1930’s to the 1950’s and Chad Everett is the leather skinned, lecherous co-star seen above, a journeyman for hire whose range of roles covers the spectrum of Astronauts to Zoologists. To continue the themes of sex that this retrospective has unearthed I have to say that the notorious lesbian love scene is incredible – hear me out – and not for the reasons you filthy swine are thinking. There is a genuine eroticism between Rita and Betty in this tryst (SFW) which organically leads into the psychic fugue of the Silencio sequence, it has a real sense of tenderness and passion without emitting any sense of exploitation or leering physicality, it’s a genuinely moving and alluring scene that seems quite remote from American cinemas usual bombastic approach to sexuality and intimacy.
Having not seen the film in a good six or seven years I was surprised at just how straightforward it was for such an allegedly confusing movie. It’s fuzzy around some of the particulars to be sure, and many twists and turns of the narrative are open to numerous interpretations – one of the central, puissant joys of the film that keep sit in the critical pantheon – but it’s reasonably clear how much of the film is a dream, of where the real and imagined bisect, coupled with individual moments that are indolently strong even as they seem to have been crafted from and for a different picture altogether. I think what is unimpeachable is that Diane (Watts) arrives in Hollywood, gets hired for a major project and becomes involved with her director, but quite how much of Rita is her lover, an invading romantic interloper or even a symbolic teleportation of the director rests in the eye of the beholder. Disgruntled, dismissed and rejected she hires a hoodlum to avenge her bitterness, and wretched with guilt she takes her own life (are those gibbering pensioners the parents of her victim?) thus the majority of the film is widely considered as occurring within the fevered imagination of Diane, addled with depression, as her spirit ebbs and slips away. Crazier readings and notions abound, one of the classics I’ve unearthed revolve around that hitman sequence as an unconscious signifier, a symbolic representation of Diane’s back story abortion complete with female egg, male sperm, the vacuum mode of abortion and the ending of a life – as they say your mileage may vary but lines such as ‘I just came from Deep River, Ontario, and now I’m in this… dream place’ are pretty concise. Whatever your views Mulholland Drive is a remarkable work that alters perceptibly on every viewing, with Lynch’s usual motifs of the stage, of the facade of performance, the unreality and conscious singularity of dreams, the masks that we sport both professionally and personally, all draped in a tesselated crust of noirish murder and suspense that infects the best of his work. Here’s the conclusion of the film – erm spoilers – charting poor Diane’s final descent;
Given its mysterious nature and open-ended structure there is more than enough web material to devour if you are so inclined, here are the ten clues that Lynch proffered to confused fans, here is the Guardian liveblog screening with David Thompson from a few years back, (I’ve not read it yet as again I didn’t want to prejudice my thoughts) and here are some location details should plan to retrace Betty’s / Diane’s / Rita’s tragic trail. In terms of trivia did you know that the Cowboy was the co-director of The Loveless, Kathryn Bigelow’s first film? I discovered that utterly pointless gem of knowledge a couple of years ago and now I can rest easy, having shared it with the world. Here is probably the best documentary on the film, taken from the 2005 special edition and here is an interview with Lynch which inevitably doesn’t answer anything, but he’s always a good sport and may provoke some insights into our trance addled encephalons. Along with Sunset Boulevard – another street name of dusky Hollywood of course – and in my opinion The Bad & The Beautiful it is the greatest film about film, the most ravishing assault on the dream factory and its dark infrastructure, other critics have noted references to Rivette’s Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau with the ‘dual’ female protagonists and deployment of alternate levels of performance and intertextuality, you can also view Altman’s Three Women and both Fellini’s 8½ as influences, whilst Bergman’s Persona also resonates from a psychological and atmospheric level, particularly with the visual compositions which you can see in the nightclub sequence’s opening pan below. So where better to conclude this review than to return to the beginning with a whispered lament – Silencio…..