David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive initially suggests another of the filmmaker’s thematically binary tales that contrast the innocent blonde against the brunette seductress. The film opens on the titular road, following a limo as it navigates the Hollywood canyons at night, accompanied by the poetically oceanic orchestrations of composer Angelo Badalamenti. The vehicle’s lights are glowing, blending with the pulsing street lamps of larger Los Angeles—a city of cinema, one of the world’s ultimate dreamlands. In this limo is an almost ludicrously gorgeous brunette (Laura Elena Harring), who’s clearly made up for a night out, donning an elegant gown and makeup that allow her to rival the cinematic iconography of Rita Hayworth, whom she clearly recalls, and whose identity she borrows when the limo crashes into a car of rowdy drunks, killing everyone involved except her.
This calamity might be a blessing though, because the men in the limo seemed intent on killing Rita, a name she assumes when she looks out of a shower in the apartment she’s soon hiding in, crippled with amnesia from the crash, gazing upon a Gilda poster in an image that’s fractured through the glass of the shower stall and the mirror hanging on the wall. It’s a brilliant image, partially for its casualness, for the confidence Lynch displays in not holding it too long. The filmmaker sustains this mastery throughout this long, amazing film, fashioning portals within portals, refractions within refractions, reinventions within reinventions, and doubles within doubles as people in this dreamland scramble to preserve a grand, diseased illusion that’s eating itself alive.
Rita appears to be involved in a Hollywood Babylon conspiracy. Obliquely intersecting with her story is the pseudo-comedic plight of film director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), who fashions himself a “bad boy” with his thick glasses and mostly black wardrobe. Gangsters, ancient men behind the men behind the showbiz curtain, are horning in on his new, highly sought-after project, insisting that he cast a struggling actress, Camilla Rhodes (initially played by Melissa George), in the lead. Adam chafes at their bullying and the gangsters ruin his life until he gets with the program.
But our lead is the blonde. When viewers first see Betty (Naomi Watts), she’s stepping out of an airport, bathed in so much sunshine as to offer a visual pun about her naïve, unsullied, “sunny” nature. For quite a bit of the film, Betty talks in a melodramatically declarative manner that will be familiar to fans of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet. Immediately, though, there’s a difference in Mulholland Drive from some of Lynch’s past work: Betty’s declarations don’t resound with an implication of mockery. Roger Ebert was mostly, but not quite entirely, wrong about Blue Velvet and Lost Highway, as there can be a smug dimension to Lynch’s obsession with the lies inherent in the myth of “Americana.”
But Lynch never judges Betty. He’s on her wavelength, protective of her in a fashion that isn’t leering or condescendingly paternal, like the attitudes of every man she’ll encounter throughout the film. When Betty exclaims, “Won’t that be the day!” in response to an elderly couple that says they’ll look for the aspiring actress on TV, you aren’t primed to laugh. This line is poignant the first time you watch Mulholland Drive, unaware of where its narrative is headed, and it’s emotionally devastating the second, or third, or fourth time you watch the film, retrospectively aware of its punchline. There are many lines like that, particularly “It’s strange to be calling yourself,” or “Just forget you ever saw it, it’s better that way,” which are but two of a thousand hints that are hidden in plain sight, alluding to a heartbreaking truth.
The twist of Mulholland Drive is that there ultimately isn’t much of a traditional mystery. Lynch’s “dark” and “light” women aren’t as comfortably differentiated as they are in Blue Velvet; here, they’re humans of glorious, damaged multitudes caught in the net of the myth of transformation offered by American movies, which is a reinforcement and a distillation of the great myth of reinvention that defines the United States. Lynch tells the audience the full story of Rita and Betty from nearly beginning to end, with the chronology only partially scrambled, without appearing to. Initially, there seem to be quite a few amusing directorial indulgences, anecdotal sketches that don’t seem to go anywhere, that might be relics of the project’s history as a failed TV show.
Most vividly, there’s the terrifying scene in a Denny’s-like diner called Winkie’s, where a man tells a friend about a monster he dreamed of that lived behind the restaurant around the corner. The man returns to the diner to confront his dream, only to relive it, or be destroyed by it, when the monster confronts him. The timing and framing of this moment is extraordinary, particularly Lynch’s use of point-of-view shots where they don’t really belong, connoting a shaky reality. One moment, the men’s uneaten breakfast is on the table, the next it’s not, and the men soon vanish from the film like the breakfast. There’s also an interlude with a threadbare assassin (Mark Pellegrino) that’s among the funniest scenes of Lynch’s career, though it has a meanness that the director’s bracingly willing to interrogate. Rather than belittling an overweight woman as a sight gag, he grants her a majesty—a gracefulness in her willingness and ability to fight for herself—that invests the struggle with a startlingly vulnerable undertow.
“Startlingly vulnerable” is Mulholland Drive in a nutshell. It suggests that Lynch got a little high on the un-ironic emotionalism of his wonderful The Straight Story, fusing it with a narrative that refines the malleable identity/reality crises that fueled Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and Lost Highway. All of Mulholland Drive’s digressions are proven to narratively matter; a high degree of control is revealed to exist underneath a misleading aura of chaos. Adam’s temporary downfall, Camilla’s career ascension, the pointed introduction of a Winkie’s waitress, Diane (initially played by Missy Crider)—these are major details disguised as minor ones. The “major” thread, a Sirkian amnesia mystery investigated by junior sleuths Rita and Betty, is proven to be a form of distraction, a fantasy born from a death rattle. Winkie’s is haunted by a monster because something terrible and pitifully simple was brokered there. Betty’s potential stardom is really Camilla’s, though it takes us a while to meet the real Camilla. But, like the film’s other realities, she’s been right in front of us all along.
