by Paola Suardi
Regia di David Lynch
Drammatico, USA, 2001.
This is a neo-noir film, dreamlike and surreal. It is a genuine horror and thriller mystery-drama, a sensual love story, but also a thoughtful reflection on Hollywood – magic and desire, machinations, vanity and disenchantment – the dream factory par excellence. It is therefore also eminently a film about cinema that adopts the language of cinema – in terms of visual grammar, the script, quotations – to emphasise the contiguity between the seventh art and the unconscious. All this in just over two hours, thanks to the master film-maker David Lynch, in a film that was born in 2001 from an idea for a TV pilot, then discarded and resurrected as a feature film, and therefore has its roots in TV as well as cinema. We propose here an analysis of some elements of the language of this film – which are challenging but logical – which consistently constructs its meaning on the level of dreams, of doubles and of cinema, understood as a place of the unconscious. Meanwhile, of the plot we will say that a brunette woman (Laura Herring) finds she has lost her memory after a car accident on Mulholland Drive. She wanders the roads of Los Angeles disoriented, and then takes refuge in an apartment while the owner of the apartment leaves and gets into a taxi with her suitcases. Here she falls asleep, upset. Later she will be found in the apartment by Betty (Naomi Watts), a beautiful and sunny blonde girl from the Midwest, who, we will learn, has come to town in search of fame as an actress. The house is her aunt’s. During the film, the two women will together try to solve the mystery of Rita’s identity (this is the name the brunette chooses for herself, not remembering her own).
The film opens with a sequence of black silhouettes against a purple background, which then turn into jitterbug dancers doing a lively swing dance, and these couples, while dancing, duplicate on the screen.
It seems like a beginning that perhaps inaugurates a story set in the world of entertainment, but it actually signals that doubles will be a theme, as will mirrors and reflections. In the images that quickly overlap – and they already look like a dream or a confused memory – Naomi Watts appears in the foreground alongside a smiling elderly couple, whom we will meet again in several places throughout the film.
We move on to a subjective sequence that, in a dark interior, frames fuchsia sheets and a green blanket, getting closer and closer to them, as if the camera were entering the bed and we, the spectators, were getting into bed with it. The director tells us – clearly – that we are entering the territory of dreams.
From the darkness of the room we move on to the headlights of a black car, to the night lights of L.A. viewed from the top of a road. A close-up of the brunette woman inside the car who, alarmed, says, ‘But… we shouldn’t stop here’. Is Lynch saying that we must not stop at the narration of what we see, that the images we are looking at can tell us more?
Soon we see the signage on the road the car is travelling on, Mulholland Drive, which winds for 34km along the Hollywood hills to the Westside, offering spectacular views of Los Angeles and crossing through the different souls of the city. Shortly thereafter, after the car accident, while the woman wanders after having lost her memory, the Sunset Boulevard sign is framed: another very long boulevard that is a symbol of the city.
In terms of cinema references, it is useful to note that Mulholland Drive – defined by critics in a BBC Culture poll as ‘the best film produced so far in the 21st century’ – opens by framing the words Mulholland Drive in the first few minutes and then Sunset Boulevard, unequivocal references to both a great twentieth-century film and a disturbing parable about Hollywood actresses. The subject of the film is also this, as we will find out much later.
Of course, everything is easier to decode afterwards and it helps to know that the narrative structure chosen by Lynch, which is as tortuous as the real Mulholland Drive, consists of: a dream (the first hour and 50 minutes!), the awakening, a flashback to what happened before the dream, and then the moment of awakening.
