DVD of the Week – Review of Mulholland Drive (2001)
by TOM NIXON
Where to begin with Mulholland Drive? Black Hollywood satire, grotesque horror, tragic romance, thriller with a twist, the film could be described a hundred different ways. Lynch doesn’t follow genre blueprints – aside from dipping into similarly enigmatic Bergman and Hitchcock projects, he is what he is and so are his films. But this blurring of boundaries, this abolition of absolutes and categories goes much deeper, pinpointing and exposing our reliance on order, the chaotic core of our nightmares from which we perpetually flee. As Betty’s reality deconstructs, so does our own, until nothing is left but cold, horrified silence, the sense that everything has broken down and nothing means anything anymore.
Betty (Naomi Watts) is an aspiring actress, and when she arrives in Hollywood with a spring in her step and a smile on her face, she’s perfect, that now-cliched dame of golden age cinema everyone wanted to be. Watts’ performance is among the best of the decade. Whether she’s cheery artifice or brutal vulnerability laid bare you can’t take your eyes off her – she plays it with a scarily astute comprehension of Lynch’s diverse and complex manipulation of mood. She admitted in an interview that one particularly vile scene had her “weeping and falling to pieces,” and it’s easy to see why, but the end result is something inimitable.
Beautiful and happy with dreams of making it big, Betty’s personality always seems like a huge overcompensation, sinister in just how unfeasibly idyllic it all is. Moving into her predictably perfect apartment she finds it already occupied by another beautiful woman calling herself Rita (Laura Harring), frightened survivor of a car accident on Mulholland Drive, amnesiac and lost. She vows enthusiastically to help this woman discover exactly who she is, and an intimate bond soon develops, the focus tantalizingly attracted to their reddened lips and little lustful glances. Meanwhile obnoxious movie director Adam (Justin Theroux) has his life, marriage and work sabotaged mostly by what can only be described as comic book super villains, forcing him to cast a specific actress he’s never heard of. His relation to Betty becomes clearer later.
At base it’s an adventure, packed full of romance, sexual electricity, intrigue and excitement for Betty the protagonist. It’s also a delusion, a desperate striving for nirvana from a place of madness, decay and self-loathing, made clear by the incredible, horrifyingly tragic ambient score which smothers the pleasure from every scene. It’s like all great delusions in that it’s as close to the truth as possible whilst inverting the painful elements, but you can tell just how fragile it all is, and you pity her beyond words. It’s not that you know something isn’t right, but that barely anything is, and the illusion can’t last. It doesn’t, and the film’s climax has truth and dream blur into a mind melt of revelation and complete breakdown.
Envy, self-loathing, terror, sexual insecurity: all of them are monsters inside us, and so Mulholland Drive serves as a metaphor for why we often watch movies in the first place; for those monsters (made manifest as the horrific apparition behind the Winkies cafe) to make us voyeur to projections of their ideal selves. It’s an idea made even more literal in Satoshi Kon’s similar animated classic Perfect Blue of three years prior, where the perfect aspiring actress is followed around by an ugly stalker in an illusion of a girl’s own making. Self is revealed as little more than a calculated quenching of pain and existential fear, which falls to pieces under scrutiny. Betty is a construction; as she increasingly becomes defined as worship of Rita their identities slowly blur, and her purity is encroached upon by the ugly reality of unrequited love and despair. It ends up being a case of same game, shifting players, and so the film takes on an undeniably universal quality which is no doubt ripe for libraries of analysis.
David Lynch is one of those directors whose work I struggle to write about without getting the distinct impression I’m writing about myself. He weaves tales of the sub-conscious, dreamscapes which can’t be grasped except in terms of the reaction they elicit; a reaction usually intense, if not always desirable. His are films which polarize audiences, hated because they seem to have no rational sense, loved because often neither do we – and Lynch seems to know those parts of us intimately. Maybe his most affecting work, by my reckoning everyone needs to view Mulholland Drive at least once, if only to consider why it’s so hated.