David Lynch is one of the few directors whose films you can talk endlessly about. Something I’ve often discovered about certain movie directors and their movies is that there comes a point where you can’t keep talking about the movie. You can talk about your opinion about the movie with other people, but the analysis comes to an end. You can deconstruct every shot, every line spoken, every bit of subtext and symbolism present, and fully realize the film so you never have to think about it again. There comes a point where you’ve come to understand the movie, and you can turn your attention to other matters. Some directors make films so strange and out there that it almost becomes impossible to push it aside because you need time and multiple viewings to see fi you can figure out what’s really going on.
Lynch isn’t the only director who continues to inspire discussion long after you’ve seen the movie once (see also: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Luis Buñuel, Gaspar Noé, and more), but he’s probably the most popular example. My first exposure to David Lynch was watching Mulholland Drive in a film theory class during my freshman year of college. After watching the movie, my teacher told the class “you have one week to figure out what the hell that movie was about.” Unfortunately, no one had a definite answer, but there was still plenty to discuss when we next met because the film left enough to discuss.
Mulholland Drive has a fairly simple start, albeit one that takes on some weird qualities as the film progresses. A woman (Laura Elena Harring) is in a car accident after an assassination attempt on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. She stumbles out of the wreckage and makes her way to an apartment that is being looked after by an aspiring actress named Betty (Naomi Watts). Betty learns that the woman, now dubbed Rita, has lost her memory, and is determined to help Rita figure out who she is. To add further complications, Rita’s purse only contains thousands of dollars in cash, a strange blue key, and no other form of identification.
While Betty and Rita attempt to figure out who Rita really is, a director named Adam (Justin Theroux) deals with some intimidating gangsters who are set on having him cast a woman named Camilla Rhodes in his next film, The Sylvia North Story. Adam goes through the worst day ever because of this, discovering his wife having an affair, having his staff fired, having his credit declined, leaving him a complete mess through all of this. Adam’s story continues to get worse until he has an important meeting with a cowboy, at which he finally has to compromise and hire Camilla Rhodes.
There comes a point where you have to question what in this movie is fantasy, dreams, or reality, but you also have to wonder whose perspective we are seeing things from. Watts’ character(s) seem to be the center of the film, but is it really her story? There are times where she comes off as both the protagonist and a supporting character, depending on what lens you view the film from. Does that mean it’s Rita’s story? It could be, but like Betty, she changes between protagonist and supporting part. I feel this is part of what is commonly accepted to be one of the major themes about the film: the corruptible influence of Hollywood and the film industry.
Betty is a girl from a small town in Canada who has come to Los Angeles to make it as a movie star. She’s innocent and idealistic. She believes she’s wandering into something great tale by having this Nancy Drew adventure with Rita. However, we also get an idea that Betty will be ultimately destroyed by Hollywood. The sequences where Betty becomes Diane Selwyn show a woman who has lost all hope and has failed in her attempts to be a star, leaving her a hollow shell who can’t even get herself off after her girlfriend leaves her.
Even the scenes with Adam show how difficult it is for the people in charge to have control. The first part shows him completely losing creative control of his film, then losing control of his personal and private life. Adam’s forced to concede and cast Camilla Rhodes, even though it’s clear he’d rather not and wants to have some integrity in this project. For him, it’s a matter of being forced to compromise if it means being able to survive in Hollywood. However, as the later part of the film shows, it might not really be that great a sacrifice if he can find other pleasures to be gained from selling out.
You can interpret the characters and stories all you like, coming up with a variety of theories that the film supports, but ultimately, you have a story about Hollywood. From the car accident on Muholland Drive that sends the amnesiac Rita into the city to the crummy apartment Diane lives in, this movie is all about the ways the city affects the people in it. There’s little glamour in what is going on, and as the film progresses, there’s little to actually enjoy in the setting. The smoke and mirrors are gone, and all that’s left is a metropolis filled with artificial people.
Mulholland Drive is probably one of the most important movies I’ve ever watched in my life, and one I still think about to this day. It’s a film that gains so much value from multiple viewings and talking about it with other people to see if you can come to any conclusions about what is really going on in the movie. It’s open to so much interpretation, but still provides an interesting story and allows you to enjoy what is going on without spending all your time asking for answers. I have a theory about what I think the movie is about, and I’m sure other fans of the movie have their own. No matter how you look at the film, and no matter what your response to it is, there is one thing you’re left with once it ends: