And she didn’t wake up but it was all still a dream. Or was it?
Despite my love for Twin Peaks, I’ve never been a follower of David Lynch’s films, so much so that I was more than surprised to discover that he’s only directed ten in total. With Mulholland Drive, bought last year, saved for 2019, seen for the first time, I have now seen exactly half of his output.
I approached watching the film with as little information as possible, with clean hands and composure, as you might say. I was thus not aware that Lynch had originally pitched the idea as a television series, had filmed a pilot episode that had been rejected, leading him (as was done with the Twin Peaks pilot, even though that was accepted) to extend the film to create a complete story. It explains a lot.
Mulholland Drive admits of no one convincing interpretation. In part this derives from the implantation of a variety of scenes featuring characters, mostly unnamed, who have no apparent relevance to what seems to be the central story. These are remnants of what would, we assume, have been sub-plots and plots in an open-ended TV series, here echoes of stories we never even begin to see for themselves. Anyone who attempts to fold these into one over-arching story is setting themselves an impossible task.
The main strand centres itself upon Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), Rita (Laura Elena Harring), Diane Selwyn (Watts again) and Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George and Harring at different stages). Betty, bright, blonde, perky, outwardly naive, is an aspiring actress from Ontario, arriving in Los Angeles to stay at the apartment of her Aunt Ruth, who’s someone in the industry, away in connection with a film, whilst she gets her career going. Rita, dark-haired, sultry, is an amnesiac who has lost her memory after a car crash on Mulholland Drive (a surprise stop, a gun pointed at her), who was wandered down the hill, taken refuge in Aunt Ruth’s apartment and fallen asleep, to be discovered in the shower by Betty.
‘Rita’ (who takes the name from a film poster starring Rita Hayworth) has hundreds of thousands of dollars in her handbag, and a mysterious triangular blue key. Betty sets out to help Rita rediscover her identity, despite the dark-haired woman’s fears and refusal to bring in the Police.
Elsewhere, moody and arrogant Director Adam Keshler (Justin Theroux) is under pressure to cast an unknown actress, Camilla Rhodes, in his latest film (title and story unknown, but set in the Fifties with teen music of the period). This is coming from the Mob. Adam however rebels, refuses, smashes up the Santigliani Brothers’ limo, as a result of which the film is shut down completely. He returns home to find his wife Lorraine in bed with Billy Ray Cyrus, the pool guy, retaliates by pouring pink paint into her jewellery box, and winds up in a cheap hotel with his credit revoked.
A mysterious character named the Cowboy advises Keshler to hire Camilla Rhodes for the film. Keshler hires Camilla, at this time being played by Melissa George.
Also, an incompetent assassin kills a guy for a book of telephone numbers. In trying to rig the scene to look like a suicide, he shoots a fat woma in the next cheap office, through the wall, forcing him to also have to kill her, a male cleaner and his vacuum cleaner.
The assassin has nothing else to do with the film, no more than the guy who wants to eat at a certain Winkie’s diner because he’s twice dreamed of being there, afraid, and seeing a horrible face through the wall, and who finds the guy out back of the diner and collapses in terror.
No, David Lynch films are not noted for orthodox narrative and cohesive structure, but Mulholland Drive is deliberately oneiromatic and impressionistic by comparison with his normal work.
Betty takes Rita out to the above-mentioned diner for something to eat, but Rita recovers a name, Diane Selwyn, after she sees a waitress’s name-badge of the same first name. Diane’s address is located, the girls break in, find the body of a blonde on the bed, dead several days.
In between times, Rita helps Betty rehearse her lines for an audition. The lines are cheap and nasty, and Betty is unconvinced by them, but when she plays her audition, with the veteran ex-star who will be playing opposit her, her reading is wholly different, compelling, deeply sexual, riveting, and a far cry from the perky, naive Betty. Everyone applauds her, a career is born.
The body has terrified both women. Rita starts hacking at her hair, but Betty persuades her to ccalm down, fashions for her a blonde wig that makes her look an awful lot like Betty. She also invites Rita to share her bed that night, rather than sleep on the sofa in a towel again. They have enthusiastic sex and Betty tells Rita that she loves her.
At 2.00am Rita awakens, and insistes on Betty accompanying her to a weried, all-night club, Club Silenzio. There, the MC resides over multilingual tapes; nothing is real. Rebekah Del Rio performs an a capella Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’ that makes both women cry, butwhen she collapses mid-song, that too is a tape. Betty finds a square blue box in her handbag, with a triangular keyhole.
They return to Aunt Ruth’s apartment. While Rita gets the key from its hiding place, Betty vanishes. Rita turns the key. She vanishes. The box falling makes a noise. Aunt Ruth checks she hasn’t got a prowler and goes back to bed.
The remainder of the film takes place in what may be a different reality, an alternate timeline, the recent past of the reality to which everything so far has been a fantasy or a dream. Watts is now Diane Selwyn, from Ontario, a would-be actress, but one whose career has failed, and who is bitter. She is living with Camilla Rhodes, now played by Harring, a much more successful actress, with whom she is in a lesbian relationship.
Camilla’s been cast in Keshler’s film. In order to demonstrate to an actor how hewants a kissing scene played, Keshler acts it out with Camilla. He orders the set cleared, except for Diane, at Camilla’s request, so Diane can watch Camilla being kissed.
Diane loves Camilla passionately but Camilla doesn’t love her. She ends the physical side of the relationship and Diane throws her out. Later, Camilla sends a car for Diane, that brings her to Mulholland Drive, and makes a surprise stop. There’s no gun this time, just Camilla to lead her to a party at Keshler’s house, for successful people. Betty’s landlady (Ann Miller in her last role) is now Keshler’s mother. At the table, Keshler announces he and Camilla are to marry, except that both are laughing too hard to get the word out. A blonde actress, Melissa George again, stops to talk to Camilla, kisses her intimately in front of the humiliated, tormented Diane.
Next, Diane is in the recurring Winkie’ss, hiring an assassin to kill Camilla. The waitress’s name-badge reads Betty. She’ll know when it’s done because she’ll find a blue key. That blue key’s already turned up in Diane’s apartment. Two small shieking, giggling, arm-waving people – the elderly couple who say with Betty Elms on her flight into LA, crawl under her door and chase her into the bedroom, where Diane pulls a gun out of her bedside table and shoots herself in the head.
The last word takes place back at the Club. A blue-haired woman in a balcony box seat slowly pronounces, “Silenzio”.
And she didn’t wake up but it was all still a dream. Or was it?
The dream imterpretation – that Betty and Rita are a fantasy equivalent, a happy ending version of Diane Selwyn’s life – was an early interpretation from many critics and film-goers, and I have to admit that it’s my first thought too. In true Lynchian fashion, there are elements in the Diane sequence that can be seen as filtering back into the fantasy of a strange, troubled, mysterious adventure, that nevertheless fulfils Diane’s thwarted aspirations in two key areas: Betty is a superb actress and Rita is in love with her (is she though? Only Betty says it, and immediately they make love, Rita takes over as the dominant half of their relationship, so much so that Betty vanishes. But isn’t that like dreams, settingyou up and droppingyou through trapdoors?)
Many people think that interpretation too simplistic, and that it doesn’t account for the whole film. Me, I’d have liked to have seen Mulholland Drive the series, though Lynch prefers the film, and to have seen where the unfinished strands might have led. Though I enjoyed the film immensely, and was fascinated by it, my ultimate analysis is that all the strands were unfinished. I realise that means I’m supposed to finish them myself, and maybe further viewings will begin to do that for me.
I don’t have any clever last line for this film. But I will be watching it again. And soon.