This post includes spoilers for Mulholland Drive.
I’ve seen Mulholland Drive plenty of times at this point in my life. Coming back to it after a few years, on 35mm no less, was so refreshing. This is one of those films that just lends itself so amazingly to being projected and seen theatrically on film, particularly one moment in which David Lynch purposely opens the scene out-of-focus. For unfamiliar viewers, it’s a moment that makes one wonder if the projectionist fucked it up and quickly fixed it as the dinner unfolds.
It’s strange to experience this movie, again and again, and find that people (myself once included before I’d really bothered to explore “weird” films all that much) are so baffled by its dreaminess and unwillingness to adhere to chronology. This is, arguably, Lynch’s most straight-forward movie (of the ones that reject narrative stability, particularly), where I’d assume Fire Walk With Me (one of two features of his I’ve yet to watch) is his most labyrinthine in terms of how much there is to explore and unpack. Lust, obsession, jealousy, paranoia, and guilt are the driving motivators here for Naomi Watts’ Diane Selwyn and it isn’t made explicit until the last act, which is such a sensory overload and so beautifully fractured that it throws anyone off upon first viewing. With a rewatch, pieces fall together ever so naturally.
Lynch plays with the audience by introducing us to a film that’s nearly two hours worth of a dream, or a fantasy, rather; an idealized world where everything that’s happening in reality is tuned to a different station, like a radio when you’re stuck with bad songs and commercials on every channel until you find just the right alternative. Most of this movie is tuned to a heightened reality, with moments of melodrama, of complete absurdity, of idealized self-image, of romance without limitations. Even with its offbeat moments, it’s amazing how straight the narrative plays through in this fantasy, compared to the harshness of reality. Sure, it’s easy to see where some of the moments in this movie can be interpreted as exploitative (in particular its sexual undercurrents and the way female bodies are presented on screen), but I found them filled with such a familiar longing that I couldn’t help but get just as swept away by the fantasy as Diane was.
This is, undoubtedly, far from Lynch’s intention, but there’s an interesting reading to be made about the way Mulholland Drive becomes somewhat of a tale of repression within the Hollywood system. Beat by beat, the reality that Diane faces when she’s not Betty in her dream realm of Los Angeles (which is still occasionally punctured by nightmarish breaks) is that of a woman trapped within a system she hates. As the entire film is told through Diane’s POV, it’s impossible to tell whether or not Laura Elena Harring’s Camila and Justin Theroux’s Adam were actually as explicit in their sexual relationship, and whether Camila was truly spiteful in the way she forced Diane to watch as she chose a man over her.
While succumbing to some of the tropes that young queer woman often do in films, Naomi Watts’ breathtaking performance (the best of her career, in my opinion) is matched perfectly with Harring, a woman whose face complements hers every time they’re placed in Bergmanesque shots together or simply seated side by side. It also lends a character, who ultimately is just struggling to cope with all the shit that life and Hollywood has thrown her way, such a gripping humanity that its flaws are easy to overlook. But just as the film is flawed, its protagonist is just as flawed. This is, again, a story about guilt: about every action in reality having a consequence, and the inability of fantasy to diminish the feelings that come with those consequences.
If in reality, you hire a hitman, in fantasy, he’s an incompetent man who might have just let your lover get away. In reality, you audition for a role and are seen as underwhelming. In fantasy, you walk into a room and knock the socks off everyone in it. In reality, your lover gets the role you wish you’d gotten. In fantasy, there’s a massive conspiracy to ensure that you don’t get that role. The list goes on and on, but it becomes even more pointed when we hone in on the relationship between Diane and Camila compared to the relationship between Betty and Rita in dream L.A.
Maybe it’s not the story of every queer person, but I’ve found myself foolishly in love (or infatuated) with individuals I cannot physically have. Their sexuality, more often than not, is a hurdle that they can’t come to terms with and neither can I. In those moments, the only thing that came to mind was how much I wanted to be needed by those people. And it’s something I’ve seen emulated in other relationships of friends. It was a constant push-and-pull, due to their unwillingness to accept their sexuality but their interest in maintaining this sexual and somewhat emotional relationship. It’s ultimately abusive and Diane is the victim of such a story, which is why she chooses to give Rita amnesia when she’s Betty. If she were the one with the upper hand, she wouldn’t treat her like Camila treats Diane. “Have you ever done this before?” she asks when they kiss. “I don’t know.” They have, many times before. “Have you?” “I want to with you.” And, without confirming the truth, Diane spills her subconscious wishes through Betty, and thus begins what is likely the only truly romantic experience she’s ever had with Camila through Rita.
However wrong it is to wish you were needed by that person, isn’t that what every person trapped in an unrequited romance feels? Pure desperation that, in the worst of situations, could be taken to an unfortunate place? That’s the story I see when I watch Mulholland Drive. In those final moments, wracked with the guilt of what she’s done to the point where it drives her to kill herself, that’s all Diane wants: to be needed, to be wanted, to have the obstacles that stand in the way of what they perceive to be this grand romance pushed aside, to have the decisions they regret changed past the point of recognition.
It’s funny. I’d never thought about this movie in such a personal way until this viewing. And a tiny part of me thinks it’s ridiculous to think of it in this way. But the more I reflect at this late hour, the more I understand Diane as a character and the more I realize that I’m not done discovering every pleasure and surprise that Mulholland Drive has in store for me.
I don’t think I’ll ever watch this movie, with others or by myself, without tearing up or outright crying while watching Rebekah Del Rio sing “Llorando” while these two women watch and cycle through emotions neither one of them completely understands. Or, at least, I hope I never do. It’s a dream, yes, one on the verge of being cracked open and forcing the dreamer back into reality, but a dream of love in the face of overwhelming frustration that I’ve had before, and will likely have again.
Directed by David Lynch; written by David Lynch; starring Naomi Watts, Justin Theroux, Laura Elena Harring, Ann Miller, and Robert Forster; 146 minutes.