Lynch's Surreal Haze: Mulholland Drive

Updated: Jan 1, 2019

The Criterion Collection recently released Mulholland Drive on Blu-ray with a new 4K remaster.

David Lynch’s 2001 Mulholland Drive, employing many of the same elements as his other works, such as composer, Angelo Badalamenti, the ambiance, and the surrealist tone, is one of Lynch’s more critically acclaimed films and one of my all-time favorite movies. The film chronicles the life of a young, up-and-coming Hollywood actress named Betty (Naomi Watts), who befriends a mysterious woman named Rita (Laura Harring) when she arrives in Betty’s residence after a car accident. As the two of them try to piece together the elements of the accident and become closer, more of Rita’s past life,and the conspiracy that shrouds it, as well as Betty’s own true being, are revealed. Note that because, in the last half hour of the film, the film shifts focus completely to Betty’s reality and the leads’ very names change (Betty becomes “Diane,” and Rita becomes “Camilla”), in this analysis when speaking about the fantasy sequences of the beginning the film, I will refer to the main leads as Betty and Rita, and likewise in the ending scenes of the film as Diane and Camilla.

The film makes an excellent use of location. Entirely shot in Los Angeles, Lynch once stated that he felt that along the titular Mulholland Drive, one could feel “the history of Hollywood.” By situating the film in these areas, Lynch further establishes Betty’s fantasies of becoming a Hollywood actress and her refusal to view her life in the present tense. Another aspect of the film’s setting that emphasizes Betty’s naivety is the anachronistic dialogue. All of the scenes in this movie take place during the day, but much of the dialogue in the fantasy sequences sound like they belong to a previous era. The film’s set-up, such as Betty’s stilted conversation with the elderly couple, Coco’s dialogue and dress, and Betty’s aspirations of becoming a “movie star” as opposed to just an “actress,” and Rita’s pseudonym all illustrate Diane’s longing for what she believes to be a simpler time. However, once the true events are revealed in the end of the film, the only dated aspect of the film presented is the movie she stars in. And even in that aspect of the film, Diane does not have the control she desires.

Another interesting aspect of this film is its cinematography. A large majority of this film is shot in steady-cam. This technique gives the film a dream-like presence. For example, when Betty explores her aunt’s house for the first time, the entire scene is shot in steady-cam. The camera moves around the objects in the house more fervently than in other scenes, and really drives up the unease as Betty becomes closer and closer to meeting Rita for the first time. In equal measure, so too is the use of hand-held is instead used are also significant. The beginning shot of the film, after the double exposure of the dance partners, Betty, and the old couple, is a hand-held shot of—most likely—Diane, in reality, falling asleep, thus beginning her fantasy. Other hand-held shots are POV shots early in the film. These POV shots eventually evolve into the aforementioned steady-cam as the film delves deeper and deeper into Diane’s dream.

The overall look of Mulholland Drive is very consistent in the first two hours of the movie. There is a general soft glow during the daylight scenes. Many of the scenes are shot outside, and portray the more luxurious aspects of Los Angeles. In terms of colors, lots of reds and pinks are presented, including Rita’s clothing and makeup and Betty’s bathrobe and sweater. These warm colors represent the lust and sanitized romanticism Diane seeks in Camilla. Once the film shifts tone, the colors become very gray and muted. Many of the scenes are shot in drab, indoor locations, such as Diane’s dirty home and the alley behind the diner. Even the more glamorous scenes are shot with an aspect of discontent. By having the design of the film change in this way, Lynch illustrates the stark reality of Diane’s situation and her refusal to accept the way things are in terms of her career and her relationship with Camilla.

Indeed the general feel of Mullholland Drive — up until the last twenty minutes—is very synthetic and staged, which is accurate considering that this film represents an aspect of Diane’s life that she wishes she had. Her artificial interactions with her grandparents in the beginning of the film and with Camilla reveal dark elements about Diane’s psyche. Diane is enamored by the idea of embodying other people. When Betty and Rita start to investigate Rita’s past, Betty states with delight: “[the investigation will] be just like in the movies!” She leads the investigation acting like Nancy Drew with her spunky nature and gleeful naiveté. Her desire for escapism is further exemplified when Betty reveals to Rita the latter’s new haircut by proudly stating to her that “you look like someone else.” However, despite her efforts, Diane cannot escape her reality of her own unhappiness and unrequited love. When this reality is revealed, her interactions with Camilla are more one-sided and uncomfortable. Diane lives in squalor as opposed to a lavish household, her aunt is dead, and Diane does not possess the youthful glow she imagines herself to have. By portraying this contrast of dream and reality in this way, Lynch reveals the true glamor in fantasy, but also its temporal nature.

In the end, understanding the fine intricacies of the film’s plot is not very important because, just like in our dreams, we make false and inconsistent connections between aspects of our lives. However, a general theme remains and reveals an uncomfortable characteristic of all of our lives: the comforting yet harmful nature of dreams and fantasies.

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