David Lynch: Mulholland Dr.

Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition.

Mulholland Dr.
d. David Lynch (2001)
Spine: #779
Blu-ray Release Date: October 27, 2015

Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.

I know I’m not alone in this: when I first watched David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. I became obsessed with this horrific and yet surprisingly moving film about two young women in Hollywood, a place where they’ve gone to forge an identity, perhaps even immortalize an identity, but also a place where identity can be stripped away, eliminated. I still remember watching the film for the first time; I walked out admiring it a great deal, though I had no idea what I’d just witnessed (I know I’m not alone in that, either). I must have watched the film a half dozen times over the following weeks, forming theories that didn’t quite fit, leaving me feeling almost satisfied, a tantalizing sense of promise — of profundity — that, as it turned out, was satisfying in unique ways.

Today, The Criterion Collection is releasing their long-rumored and much anticipated edition of this film, and I’ve had an opportunity to reevaluate it after leaving it unseen for over a decade. I knew it well, could even tell what was about to happen as far as what scenes and set pieces were coming, and I still found it all mysterious and shocking, as if I were watching it for the first time. I was again shocked at how the unique combination of elements felt — it’s not a rational film, yet it feels right. In fact, my emotional response, though perhaps impossible to explain logically, feels as genuine as any emotional response I’ve ever had to a work of art.

Mulholland Dr Cover

The movie begins with a mystery, one that feels solvable: who is Rita (Laura Harring), a young woman who has lost her memory following a car wreck on Mulholland Drive, that stretch of road that winds along the ridgeline of the Santa Monica Mountains, overlooking Los Angeles?

Rita not only survived the car wreck, but the joyriding teens who ran into her vehicle saved Rita from what threatened to be a hit job. Disoriented, amnesiac, Rita stumbles down the hill from Mulholland Drive and takes refuge in an empty condo, empty that is until another young woman, Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), arrives, glowing and anxious to make her way in the city of dreams.

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Naomi Watts as Betty Elms, just arriving in Los Angeles.

For the first two-thirds of the movie, Rita (who assumes that name after she sees a poster of Rita Hayworth in Gilda) and her new friend, Betty, become amateur detectives, looking into Rita’s past. Meanwhile, the film offers us some clues as other characters go about their daily toil: perhaps Rita was a young starlet whom the bigwigs at the studio (or the bigwigs in charge of the bigwigs at the studio) wanted to eliminate; or maybe Rita was involved in a crime ring of a different kind — her purse contains thousands of dollars and a strange blue key; or maybe this crime ring was actually helping Rita, pushing the bigwigs around in order to give her a Hollywood break.

If that is the case, maybe someone else, then, wanted her dead.

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Laura Harring as Rita and Naomi Watts as Betty Elms, looking for news about a car wreck.

The first two-thirds of the film are light-hearted and fun relative to what’s coming. Here we get goons, a mysterious cowboy, a manipulated director (Justin Theroux) who is made a cuckold by Billy Ray Cyrus. We’ve seen most of this play out before in some film noir, Hollywood glamor tale or another. Lynch’s version is disorienting (there is also a haunted dumpster), but there are enough connections between the elements to make the story feel like it’s going to come to some resolution. That potential closure, together with Betty’s beaming innocence and the diverting intrigue, offer some degree of comfort. Of course, if the film did carry this particular plot out to its conventional resolution, the film would not be nearly the work of art that it is. The tried and true tropes fall away, fail to tell the story that is Mulholland Dr.‘s beating heart . . .

. . . the detective story leads to a blue box, opened by a strange blue key, and when that box is opened (though we’ve had intimations before) Mulholland Dr. becomes a horror story.

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The two girls at Club Silencio.

The viewer is left baffled, discomfited as the mystery — and everyone involved — shifts suddenly. Watts is no longer playing the innocent and optimistic Betty Elms but is instead playing the deeply discouraged and depressed Diane Selwyn, a failed actress subsisting on pain. Besides upsetting expectations because of the name change, this strange development goes further and contradicts information we received during the first part of the film. During the detective story, Rita remembers a name: Diane Selwyn. When she and Betty go to find Diane, they find her — but she’s a rotting corpse.

Harring’s character has also shifted in ways that contradict what we’ve seen. Instead of the amnesiac Rita, she is now the successful actress Camilla Rhodes. This is the girl, in the detective story, that is supposed to get the big part in the young director’s film. Here Camilla not only has the big part but is engaged to the director, the same man who was betrayed by his wife in the first part of the film. In his favorable initial review, Roger Ebert remarks, “The characters fracture and recombine like flesh caught in a kaleidoscope.” Almost everyone shifts around.

In this nightmarish segment of the film, time is also fragmented. Diane Selwyn wanders her apartment, a tidy place that nevertheless wears the drabness of abandonment, alone and in her robe, suicidal. A moment later, she is greedy and giddy with lust as she tries to seduce Camilla. We continue to go back and forth in time, watching the relationship between Diane and Camilla harden into bitterness, tearing Diane apart.

