At first glance, David Lynch’s movie Mulholland Drive is a confusing and seemingly incomprehensible film about god knows what. However, once it clicks and it is understood how David Lynch is presenting the story to us, the film is actually quite simple.
I want to look at the structure of the film rather than its meaning, or the meaning attached to devices in the film like the monstrous tramp, or the blue box. From many of the opinions I’ve read in the last day, these devices have distracted people from what is actually happening in the story, as they get hung up on the importance of the blue box. The blue box is an interesting metaphor but not the sole point of the film.
Mulholland Drive is the story of a jealous and depressed actress, Diane, who has hired a hitman to kill her ex-lover Camilla.
Any film can be looked at in terms of its story line/plot and then how that story is told. In the telling of the story we can derive its meaning or, to use the phrase they used in school, the moral of the story. For instance, Pulp Fiction is the story of a boxer on the run from a mobster and the two men who are sent to find him. The story is told in a slightly unconventional manner, starting with the middle, containing flashbacks, and skipping between various time periods. This narrative technique is part of the reason for its success.
Had the character played by John Travolta actually been killed in the final scene of the movie, instead of halfway through it (enabling him to be in the last scene of the film via a flashback), I suspect that Pulp Fiction would not have been nearly as popular. Pulp Fiction is not the purpose of this article, but its example demonstrates the difference between plot and the presentation of the plot to the viewer.
Most films more or less follow the conventional, chronological way of letting the story unfold. The start, middle and end are presented in the chronological order that the events took place. Most films only use physical acts, or recollections of physical acts, to tell the story. Mulholland Drive does not conform to either of these conventions.
One of the most unusual aspects of how the plot is presented is that Mulholland Drive contains only a few minutes of drama that actually occur in the present moment. The rest of the film is composed of a very long dream sequence, several short flashbacks/memories, and a psychotic hallucination before Diane’s suicide. Diane’s emotions about Camilla and Camilla’s recent death are mostly derived from her rather disturbing dream. These feelings are confirmed by the flashbacks Diane has when she wakes from her dream. David Lynch uses a number of aspects of conscious experience to tell the story. These include memory, dreams, day dreams, and real, empirical experience. Much like our own experience of the world. I spend a fair bit of my time awake day dreaming.
At the start of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, the narrator of the book informs us that his friend Marlow, who is about to tell a story from his time in Africa, realises “the weakness of many tellers of tales who seem so often unaware of what their audience would best like to hear”. By that he means that we don’t want to hear a detailed log of someone’s actions or deeds, but rather the effect that the experience had on them. David Lynch gives us exactly this, focusing on the effect Diane’s experiences had on her. There is relatively little in the way of sequences of action in which the characters actually act out the story. It is about Diane’s emotions and mental experience of the events, which consist of actual physical experience and internal thoughts and dreams.
So, what happened in the film? It begins with Diane falling asleep (on a red pillow – shot from Diane’s perspective). Diane dreams, and this dream is populated by faces from her real life, some playing different roles in the dream. In the dream Diane’s name is Betty.
She arrives in LA with a clear conscience and is full of hope. Life is good as she moves into her aunts apartment and finds a beautiful naked girl in the shower (I wish I had more dreams like that) who doesn’t know who she is but calls herself Rita. This is in fact her ex-lover in real life, Camilla. The dream continues, Rita/Camilla and Betty/Diane’s relationship is injected with a little sexual tension, which culminates in a sexual relationship (yeh yeh!). They try to find out the girls identity, which leads them to Diane’s house (in waking reality) where they find a badly decomposing body. Betty/Diane also has a audition (a fantastically set up scene, the best acting lesson I’ve witnessed) which results in a meeting with Adam, the film director, who it is inferred, is highly attracted to Betty/Diane.
A parallel adventure is taking place with Adam, who finds that his picture has been hi-jacked, his credit cards stopped and his wife is having an affair with the pool boy (Billy Ray Cyrus). Both Adam and Betty/Diane encounter spirit-guide type figures (a cowboy, the hotel/boarding house owner, the mystic who lives in Betty’s aunt’s compound) who warn them of danger.
Diane’s dream is underpinned by feelings of lust, paranoia, control/lack of control and a sense of guilt, among other things.
In short Diane’s dream is part fantasy in which Diane/Betty is in control, and that it is Camilla/Rita who is the lost, vulnerable character, in trouble with the police, who doesn’t know who she is, and is madly in love with Diane.
Of course this is not the case in reality, as Camilla is fully in control of her life. She is a bitch who in Diane’s eyes is getting whatever she wants in life. Diane/Betty sees herself as optimistic, full of potential and highly talented, loved by all, staying in a beautiful home, and Camilla is in love with her. This reminds me of the kind of dreams I had when I was an awkward teenager, the scenario in dreams being a little more pleasant than reality.
Diane is awoken from the dream by the cowboy. Her neighbour comes to reclaim some of her possessions, and among these is an ashtray. Diane sees a blue key on the coffee table. Diane makes a cup of coffee, probably part of her waking up ritual. She recalls (we can tell that it is a flashback because the ashtray that has just been taken is back on the table) the end of her steamy affair with Camilla. Another memory sequence reveals the hiring of the hitman, and his arrangement to give her a blue key when Camilla has been killed. The vivid blue colour of the key is echoed throughout the film, it being a striking symbol of the deed of murder. Diane also recalls a humiliating dinner party at Adam’s house.
I believe that Diane had picked up the key before she fell asleep – so when the dream takes place Camilla is already dead. Otherwise it would imply that the hitman had to enter her apartment to put the key on the coffee table.
When Diane sees the blue key on the table she realises that her lover really is dead. She is overcome by grief and guilt (represented by the elderly couple) and kills herself.
The movie contains some brilliant sequences that are electrified by suspense. I found myself as thrilled as in the best Hitchcock film. Mulholland Drive is an extremely un-Hitchcockesque thriller.
That’s a summary of the plot and the way that David Lynch presents it to the viewer. The moral of the film, a full interpretation of the dream and the other symbols in the film is not the purpose of this piece.
David Lynch has told the unhappy love story through Diane’s conscious experience of the events. Consciousness is a mix of actual waking experience, dreams, day dreams and memories. Just like Marlow in Heart of Darkness, David Lynch shows us the fear, paranoia, guilt, lust, and delusion that are associated with Diane’s experience. After all, that’s what we’re really interested in.
This was originally posted on 01/05/2003.