A lot of people are baffled by Mulholland Dr., and they have a right to be.
Superficially, it presents itself as a movie like the ones we’re used to. We’ve got some stock characters, like Rita, a brunette suffering from the staple of melodramas, complete retrograde amnesia, and Betty, the blonde ingénue so fresh to L.A. that we literally meet her getting off the plane. Together they undertake to find Rita’s true identity, and a fairly conventional plot unfolds.
Their story is intercut with a somewhat more offbeat one about Adam Kesher, a director whose life is upended after he gives the metaphorical finger to the mob when they try to cast his film. His story is an odd match with Betty and Rita’s, and there are other scenes — one involving a neurotic at lunch and another a hapless assassin — that seem curiously remote, but it’s all intelligible as a fiction. That is to say, director David Lynch’s infamously hard-to-get masterpiece has a lot of the storytelling apparatus you take for granted in a feature film.
Any hopes you had for entirely “getting” the film, however, are exploded about 4/5ths of the way through Mulholland Dr., when Rita and Betty’s story ends abruptly, along with Adam Kesher’s. With little fanfare, we’re transported to what seems to be an alternate version of the universe we were just in, one where the actresses playing Betty and Rita are recast as ex-lovers Diane and Camilla.
It’s a common interpretation that the first 80% of Mulholland Dr. only happens in the imagination of Diane, but it’s far from clear that this is definitively so, and it could in fact be anyone’s fantasy — maybe Adam Kesher’s, or David Lynch’s, or possibly that of Lynch’s neighbor’s hamster. It’s impossible to tell. The earlier, supposedly “false” part of the film is given to us on the same terms, cinematographically, as the second, “real” portion of the film is; no color filters or cuts to Betty/Diane waking up tell the viewer, “That footage of her at the weird club was only in her head and didn’t really happen in our story.” No signal is given to indicate unambiguously whether Naomi Watts is actually Betty or Diane, and finally the only reason we have to suppose that at least some of the film takes place in Diane’s head is simply that the movie as a whole won’t stand as a coherent world on its own terms.
Moreover, even if you accept that the first portion of the movie is Diane’s disintegrating fantasy, the film is far from puzzled out. By the end, we’re beginning to see what appear to be free-floating images unmoored from any narrative whatsoever: neither a character’s imagination nor a character’s reality, just pure picture and idea. At times Lynch communicates with us not through the language of cinema but in haunted valentines that are almost a direct address, from him to us, without the intermediary of fiction.
Virtually every scene in Mulholland Dr. further entangles the ontological knot, but one in particular struck me when I watched the film again recently. The scene begins when Diane is at home looking out the window sometime after being abandoned by Camilla. Suddenly, Camilla has reappeared right there in Diane’s apartment. Diane seems pleased (if overwhelmed) for a second, but then her face curdles into an expression of horror or pain. Just as the emotion is cresting, we cut back to where Camilla was supposed to be standing, but she’s gone, and instead there is Diane, now calm; she proceeds to make coffee, and it’s immediately clear that the return of Camilla was a brief daydream.
This is arguably the only part of the movie where Diane’s imagination is clearly delineated from her actual life using something like the ordinary tools of movie-making to indicate to the audience what was fact and what was illusion. Perversely, Lynch demonstrates that he is perfectly able to show the difference, but mysteriously hasn’t chosen to when we needed clues as to which part of the film to take as actually having happened.
You might also notice that although this would seem to be a clean-cut daydream sequence, it isn’t entirely. When Diane stops thinking of Camilla and we go back to reality, Diane has jumped into the position taken by Camilla – a small nod to the issues of identity Lynch evokes almost inevitably in his movies.
The point of looking at this scene isn’t to provide a key to Mulholland Dr., but merely to point to one of the reasons it’s endured as a fascinating film: By applying enough of the ethos of ordinary narrative film without ever really committing to it, Mulholland Dr. is somewhere between being merely a sequence of provocative pictures with no intrinsic meaning and being a comprehensible work of fiction. With one leg in both camps, the movie – the work – is less filmic language and more filmic art, in large part because one of its primary effects is to make you conscious of the difference.
Lastly, I should say that if I’ve made this film sound like David Lynch’s convoluted effort to appear clever, I’ve left you with the wrong impression. You may not be able to say exactly what happened to whom at the end of Mulholland Dr., but it is unmistakably a heartrending portrait of a woman falling apart, one that leaves you with an uneasy taste of romantic obsession and death’s decay. This achievement is largely on the back of Naomi Watts, who moves seamlessly between modes as diverse as doe-eyed innocent, bitter ex, and steamy vamp, and it’s a brutal performance that makes the movie.
Maybe that’s the most compelling paradox of Mulholland Dr.: It’s a film that could merit a sentence that begins by talking about “ontological ambiguity” and ends mentioning “profound emotion.”