Mulholland Drive has been read as a deconstruction of the way that Hollywood eats women alive, turning them on each other and themselves, favoring the men pulling the levers behind the scenes, and it certainly is that, to the point that you wonder if Lynch’s offering a free-associative mea culpa for the lurid, hard-edged sexuality of some of his other films. In the greatest scene of his career, Lynch stages an acute examination of sex as a woman’s enforced social defense, a simultaneous instrument of marginalization and empowerment.
Betty auditions for a cheesy movie opposite an aging ham, Jimmy Katz (Chad Everett), who wants to play their sex scene “nice and close.” We’ve already seen Betty practicing this scene opposite of Rita, their version a kitschy embarrassment; they can’t take it seriously because it’s a hack screenwriter’s movie-addled fantasy. But the audition and the scent of ripe exploitation in the room brings something out in Betty of which we’ve only seen hints, notably when she lies to the police over the phone about Rita’s car wreck: a steely cunning and shrewdness. Betty plays the tormented seductress that Jimmy and the aging producers want, and that she, if she cares to admit it, also wants to be. This scene is disruptively, dangerously erotic, toying with the pleasures that come from exploitation, even potentially enjoyed by the exploited. Its intimacy is jaw-dropping, capable of elevating a theater’s room temperature, as Betty pushes in closer and closer, guiding Jimmy’s hands on her immaculately shaped derriere.
The audition scene is bookended when Rita and Betty have sex, the latter proclaiming her love for her new partner with an immediacy that’s movingly contrived until the truth imbues it with a deeper gravity. Both sex scenes abound in illusory transcendence, which might be the two best words to apply to Hollywood in general. Like the audition scene, Rita and Betty’s coupling contains behavioral multitudes. Outwardly, it’s as erotic as Betty’s duet with Jimmy, the ultimate epitome of a fantasy of “lipstick” lesbians, featuring two of the most beautiful women in cinema. Inwardly, it’s a sick woman’s desperate re-contextualizing of a relationship, cast in the ironically glamorous, male-centric hues of a Hollywood romance, though said glamour, for Lynch and cinematographer Peter Deming’s considerable formal power, has such a ferocious life of its own as to elude the strictures of any singular qualification.
Like Betty, Lynch’s in love with his fantasies, but he recognizes many of them, particularly as shaped by corporate Hollywood, to be built on nightmares, complicating the pleasure they bring. With this epic tapestry, one of the richest, finest, and most bottomless of all films, Lynch channeled the elusive and contradictory textures of desire, moving beyond either/or dichotomies of good and evil or black and white. Or brunette and blonde.
Remember that disappointingly barebones DVD that was released in the spring of 2002, several months after Mulholland Drive’s acclaimed theatrical release? The Criterion Collection’s transfer reveals that murky, undistinguished disc to be even worse than you suspected at the time. This image boasts a luscious and revelatory sense of tactility and clarity, fully restoring the film’s wondrous colors and textures. The reds (which are important for reasons that aren’t solely sensory, as this film’s reality is subtly color-coded) and blues are rich, and the blacks are even deeper. There’s a palpable awareness of shape in this print, as one feels as if they could reach out and touch David Lynch’s trademarked red drapes, or the gowns worn by the stars, particularly in the film’s stunning backwoods fairy-tale climax. Skin textures are highly detailed, and there’s a bit of grain and painterly grit that intensifies the debt the film owes to the aesthetics of Technicolor. The Master Audio soundtrack rattles and hums with Angelo Badalamenti’s soundscapes, maintaining their deeply melancholy bass. Sound effects are stylishly pronounced, per the tradition of Lynch’s filmography.
Collectively, the interviews with Lynch, Badalamenti, director of photography Peter Deming, actors Naomi Watts, Justin Theroux, and Laura Elena Harring, production designer Jack Fisk, and casting director Johanna Ray offer roughly two hours of talented people talking revealingly about a significant American film. There’s little fluff or filler, and even the mutual-congratulation that occasionally surfaces is poignant and telling. A through line unites the interviews: the parallel between the film’s depiction of life on the fringes of showbiz and the very real margins of obscurity that many of its actors were facing. Watts is direct about how closely she related to Betty, which Lynch complements when he says: "When you get a greenlight it’s a beautiful blessing. You get to show what you got." Johanna Ray provides juicy texture regarding Lynch’s casting process, which is intuitive and heavily reliant on headshots. Badalamenti offers detailed context as to how he and Lynch create those unforgettable ambient sounds (it involves low instruments slowed way down in playback). Fisk elaborates on aesthetic details such as the telling contrast between Betty and Diane’s apartments, anecdotes that Deming affirms and fills in. There’s a deleted scene that suggests the film’s original life as a TV series, featuring the deadpan detectives played by Brent Briscoe and Robert Forster, and an evocative collection of on-set footage that shows the filming of many significant scenes. The trailer and a long excerpt from Chris Rodley’s Lynch on Lynch round out a terrific supplements section.
Rejoice, cinephiles: Mulholland Drive finally nets the beautiful, evocative disc it’s long deserved, in a rare case of reality fulfilling a dream.