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Naomi Watts as Diane Selwyn.

What do we make of a movie when the nightmare it portrays, where identities slip and time breaks up, is the part that feels the most real.

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One thing I’ve enjoyed over the last few weeks, watching and thinking about this film again, is revisiting my old theories on how all of this works out. I’ve also enjoyed not caring a bit about the loose end, though, naturally, I’ve followed them plenty. Mulholland Dr. is like a puzzle you can’t quite finish. Whenever I try to pursue a solution, I’m overloaded with details that feel right, but upon closer inspection sense starts to fizzle away. When I start to form a picture, a significant portion — the blue key! — feels like it is just about to click into place, but none of the remaining pieces fit, and I see that some of the pieces I put together are not quite right either. So I start over, form a different picture, but the unfinished nature of the result is the same. Some of the remaining pieces that fit in the other picture have no place in this different one. Some of the remaining pieces are the same ones that didn’t fit before. And some of the remaining pieces come together to form mysterious promises of their own.

Is the first part, the detective story, real, and what follows is Betty’s nightmare while she sleeps in bed after her first intimate night with Rita? Or is the second part, the horror story, real, and what preceded is only Diane’s idealized dream of her own lost innocence and potential, something she tells herself when she’s suicidal; indeed, something that haunts her and perhaps makes her suicidal? At the end of the film are we actually seeing the scenes the lead us back to the film’s beginning, pulling us in a never-ending circle, a ghastly Möbius strip? Or are they two related but independent stories that happen to gain depth when presented together, with the same actresses?

There’s an extended and seemingly unrelated, transitional set piece at an eerie place called Club Silencio (we go there when Betty and Rita have awoken — we think — from a brief slumber). The man on stage says that everything is an illusion — you hear a band playing, but “No hay banda! (“There is no band!”). This seems to shake Betty up, and she uncontrollably shudders into near convulsions. This is the Betty who seems to be just helping a friend, she herself having little at stake. As if to emphasize the potential for illusion, a singer (Rebekah del Rio) enters the stage and sings an a cappella version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish. Betty and Rita have tears in their eyes. The performance looks absolutely genuine, with del Rio’s throat shaking in sync with the voice singing, but then del Rio collapses as if dead, and the singing goes on.

“No hay banda.” Is the meaning of the performer’s speech in the context of the film another mystery to solve? Is it a statement about the mystery itself, a slight scoff at the idea that the audience is willing to succumb to illusion in an effort to attain a resolution, even when there is none?

Each possible explanation — even the possibility that there is no explanation — provides a distinct vantage point for a fascinating exploration of the film and our own dreams and illusions. The mystery may not be solvable, but this is a film that invites us to revel in mysteriousness. Mulholland Dr. says that employing mystery — irrationality, absurdity, incoherence — is at least as valid a method to read the world around us — its hope and promise, disappointment and terror, yearning and devastation — as any logical method is. In fact, maybe employing mystery — allowing the existence of the non-sequitur, the incongruent, even the contradiction — is the best way to comprehend the world around us . . . and in us.


Supplements:

David Lynch, rather famously, does not like to offer interpretations of his films. Last year, The Criterion Collection released his debut feature, Eraserhead, a film that, like Mulholland Dr., screams for interpretation, yet the supplements there offered no voices of reason to walk us through the film. It is not surprising, then, to find a similar absence on the release of Mulholland Dr. This can be disappointing, especially since interpretation does not have to be authoritative but can help a viewer open up to the film, yet understandable — perhaps this is what extends the film’s staying power; perhaps Lynch himself doesn’t know why the film works but only feels it, as I do.

In the absence of those kinds of supplements, though, we still get some impressive supplements on the background of the film’s production, and this edition is an easy recommendation.

