“What are you doing, we don’t stop here,” says Rita (Laura Elena Harring) as her chauffer-driven limousine winds down Mulholland Drive, a boulevard of broken dreams that mainlines into the center of a sleepless Los Angeles. Rita is unknown to herself, a seemingly clueless participant in David Lynch’s latest mirror-cracked vision of the world. As difficult as Mulholland Drive may appear at first glance, every trajectory in this metaverse is the equivalent of dreams spiraling into REM sleep. Roads and hallways fire action potentials spontaneously and continuously while sex organs engorge with blood and waking lives become the vital magnifying glasses through which sense is made of runaway chaos. Mulholland Drive isn’t a movie about dreams, it is a dream (or, at least, until the blue box is opened)—a Hollywood horror story spun by a frustrated actress yet to cross into consciousness. Lynch’s narrative is carefully configured, painstakingly difficult to decipher, but boldly obvious should one embrace its dream logic.
The film’s opening car crash could wake the dead, or the dreamer’s of the dream. In its smoky wake, an amnesiac brunette is transformed into a femme fatale who makes her way into a random apartment complex and into a Hollywood actress’s shower. Meanwhile, an oblivious Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in Los Angeles, her naïveté deliriously emphasized by Angelo Badalamenti’s score. An elderly couple bids her a cautionary farewell before they transform into what could be ghoulish representations of rabid movie fans. They seem to mock Betty’s imminent fall from grace, and as such a final visit by the couple becomes a frightening “I told you so” of sorts to the film’s frustrated dreamer. Making her way to her aunt’s apartment, Betty stumbles across the voluptuous woman in her shower. A poster of Gilda is reflected from a bathroom mirror as the amnesiac adopts more than Hayworth’s name. She is both Rita and the legacy of film noir.
Betty helps Rita reclaim her lost identity but not without risk: Betty’s own psyche seems to shatter the closer the pair moves to solving the puzzle of the wayward beauty. A waitress’s nametag leads Rita to believe that her name is Diane while a call to one Diane Selwyn curiously confounds their recognizance mission. “It’s strange to be calling yourself,” says Rita. An answering message picks up; it’s not her voice, although Rita seems to know the woman. The bizarre jitterbug freak show that prefaces Mulholland Drive gives way to a hovering camera crawl over the writhing body of a person cocooned in bed sheets: this is the film’s panicked dreamer on the brink of waking life. Betty and Rita may be Diane’s fantasy pawns but they are also Lynch’s. The director’s dream factory—where a certain patriarchal rule is the only absolute and crucial decision-making hinges on the taste of espresso—is an efficient, interconnected network of mob rule. If Hollywood is a chessboard then Lynch’s women are its pawns.
A dwarf, Mr. Roque (Michael J. Anderson), rules the casting couch from a secret room. If he is God (there’s no denying that a certain screwball religiosity underscores Lynch’s work), then the Cowboy (Monty Montgomery) is his Holy Ghost. This messenger is sent by Roque to inform a cocky director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), that one Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) is to be cast as the lead player in the director’s old-school musical throwback. If the film’s opening jitterbug is any indication, Mulholland Drive could very well be as simple as a struggling actress’s nervous post-audition dream world. By film’s end, the full force of the film’s REM sleep seems to suggest that the “part” went to a brunette who was loved by Diane but didn’t love her in return. Inside Diane Selwyn’s apartment, Rita and Betty discover the woman’s corpse. Rita loses hope, sports a blond wig and Mulholland Drive’s women suddenly become one (Persona anyone?). In dreams, Diane seemingly seeks comfort by turning the power tables around. Welcome to Tinseltown, where women are so desperate for success that they slowly become unrecognizable from each other and themselves.
Mulholland Drive’s final quarter represents Diane’s waking life. If seen as such, her dream world becomes fascinatingly sorted and processed, with a mysterious blue box (not to mention its elusive key) indicating the passage from sleep into reality. Betty disappears, Rita opens the box, and the film’s details become clear: Diane is the struggling actress living in the great Camilla’s shadow; she is victim to her muted desire, shunned upon by a powerful elite whose roles she recasts in dreams. Diane is both tragic and pitiful, projecting her deepest fears and desires into a hypnotic netherworld of wishful half-consciousness, a place where she is able to control the Camilla/Rita paradox. Details delicately vary within Diane’s waking life and Betty’s imaginary world, showcasing Lynch’s profound understanding of the rhythm of dreams: Diane may pay big dollar for a black book that brings her closer to Camilla but Rita, in reality, is the one who is rich. Rage fabulously transforms itself into auto-erotic pleasure when Diane’s final pathetic orgasm becomes the logical accompaniment to the sexual engorgements that often accompany REM sleep. Mulholland Drive is a haunting, selfish masterpiece that literalizes the theory of surrealism as perpetual dream state.