Dangerous absurdity lurks in Mulholland Drive

I watched Mulholland Drive last night. Three things must be noted before further reading: I am a David Lynch virgin; I am not big on research; film snobs irritate me. The translation of the aforementioned is that I know very little about the director and his previous work, and although I love to discuss and sometimes intellectualise films, I am an intuitive viewer who prefers to muster some sort of interpretation from the content at hand, rather than reading up on theoretical insight and 50 million other interpretations. When I refer to ‘film snobs’, I am referring to the group of David Lynch fans who will undoubtedly claim intellectual superiority because they ‘get’ the film whilst many others are ‘What the fuck-ing’ hours… days after watching. David Lynch has refused to comment on Mulholland Drive‘s meaning or symbolism, which makes the film fair game.

From my first impression of David Lynch, I have the feeling that he’s a Marilyn Manson of film directing: the kind of artist that the public love to hate – you either identify with, and appreciate, his work or you just don’t. As for me, I am not too sure what I think. I hate being a fence sitter and so I intend to extend my Lynch education with further film watching, hopefully then I will be able to offer a more educated, insightful opinion. In the meantime, I have Mulholland Drive to work with and a day later I am still mulling over the film, so there must be something to say about it. More importantly, there must be something that it said to me.

Mulholland Drive has surrealist tendencies that are expressed in a typically neo-noir film style – low-key lighting, striking use of light and shadow, and unusual camera placement. Memory loss and identity crisis, also typical of the neo-noir films, are the subjects that form the crux of the film’s story. The intense subjectivity and bizarre events of the film render the viewer completely ‘other’ to what is happening on screen. The film’s stream-of-consciousness composition is so absurd that the viewer is never able to relate to what is happening. Through all of the puzzlement evoked by the film, there is something so darkly ominous about it; I am yet unable shake the sense of disturbance that has permeated my mind since watching Lynch’s film.

Mulholland Drive can be divided into two parts. The first is a composition of seemingly random, sporadic, events, which are all in some way connected to an accident on Mulholland Drive. At the film’s beginning, a dark-haired woman (Laura Elena Harring) escapes her own murder by being the sole survivor of a car accident on Mulholland Drive. Injured and in shock, she descends into Los Angeles and sneaks into an apartment which an older, red-headed woman has recently vacated. An aspiring actress named Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) arrives at the same apartment (the red-headed woman is Betty’s aunt) and finds the dark-haired woman confused, not knowing her own name. The dark-haired woman assumes the name “Rita” when she sees a poster for the film Gilda (1946), starring Rita Hayworth. To assist her in discovering her identity, the women look in Rita’s purse where they find a large amount of money and an unusual blue key. Betty and Rita then embark on a quest to discover Rita’s true identity. Betty is portrayed as a selfless heroine, and Rita a helpless victim.

The second part of the film is introduced upon Rita’s discovery of a box that fits the key in her purse. Rita unlocks the box, and it falls to the floor. Betty’s aunt appears from nowhere to investigate the sound, but nothing is there. Rita and the box have disappeared. The Cowboy (who featured earlier in part one) appears in the doorway of Diane Selwyn’s bedroom saying, “Hey, pretty girl. Time to wake up.” Diane Selwyn (played by Naomi Watts) wakes up in her bed. She looks exactly like Betty, but she is portrayed as a lonely and depressed failed actress, in love with Camilla Rhodes (now played by Laura Elena Harring), who torments and rejects her. In part two, the events of the film’s part one are rehashed and characters are repeated but with different names and from a different perspective. Basically the viewer is unable to distinguish fantasy from reality… which part of the film is the truth? Who is Diane Selwyn?

Betty, in the first part of the film, is portrayed as a homely, personable woman with immense talent – she is bound for success – and Rita is a mysterious, brooding beauty who is rendered naïve and sensitive through the circumstance of her memory loss. The two women, forced together by fate, have a romantic liaison whilst searching for Rita’s true identity. The most obvious assumption is that the harrowing reality of part two is the truth and that part one is Diane Selwyn’s reimagining of her dismal existence. In Diane’s fantasy she is successful and loved as opposed to a failure and alone, which seems a fairly natural reaction to a shitty life – who wouldn’t reimagine their existence? But Diane’s dream world is something far more sinister.