  • First, we get a 26:44-minute interview with David Lynch and Naomi Watts. They talk about how their collaboration began, both of them generously acknowledging the other’s talents, and Watts getting choked up as Lynch’s faith in her may have made her career begin. I didn’t bring this up above because I don’t find it particularly relevant to the film I see, but Lynch originally conceived of, and even filmed a good portion of Mulholland Dr. to be, a television series. He shot a pilot, which he hates, and the executives ended the project before it ever hit the small screen. Many involved must have thought the whole thing would be ditched, but Lynch found support elsewhere and found the right way to make the pilot a feature film. They talk about that process, about the highs and lows (the executive apparently watched it early in the morning while making phone calls), and in general reflect fondly on making the film together.
  • Next is a 35:38-minute series of interviews with Justin Theroux, Laura Harring, Naomi Watts, and casting director Johanna Ray. Again, not much comes out here about what the film means, but it’s a fun supplement with stories about the casting process and about working with Lynch. Watts explains that she felt a bit like she was hamming it up when she filmed her arrival in Los Angeles, but Lynch kept telling her it was great and to go further. What we get is a fascinating layer on what is real and unreal, something Lynch himself probably didn’t think of much at the time of filming. Justin Theroux, who plays the manipulated director, talks about how he had real concerns about the scene he shot with the Cowboy, played by Lafayette “Monty” Montgomery. Apparently Monty could not memorize lines, and his delivery seemed halting and stilted. Again, it does, and it works perfectly in the film. The whole supplement is interesting and goes down easily.
  • The next feature is a 19:29-minute interview with composer Angelo Badalamenti. He sits at his piano and gives us some background on the process of composing for Mulholland Dr. as well as some insights into his own life. He also talks about his own comical role in the film as the picky studio executive (or crime big wig?) who asks for an espresso.
  • The last interview supplement is a 22:09-minute segment with Peter Demin, the director of photography, and Jack Fisk, the production designer. Not only do these two talk about their work on this film but also their work with Lynch on other films. Not to downplay the talent that we listen to in the other features, but these two are central in the way the film works on a subconscious level. They also talk about the difficulties inherent in a job that is first meant for television and is then adapted into a feature film.
  • In another lengthy supplement we get 24:44 minutes of on-set footage, a lot of which is at “Winkie’s,” the restaurant that hosts several scenes. I usually like these kinds of supplements as they give a bit of a glimpse into the atmosphere on set. Though they were filming a rather intense scene, with Naomi Watts’s character particularly on edge, everyone seems at ease. As such, when Lynch steps in to help, he feels like a benevolent, caring leader with a vision. I had not seen his directing style before, and this was interesting.
  • The disc also comes with a 2:16-minute deleted scene and a trailer.
  • The packaging for the disc is one of Criterion’s cardboard digi-paks. It comes with a 48-page booklet that features an excerpt from an interview between Chris Rodley and David Lynch that appeared in the 2005 edition of Rodley’s Lynch on Lynch. This is a great supplement. Not only does Rodley offer pretty much the only attempt to share his own thoughts on the film’s meaning, but the discussion he elicits from Lynch is an insightful look into the artist’s heart.

8 thoughts on “David Lynch: Mulholland Dr.

  1. Tremendous, Trevor. Great piece.

    I’ve heard all the theories over the years, I think. That the two actresses are former friends turned hated rivals and that the film effectively runs in reverse, with part two the reality and part one the resultant drug-addled corny dream of stardom (replete with jitterbug contest, scrambled TV/film tropes frayed and badly stitched); that Hollywood is run by shape-shifting, body-hopping devils; that the two blonde/dark actresses are part of one split personality redhead(!?); that Hollywood runs on some multi-dimensional faultline in which occurrences splice and come apart; not one of them sticks, and the film’s power simply grows and grows. The film is I think dedicated to an actress whose life was rather similar to Naomi Watts’ character – and I think Laura Dern in Inland Empire is simply a continuation of the same character. Lynch has long been obsessed with Marilyn Monroe, and there may be be elements of her life in here.

    The film even survives Billy Ray Cyrus popping up! Surely a masterpiece, certainly one of my three or four all-time favourites. Not a Dr. though – very much a nightmare.

  2. It’s like a perfect mess, explored and put together by a master, Lee. I still haven’t seen Inland Empire, though I’ve always heard positive things about it. But . . . a continuation of the character? Well, I must do all I can to make it happen soon!

    I don’t know if I’ve ever explored idea of the two characters being the same person. I don’t particularly like that interpretation of Persona, where that interpretation has become quite pervasive, but I’d be interested to hear it as it plays in Mulholland Dr.

  3. Jekyll & Hyde? Fascinating piece, Trevor. I gave away my dvd of this when de cluttering (OK, my wife made me!) & now I’d like to see it again. I recall feeling baffled by it.

  4. Well, Simon, with this you’ve covered a lot of the film noir (or neo-noir) ground on this site today! Again, I’m very interested in your curriculum. Recently I covered The Killers and Night in the City, and I’m curious where you place those!

  5. And who could forget the line: “If that damn dog craps in the courtyard one more time, I’m just gonna bake his little butt for breakfast!” For such a bleak film that’s a pretty funny moment…and how about the Cowboy’s bizarre ‘buggy’ speech at the corral? This is another reason why Lynch, to me, is the greatest filmmaker of all – he has such control over tone and gestalt etc that he can throw in these moments and lose nothing in disquieting traction. To maintain that level of dread and have such eccentric daftness erupting here and there…there’s a scene in Lost Highway where Balthazar Getty and Patricia Arquette are consummating their forbidden liaison in the back of his car, and one of the two watching cops observes: “This guy gets more pussy than a toilet seat.” How does he get away with it?!

  6. Fine appreciation of an outstanding film, also one of my favourites. While it doesn’t achieve the sense of dread of the opening 30min of Lost Highway (still one of the most fraught experiences I’ve had in a cinema), it is a much more satisfying and “complete” experience, if you get me – much more complex and interesting. I have seen Inland Empire, which is quite a slog compared to Mulholland Dr, and Lee’s idea about it following on is one I hadn’t considered but which I think is quite valid.

    I am really keen to rewatch it again now…

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