Why I Love… #1: Mulholland Drive

Year: 2001

Director: David Lynch

Stars: Naomi Watts (Betty/Diane), Laura Elena Harring (Rita/Camilla), Justin Theroux (Adam Kesher)

Genre: Mystery / Film-Noir

David Lynch’s cinema has always been pre-occupied with dreams. From Eraserhead’s monochrome nightmare to INLAND EMPIRE’s freefall spiral of images, the enigmatic director’s work has been driven by a fascination with the subconscious and the secrets locked within. This pre-occupation is most evident in Mulholland Drive, the most sumptuously dreamlike and enjoyable of all his films.

That the film exists at all is a minor miracle. Initially devised as a pilot for ABC, the material shot by Lynch was ultimately deemed unsuitable and the series was canned. Lynch, gutted by the decision and angered by a butchering of his work (that first cut will reportedly ‘never see the light of day’) sought funding elsewhere to complete the project. Eventually receiving French backing, the additional scenes were shot months later to complete the film. To his enormous credit, you can’t tell. Mulholland Drive (unlike, say, the European version of the Twin Peaks pilot) is a complete piece.

Much of the picture’s success – as always with Lynch – comes down to aesthetics. As ever the sound design is impeccable, and Angelo Badalamenti has never written a more effective score, from the haunting theme to the subtly intense drones that underscore much of the movie. It’s simply divine. Mulholland Drive is also Lynch’s most exquisitely shot picture, and Evil Dead photographer Peter Deming’s forever-drifting camera creates a language for the film from the get-go. Combined with the music, a palpable sense of uncertainty and dread is formed and sustained. Normal narrative rules don’t apply. The film so successfully apes the sensation of dreaming that everything becomes potentially threatening. Nothing is safe in Lynch’s foreboding depiction of Hollywood.

Events in the film are often clouded in mystery (when does this film take place exactly?) but everything feels deliberate, even sequences that appear to have little resolution – the sequence of brief, cryptic phone calls between unseen persons that seems to dead-end serves a purpose, in this case underlining the sense of outside forces conspiring against the characters. The machinations of an unfeeling, even dangerous Hollywood.

And Mulholland Drive is a scathing attack on the cruelties of Hollywood. As scathing as Sunset Blvd, the director’s favourite film (and one that has been repeatedly referenced throughout his career – including here).

…If you’ve noticed by now that I’ve avoided describing the plot then there’s a good reason for that as many who have seen the film will know; how do you describe what happens in this movie without spoiling it’s delicious secrets? The very nature of what is – or isn’t – happening is integral to the experience. However once it all falls into place you’re left with a dark, tragic tale of love, betrayal, revenge and unfulfilled dreams. As enjoyable as it is to riddle out Mulholland Drive’s  conundrums, it is even more satisfying to watch once the truth is known (or perhaps, more accurately, decided upon). This rewarding feeling raises the movie above the likes of, say, The Usual Suspects, whose surprise reveals lose their impact on repeat viewings. Mulholland Drive in fact becomes more fascinating.

And then there are the performances from Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring. Mulholland Drive put Naomi Watts on the map, and the reasons are clear. Her transformation from naïve Betty to embittered Diane is slyly staggering; those cloyingly cheerful early scenes flipped to a savage intensity. Harring too, I feel, has always been deserving of more credit than she has received; her amnesiac Rita is one of cinema’s most deeply seductive creations.

Much has been made of the lesbian sequences in the movie – they’re almost notorious, and tend to be the first thing commented on when the subject of the film comes up in conversation. Yet crucially they are not gratuitous as in so many lesser, exploitative pictures. The moments are earned and portrayed, by turns, with a sweeping heartfelt romanticism and (when the Hollywood dream collapses) as a sinister battle of wills. It is rare to find a movie whose love scenes are actually important to the plot, but the ones in Mulholland Drive certainly are.

What also remains striking are the number of indelible and unforgettable images and sequences. The Club Silencio sequence still gives me chills. The darkly-comic cutaway to an inept hit-man having the worst day of his life remains a delightful oddity. The dreamy conversation between Patrick Fischler and Michael Cooke at Winkie’s (notice how the camera in that scene is always floating, never resting). Betty and Rita’s horrifying discovery of a body. The fucking Cowboy! Like all great films, Mulholland Drive is resplendent with these moments.

And finally, it’s not for everyone. I know people who really, really dislike it. Hate it, even. Fair enough. It makes it a more exclusive delight for those of us who savour it, and purposefully wait to watch it again. In case you didn’t know, or haven’t guessed, Mulholland Drive is my favourite film. Perfection.

‘Til next time… silencio

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