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(Credit: Universal Pictures)

'Mulholland Drive' at 20: Revisiting David Lynch's surreal masterpiece

'Mulholland Drive' - David Lynch
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Today, May 16th 2021, marks the 20th anniversary of one of the esteemed director David Lynch‘s most accomplished and visceral works, Mulholland Drive. The 2001 offering from the mastermind behind Twin Peaks brims with surrealism, neo-noir and mystery, and, of course, it is with these three Lynchian hallmarks that make it a challenging watch. Written and directed by the coiffured auteur, it stars Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux, Ann Miller, Mark Pellegrino and Robert Forster. The film, while holding a lot of different accolades, is now also remembered as the final picture to feature legendary Hollywood actress Miller.

Typical of a David Lynch feature, the film polarised opinion on release, gaining “some of the harshest epithets and some of the most lavish praise in recent cinematic history.” However, it won the Best Director Award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, which Lynch shared with Joel Coen for The Man Who Wasn’t There. It was also responsible for boosting Watt’s Hollywood profile and launching Harring’s career.

The narrative follows aspiring actress Betty Elms (Watts), who recently arrived in Los Angeles. Shortly after her move from the country, she befriends an amnesiac woman (Harring) who she finds in her apartment recovering from a car accident. As fans of Lynch have come to expect, all is not as it seems. The plot is typical of the director, a confounding mesh of vignettes and characters, including the addition of the seedy Hollywood director Adam.

Initially, the American-French co-production was conceived as a television pilot, and a large portion of the film was shot in 1999. This was done as Lynch had planned to keep it open-ended for a possible series. However, TV executives rejected Lynch’s cut outright. In response, Lynch filmed an end to the project, transforming it into a feature film. This half-pilot, half-feature feel permeates Mulholland Drive, adding to its surrealist style and leaving the plot open to interpretation. The variety in theories surrounding the film’s meaning has also been added to by David Lynch being well, David Lynch. The director, who is known for his opaque creations, has declined to explain his intentions for the narrative. Capturing the essence of the film’s all-encompassing themes, upon release, Lynch gave the film the tagline: “A love story in the city of dreams.”

Mulholland Drive naturally is regarded as one of Lynch’s most nuanced opus’. Much like all of his feature-length works, it is a series of juxtapositions. Cliché and surreal, nightmares and fantasies, nonlinear storylines, camera work, sound and lighting all comprise this spine-chilling work. This use of stark contrasts carefully places the audience within the film, a terrifying prospect given the weaving narrative that touches the darkest corners of Hollywood. The film is Lynch’s challenge to viewers to halt any preconceived notions of cinema, or at least, how we are conditioned to digest cinema. Through his techniques, he takes us on a rollercoaster ride of his own design.

Referring back to the film’s tagline, “a love story in the city of dreams”, the film appropriately offers us clichéd characters. The blonde, bright-eyed Hollywood hopeful, the dark femme fatale, the narcissistic director, and the shady puppet-masters are existing behind the scenes. For instance, Watts modelled Betty on leading ladies from Hollywood’s “golden era”, such as Doris Day and Tippie Hedren. Watts asserted that Betty “finds herself in a world she doesn’t belong in and is ready to take on a new identity, even if it’s somebody else’s.”

Naomi Watts in ‘Mulholland Drive’. (Credit: Universal Pictures)

This is where Lynch delivers his knock-out blow in Mulholland Drive. He places these walking, talking tropes in terrible situations, which gives the film its trippy, dream-like feel. He places the characters in surreal scenarios and aided by the narrative, lighting and sound, and these scenarios reference dreams, fantasies and nightmares, creating audio-visual confusion. We, as the viewer, feel pure bliss at certain points, and at others, feel nothing but terror. This is all classic Lynch, though; one only has to watch Eraserhead, Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks to heed this.

Lynch is also a master at deception. Mr Roque, the sinister character behind the power of the film studios, is portrayed by the now-iconic actor Michael J. Anderson who starred in Twin Peaks. Mr Roque only has two lines and is sat in an imposing wooden wheelchair, where he is fitted with oversized prosthetic limbs to make his head look abnormally small.

The film is also effective in using singular actors playing two characters, who play the foil to each other or doppelgängers. Watts plays Betty as well as Diane, an angry and depressed woman deeply affected by the pressures of Hollywood. Harring plays Rita and Camilla, with the latter a vapid, sexualised actress, representing betrayal and Diane’s public humiliation. 

It is worth noting that Camilla also played by Melissa George, which adds to the character’s meaning. George’s appearance as Camilla is fleeting and is little more than a name and a photo. However, once the mysterious “blue box” is opened, the role of Camilla is assumed by Harring. It is here where Camilla becomes the femme fatale, decked in a red dress, the contrast to Diane and the object of her ire.

One scene sticks out, however. During Adam and Camilla’s party, Diane watches Camilla with the director Adam (Theroux). Diane watches them kiss the woman who appeared as Camilla before the box was opened. They both turn around and smile at Diane. This deliberate and cruel act muddies the waters. It becomes unclear whether Camilla is as capricious as is perceived or whether Diane’s paranoia is fogging our perceptions.

All the elements that comprise Mulholland Drive make it a masterpiece. In its twists and turns its deceives and convinces us, lures into a sense of fake safety and then destroys it. It is a psychological rollercoaster that messes with our receptacles. It is a carefully constructed tale that is so nuanced it leaves the audience feeling full of as many questions as at the outset of the film. Do we need to mention the end scene and “Silencio”?

Yet again, David Lynch provides a hallucinatory experience. It can be regarded as the film he had been working towards throughout his career. The Lynchian dreamscape is full of competing ideas, feelings and emotions that leave us wanting more, even twenty years on.

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