Mulholland Drive offers a visual interpretation of the mind of a neurotic woman who has been pushed to the brink of lunacy; attempting to understand Diane Selwyn’s subconscious mind is as absurd as Lynch’s depiction of that mind. Mulholland Drive is a film open to so many interpretations that to spend hours trying to decrypt the film will more than likely lead to a brain aneurism. Rather than a sense of clarity on the musings of the subconscious mind, the film offers a sense of the subconscious; it relies on atmosphere – an ever-present, foreboding tension makes Mulholland Drive a great psychological thriller that stays with the mind long after the film’s end. What makes Mulholland Drive so utterly disturbing is that the significance of the film’s first half is only realised after watching the film’s end. This means that one cannot extricate the film from one’s consciousness; as the mind replays part one over and over in light of the film’s second half. One of the film’s most disturbing scenes is when Betty and Rita discover the corpse of Diane Selwyn. In light of part two, the viewer remembers that Betty is, in fact, looking at her own corpse – Diane Selwyn is imagining her own death. Interesting to the scene is not only Betty’s lack of reaction to what is actually her own dead body but Rita’s reaction to the corpse is excessive in the circumstances – she is utterly horrified and completely devastated. Rita’s reaction is extreme for a woman who supposedly has no idea who Diane Selwyn is. Naturally, a dead body is horrific enough but when the excess of Rita’s reaction is juxtaposed with Betty’s non-reaction, the viewer is given a scary insight into Diane Selwyn’s mind. According to the scene, which is Diane Selwyn’s dream or imagination, she visualises her own death in a seeming attempt to provoke some kind of fantastical reaction from her lover Camilla. She imagines Camilla mourning her death, when in reality Camilla would not likely bat an eyelid. Diane, herself, shows no emotion in reaction to the tragedy of her own death. It is all about Camilla. Diane is depicted as a woman who has lost her identity… she views herself in the shadow of Camilla. In essence, Diane has allowed Camilla to dictate her identity. Diane’s death is only important or significant in so far as the extent of emotion it provokes in Camilla. Upon revisiting the scene in light of the film’s second part, the viewer realises that Rita, or Camilla, is not facing the trauma of a crisis in identity; it is Diane (or Betty) who has lost the significance of herself.

In part one Diane Selwyn is thought, by Rita and Betty, to be the key to Rita’s identity. In part two, Diane meets with the hit man at Winkies, where she gives him Camilla’s photo and a large amount of money. The hit man tells Diane that when the job is done, she will find a blue key. Diane asks what, if anything, the key opens, but the hit man just laughs. Back at her apartment, in view of the key, she is terrorised by hallucinations. She runs screaming to her bed where she shoots herself. The key is a catalyst in both part one and part two and it therefore must bear some symbolic significance. The hit man laughing at Diane’s question about what the key opens is almost like David Lynch laughing at film viewers’ faulty attempts to decipher the key’s symbolism. Perhaps it is a key to the subconscious – where occurrences, so traumatic that they should stay under ‘lock and key’, are suppressed in the crevices of the mind. When Diane is confronted with the mere site of the key, hallucinations (housed in her subconscious mind) are triggered and they send her to her death; Diane pays a steep penalty for letting loose the demons of her subconscious. Is this a warning?

Other than being reminded that the subconscious is one scary-ass of a place to lurk, the film’s greatest mark is its comment on the notion of truth. Does truth exist? The film suggests not. After the viewer has puzzled out fact from fiction, reality from dream, Lynch hurls a philosophical question in to the mix, just to murk up the few seconds of clear vision that the viewer has managed to ascertain. The second part of the film is ‘truth’, or ‘reality’, and yet it is so intensely subjective; it is Diane’s truth. The events in part two are plucked from Diane’s mind so, just as the viewer cannot trust the fallacy that is Betty in part one, the viewer cannot trust Diane’s perception of the ‘real’ events in part two. In so doing, the notion of truth as an objective entity is undermined. The fact of a matter is always filtered through the emotions, words, thoughts and biases of the human mind… so how can we be certain of any truth? The matter will always be ‘the truth according to someone’. Truth is thus rendered an elusive entity that can be dreamt of but never found.

As I have written about Mulholland Drive my thoughts on the film have become clearer but my opinion of it is still cloudy. I have an intense desire to watch it again and understand it better but I am simultaneously afraid to watch it again. I fear what I will discover. The film has so many layers and possibilities that the depth of imagination it invades is too extensive for comfort. I also think that Mulholland Drive is a film that thrives on its inability to be completely discovered and for that reason, watching it a second time would almost be like watching a completely different film. And so I will leave it alone but whether it leaves me alone is another matter entirely.

**FOR DAVID LYNCH FANS…While Lynch is mostly known as a ground breaking director, his creative genius can also be seen in his artwork. For more information on upcoming Lynch exhibitions as well as access to over 15 of his works and exclusive articles on Lynch, check out Artsy.net’s David Lynch page – it’s a great resource for all Lynch-lovers!

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