Arguably the most conventional of his ‘perplexing’ films, David Lynch’s 2001 Mulholland Dr., a fairy tale with a twisting end, is nonetheless an atmospheric unsolvable jigsaw: dreamlike in its mood and narrative; bleak and austere in its view of human nature and show business.
For over a decade viewers have been trying to unravel the mystery behind Mulholland Dr. A movie which asks viewers to consider differences and similarities between dream and reality is intrinsically playing an ironic game – for, among all art forms, film is the most oneiric one. It is, after all, through lies, artifice and make-believe, that cinema tries to tell the truth. And given that the representation of a dream on the screen is arguably no different from the representation of reality, Mulholland Dr. can play between these two poles and generate genuine disorientation.
After escaping unscathed from a murder attempt and a car accident, amnesiac Rita (Laura Elena Harring) hides out in the apartment where ingénue Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) is staying. Aspiring actress Betty helps Rita in her search for identity and falls in love with her. Three-quarters into the film, Lynch half-twists the story, joins the ends together and creates a Möbius strip. Now, the vulnerable one, on the verge of despair, is Betty, not Rita. Betty, who is now called Diane Selwin, is still in love with Camilla Rhodes, aka Rita. Camilla/Rita is having an affair with Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux). Furiously jealous, Diane hires a man to kill her.
Naomi Watts, playing the dual role of Betty/Diane, was rightly praised for her outstanding performance. Far more intriguing though are the two opposing performances by her character, the naïve Betty, before and during her audition for a film. In her rehearsal with Rita, Betty plays the role of the hurt young lover in an overly dramatic way, which seems to confirm her lack of talent. During the audition, she puts on a powerful, well-controlled and sexually charged performance, which becomes the perfect metaphor for the reversal of roles depicted in the film.
..The Power and the Glory of Mulholland Dr.
In playing with expectations, David Lynch not only alludes to what is at the core of the film – nothing is what it seems – but also showcases Betty’s genuine ability to fabricate fantasies that look rather real. She is the true storyteller of Mulholland Dr. Instead of being divided into two parts – dream and reality, perhaps the whole film is, in fact, the fantasy of a deranged mind.
Betty’s performance during the audition is so strong and unexpected that, through her acting, she puts suspension of disbelief on hold and makes viewers aware that they are involved in a game of illusion. It is through the illusion of being someone else that Diane – as the wide-eyed Betty, within her dream – finds redemption for her distressed state.
In the film, there is a strong indication that Diane Selwin is the one dreaming the first thread of the narrative and not vice-versa. Betty’s character is so idealised, almost to the point of being far-fetched. The disparity between Diane and Betty is the strongest one among the main characters. Although both Laura Elena Harring’s character (Camilla/Rita) and Justin Theroux’s (Adam) show different behaviours and attitudes in the two distinct parts of the film, they retain their core personalities. Camilla and Adam might be more naive in the first part of the story, but they are recognisable as the same people in the second part. The same cannot be said about Watts’ characters.
Diane Selwin through Naomi Watts through David Lynch through Mulholland Dr. is the real puppeteer. Through her we see the power of dreams. We see how a unique, constant-through-time and unified identity might be an illusion. We see how powerful is cinema as an art form capable of feeding our emotional needs. If Diane can be Betty, even just for a while, then we can reach for Mulholland Drive or Sunset Boulevard from within our boring existence. The true meaning of the film might reside outside of itself. Mulholland Dr. functions as a mirror of our own relationship with the movies. We are all Diane Selwins, coping with existence by taking refuge in fantasies.
If a work of art transcends its creator’s intention, then David Lynch’s clues and explanations are not necessary for the understanding of Mulholland Dr. Perhaps there’s no mystery behind the film and we ought to understand it through our senses, enjoy the experience and forget about rational explanations – was that the original intention behind Lynch’s film? Or as the result of an aborted TV series, unintentionally the film cannot make sense. Perhaps it has as many meanings as it has viewers.
It is in the film’s ambiguity – with its persistent refusal to clarify – that lies the greatness of Mulholland Dr.