Given that David Lynch is one of the most cinematic of all filmmakers, it’s ironic that his two most radical and uncompromising films both had their roots in television projects: Fire Walk With Me was a spin-off from Twin Peaks, while his latest film, Mulholland Drive, began life as the pilot episode for an abortive ABC television series. ABC refused to air the Mulholland Drive pilot, finding it too obscure and incoherent, so Lynch sought extra funding from the French company Studio Canal and expanded it into a full-length movie. One the most dream-like, hypnotic and erotic of all Lynch’s films, it uses the backdrop of Hollywood’s dream factory to explore his recurring fascination with the fragility and malleability of personal identity.
Stepping out of a car on Mulholland Drive, gorgeous brunette Laura (Elena Harring) narrowly escapes being killed, twice. Firstly by her gangster companions and secondly by the joy-riding teenagers whose hot-rod smashes into the car and kills everyone inside. Meanwhile, perky, wide-eyed blonde Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) arrives in Hollywood from Deep River, Ontario with naive dreams of making it big in the movies. Her actress aunt has lent her a flat in an old fashioned courtyard complex, presided over by the fussing, motherly Coco (Ann Miller). But as soon as she moves in, Betty finds a terrified naked woman in her shower, a traumatised amnesiac who cannot remember how she got there, or how she came by the blue key and wads of dollar bills in her handbag. She calls herself Rita (a name snatched from a poster for Gilda) and, in between auditions, the selfless Betty decides to help her find out who she is.
As always, Lynch’s film is not about plot or characters, but about surrendering oneself to a mood. An atmosphere of menace pervades the entire film. Smart-aleck director Adam (Justin Theroux) is pressured by a sharp-suited manoplayed with tight-lipped menace by composer Angelo Badalamentiowho insists that he re-cast the lead actress in his latest film. Adam receives gnomic advice from a leathery character called The Cowboy, who meets him in a corral at the top of Beachwood Canyon. Two cops have a bizarre conversation over breakfast at a Winkie’s diner. A dwarf in a wheelchair gives cryptic instructions over a mobile phone. Yet there are also episodes of swooning romanticism: Betty and Rita share a bed and enjoy a lesbian encounter which is all the more erotic for being so tentative and oblique. Later, they visit a strange after-hours joint called El Club Silencio, where a female performer performs a stunning, Spanish-language a cappella version of Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’.
On a superficial level, Mulholland Drive is a generic tale of thwarted ambition and shattered dreams. But it is also a surreal exploration of Hollywood’s false allure, which is based in no small part on the idea of being someone else. People become actors, actors become the characters they play. Actors become stars, audiences project identities on to the glamorous people they imagine them to be. Dreams are manufactured, nothing is real, even identity itself is fluid. If you can immerse yourself in Lynch’s world of make-believe, perhaps you too will lose yourself.o. U.S.A.-France, 2001. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 146 mins.