Mulholland Drive (2001)
Mulholland Drive is a David Lynch film that takes place in Los Angeles, which instantly makes it interesting. Lynch is not your typical Hollywood director, but here his characters are, getting into accidents on Mulholland Drive and running around Sunset Blvd. But the real life industrial relationship behind the film is far from the only thing that makes it interesting. Mulholland Drive is one of the most complexing and ambiguous films in popular cinema, and luckily its complicated story is made into an enjoyment through incredible filmmaking.
After some 50s dancing by colorfully backlit silhouettes and a shot of a bed prefacing the very dreamlike film ahead, we begin with a car crash that leaves Laura Harring stranded and walking through Los Angeles. She eventually teams up with Naomi Watts, a naive newcomer to the city hoping to become a movie star. The two try to figure out what happened to Harring, who has amnesia, while a director played by Justin Theroux struggles with control over his picture.
That description makes the film sound as though it has a normal narrative. In reality, the movie includes several seemingly disconnected episodes that either follow one of the two storylines, or something entirely unrelated. One memorable scene early on helps establish the tone of the film and nothing else. Patrick Fischler tells a story of a recurring nightmare that is subsequently slowly realized. An instance of terror that he experiences behind a restaurant by the dumpster is intense, with Lynch masterfully manipulating the audio to make us experience Fischler’s shocked and muffled perception.
Lynch just knows how to make a film evokes the feelings he wants. This movie is suspenseful and mysterious, with a foreboding sense of danger always surrounding the characters. Lynch accomplishes this sometimes using simple devices – like switching between a character’s subjective point of view and a very restricted look at them as they walk, giving us only the narrowest sense of their surrounding and the fear of it being penetrated at any second. Other times he uses unsettlingly fast trucking shots that whip us from a more complete view of what’s going on back to that same limited vision. In the same name of ambiguity, some shot fall out of focus, giving our eyes the difficulty that the plot gives our brains.
Many elements of the story accompany the filmmaking technique to make this movie dreary. Justin Theroux’s storyline shows the oppressive influence of mysterious powerful figures. It plays out somewhat as an attack on the Hollywood system, where creativity and directorial control can be overtaken by business deals or nepotism. Michael J. Anderson is appropriately eerie as a dwarf at the top of the line of power, and Lafayette Montgomery puts in one of the most memorable (and one of my personal favorite) roles of all time as the Cowboy, a very mysterious figure who commands conversations with ease and appreciates good manners.
The best performances are the leads, however. Naomi Watts is especially impressive. She initially plays Betty, a saccharine sweetheart who has come to watch over her (very bizarre) aunt’s house in Hollywood. Betty is creepily wholesome and cheery, evocative of a naive optimism that probably constituted many a young girl’s outlook in the days of the studio era. At first you may be believe that this is all Watts is capable of, but she destroys that notion during a scene where she auditions for a role. It’s powerfully erotic and a mind-blowing turn from a character that you thought you knew entirely.
After most of the movie follows the convincingly amnesic Harring and Watts as “Rita” and Betty respectively, it takes a surreal turn and seemingly pops the audience out in another universe, one where Watts now plays a disillusioned victim of the Hollywood system named Diane Selwyn, and Harring plays her rising star girlfriend who is manipulative and cruel. It’s in this alternative dimension that Justin Theroux finally connects with Harring and Watts’ storyline, as his seemingly unchanged director character becomes a source of ultimate tension between Harring and Watts’ new characters.
The fact that both of these actresses can take on two different roles in one film is praiseworthy enough, but again, Watts is stand-out since her second role is a polar opposite of her first. It’s almost hard to believe that it’s the same actress in both of these commanding presences.
One of the last scenes in the original storyline is when Watts and Harring visit a late-night show at Club Silencio. An opera singer is allowed to dominate the film for a considerable amount of time, long enough for us to forget the surrounding narrative and become entranced by her performance. Just when it’s been so long, she faints and her singing continues without her. It’s only one of the many interesting and surreal ways that Lynch plays with reality in this film.
Lynch has actually declined to ever fully explain the meaning of this film and its seemingly at-odds storylines. The general consensus among viewers is that the original story is a dream that Watts’ character Diane concocts as a way to escape her miserable and (soon enough) guilt-ridden life. Betty represents who she once was, or maybe who she never was but wants to be, a wide-eyed delight who is a ridiculously talented actress. Harring plays who she wishes her lover would be, a fun and trustworthy companion who is dependent on Watts because of her amnesia.
In this sense, the film is ultimately tragic, and it’s only appropriate for the dark and sinister tone that pervades it throughout. It’s a film that will give you an opportunity to think and could be discussed for hours with intelligent and interested fans. Even though it’s difficult to make sense of, it’s entertaining and driven by great performances, from the lead actresses to the minor characters who all play in unison in the same off-key way. It’s an unmatchable foray into surrealism, and deals with delightfully Lynchian themes of power, industry, and diving into the unconsciousness that makes up dreams. Mulholland Drive is a masterpiece that all but matches the perfection that Lynch gave us in Eraserhead.
Final rating: 9.5/10
–James A. Janisse
This entry was posted on February 13, 2010 by James A. Janisse. It was filed under 9 - 9.5, Cerebral, Film Noir, Genre, Ratings, Thriller and was tagged with david lynch, justin theroux, lafayette Montgomery, laura harring, michael j. anderson, naomi watts.