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Mulholland Drive: David Lynch’s bizarre, surrealist masterpiece remains 21st century’s best mystery

Like any work of art containing surrealist elements, David Lynch Mulholland Drive lies firmly in the realm between conscious and the unconscious, and there is a constant juxtaposition of the routine and the eerie, the absurd and the mundane, the disgusting and the beautiful.

Written by Kshitij Rawat | New Delhi |
January 20, 2022 6:36:43 pm
Mulholland Drive, Mulholland Drive explainedMulholland Drive messes with the mind. (Photo: Universal Pictures)

David Lynch‘s Mulholland Drive is a film that continues to defy explanation more than two decades after its release. That the film remains open to interpretation is not because of Lynch’s repeated refusal to comment on the film, its symbols, and themes, but because the film is shot, structured, and edited to invite multiple interpretations.

Although it is often categorised as a “mystery”, Mulholland Drive is a mystery to the extent that there is indeed an underlying central enigma here, but unlike most films of this nature, there is no clear or easy resolution.

Mulholland Drive began its journey as a 90-minute TV pilot but was rejected by ABC, the home of Lynch’s television hit Twin Peaks. Later, thanks to the interest — and money — of the French production company StudioCanal’s, Lynch expanded the script and filmed additional scenes to convert a TV episode to a feature film.

Back when it was released in 2001, Mulholland Drive was adored by most critics but did not find many takers among the audiences, except perhaps for Lynch diehards. That is not unusual for his works, which are always challenging and require repeated viewings.

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The film follows a young aspiring actress Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) who arrives in Los Angeles to pursue her dreams. She has her aunt’s place in the city all to herself but finds it occupied by a mysterious and beautiful dark-haired amnesiac woman (Laura Elena Harring) who calls herself Rita and claims she is the sole survivor of a car crash that occurred on the titular street the night before. Empathetic, Betty teams up with her to figure out the traumatised woman’s identity. They find money and a strange blue key in her purse.

 Mulholland Drive Even after two decades, Mulholland Drive defies explanation. (Photo: Universal Pictures)

Elsewhere, at a diner, a man explains his dream to his friend and says he saw a frightening figure behind the building. When they get to that place, the face jumps out from behind a dumpster, and the man loses consciousness. A narcissistic filmmaker Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) learns that his film is being bankrolled by the mob and he is strong-armed into casting a woman called Camilla Rhodes.

Meanwhile, Betty and Rita have coffee in the diner we saw earlier. Rita looks at the nametag of the waitress and learns that she has a connection with the name Diane Selwyn. They eventually end up in Diane Selwyn’s apartment but find a decomposing female corpse instead. Back at Betty’s place, the two women realise they have fallen in love with each other and have sex.

Things get even weirder hereon.

Justin Theroux, Mulholland Drive Justin Theroux in Mulholland Drive. (Photo: Universal Pictures)

Rita tells Betty that they must go to a place called “Silencio” at 2 am, which turns out to be theatre. The performer tells the audience that everything is an illusion. A singer collapses while the vocals go on, signifying that it was a recorded performance.

Back at her place, Betty finds a blue box in her purse that opens with the key she found in Rita’s purse. Rita opens the box and it falls to the ground.

Betty wakes up in the apartment in which she and Rita had found that desiccated corpse. Only, Betty’s name is Diane Selwyn, and she is struggling to deal with her failed relationship with Camilla Rhodes (who looks exactly like Rita and she and Kesher are an item). It is revealed that Diana ordered a hit on Camilla.

It is argued that art does not, or at least should not, have a fixed meaning. A good work of art can ideally be interpreted in a myriad of ways depending on the individual, who brings their own meaning to the piece.

Mulholland Drive, up until the last half hour, has most commonly been understood as a woman’s tortured dream in which she reimagines people in her life as characters in a new narrative. She creates a fantasy world of sorts, in which she has her whole future in Hollywood ahead of her instead of a waning career, and Camilla, who left Diane for a man, is a vulnerable woman looking for shelter and succour.

Much of the style, tone, and structure of the film would seem to support that reading. But there are many other interpretations of the story too. As per one, Betty and Diane are the same women, only in different realities.

Mulholland Drive, david lynch With Mulholland Drive, David Lynch (in the photo) clearly wants the viewers to reconsider what cinema as an art form is. (Photo: Universal Pictures)

Be as it may, any attempt to overanalyse the film ends up being deleterious to it, for it robs it of that alluring strangeness that makes it one of the finest films of the 21st century. Just watching the film will give you an idea that Lynch does not want you to grasp the plot — whatever there is — which is in any case inconsequential. Else, he wouldn’t have made it so difficult. His aim is just to let the viewer experience the film, and not go hunting for logic where there is none.

Like any work of art containing surrealist elements, Mulholland Drive lies firmly in the realm between the conscious and the unconscious, and there are non sequitur scenes, several juxtapositions of the routine and the eerie, the absurd and the mundane, the disgusting and the beautiful.

The stylistic choices, lighting, cinematography, imagery, and filming techniques that are definitely in the territory of the bizarre — all these help create a trippy, dreamy ambience. Few films capture the sheer peculiarity of dreams like this one does.

Mulholland Drive messes with the mind. As Churchill called Russia “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”, Mulholland Drive is the greatest of mysteries because it is not meant to be understood. ​It’s a ride of Lynchian proportions and is worth every minute of it.

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