Mulholland Drive has a mosaic structure that is decidedly challenging at first, within which moments that are seemingly complete in themselves stand out in the viewer’s memory. For example: the narrative of the woman who has the accident is interrupted, at one point, by a scene that takes place at Winkie’s diner, in which one man tells another (A friend? His analyst?) about a recurring nightmare that takes place right in that club: ‘It is neither day nor night and I’m afraid… I see a man… he is the cause of everything.’ The scene ends with the sudden and frighteningly rapid appearance of a horrible face, in the foreground, in perfect horror-movie style. The man who recounted the nightmare seems to be suffering from a heart attack. The only character in this sequence that returns, but not before the film’s finale, and then only fleetingly in the last few frames, is precisely the disturbing character with a dirty and menacing face that we will discover to be a tramp, a homeless person who lives in the parking lot of Winkie’s. One of the many homeless people in L.A., a city where it’s easy to suffer reversals and find yourself on the streets; the other side of the walk of fame and an underlying fear for many. Fear that, perhaps, also pervades the co-star who is in search of fame – or perhaps the other, dark side of her mind is ‘the cause of everything’. This film is about the unconscious, let’s not forget, it will become clear along the way. Another example of a seemingly closed scene is Betty’s arrival at L.A. airport, where the benevolent ‘Welcome to L.A.’ sign awaits her and the atmosphere is composed of reassuring elements, typical of an almost angelic world: the woman is sunny and smiling, she wears a pink sweater and has neatly combed blonde hair, the light is warm, the music dreamy… Betty descends the escalators (from Heaven to Earth?) arm in arm with an elderly couple, her travelling companions. They say goodbye with affectionate politeness and the couple get into a taxi where the director gives us a particularly distressing close-up shot from below, though they are smiling. It almost makes you wonder: will they harm the girl? Are they the people who appeared quickly during the initial jitterbug and will they come back, like obsessive figurines, to disturb our protagonist? Are they memories of a happy past, or of something disturbing that happened in Betty’s past before she travelled to L.A.? It is not known but we can hypothesise. After all, it is Lynch who said that ‘… we shouldn’t stop there.’
When Betty arrives home she finds a stranger there. The latter, at first, pretends to be called Rita, borrowing the name from the Gilda poster (played, in fact, by Rita Hayworth) that she sees reflected in the bathroom mirror; a masterful shot that also shows us an image of a doubled woman and tells us of an identity crisis. We will discover, as we watch the film, that the identity that is undergoing this crisis is Betty’s, not Rita’s, and that when Rita (who is actually called Camilla) turns out to be two-faced by betraying Betty’s love with a director, this is actually Betty’s mind and conscience that are tragically splitting (and we will later discover that Betty is called Diane, and is a failed actress).
The element of doubles and two-facedness and estrangement, in addition to the use of reflected images, is also conveyed by the not perfectly stable shots that denote Rita’s bewilderment (when she has no memory), but at the same time a story that is not perfectly ‘centred’, but rather shaky compared to what it shows us; we will discover, in fact, that it is all a dream. Even the screenplay is eloquent: ‘It will be just like in the movies’ – says Betty during the research undertaken with Rita – ‘we will pretend to be someone else!’
The two women, who have become lovers in the meantime, will both become blondes, almost mirroring each other – Rita will wear a wig – and will look at themselves in the mirror, revealing the theme of split personality with a quote from Vertigo by the great Hitchcock.
Moving into the awakening phase, Lynch begins to spread uncanny elements around the hitherto reassuring character of Betty. For example, the sequence of her audition at the studio, where she arrives – always in a celestial atmosphere – to find the car of the divine lead actress of Sunset Boulevard parked at the gates (but this is really a detail for cinephiles), and where she gives a masterful performance of a femme fatale. An excellent actress, of course, but also a disturbing split.
‘I will kill you’, ‘They will put you in prison…’ she says. It’s no coincidence.
Another sequence that is almost complete in its own right is the one in which Betty and Rita go, in the middle of the night, to a show held at the Club Silencio. Here, both of them blonde and sitting next to each other almost like twins – the director thus indicates the moment of maximum communion between the two lovers before the crisis – the women are immersed in an almost unsettling situation of discomfort. The artist on the stage speaks in English, French and Spanish: ‘There is no band. Il n’y a pas d’orchestra. No hay banda.’ There is no orchestra, he declares, it is all recorded, all an illusion, with multiple references to the hypocritical world of cinema, to films produced by cinema, pure fiction, to the situation that the two protagonists are experiencing, which is not reality but dream. Both begin to cry softly, to the tune of Rebecca del Rio’s song ‘Llorando’ and, when the singer faints, revealing the playback that continues to play, Betty begins to tremble. She begins to feel she is passing from dream to reality; soon she will wake and be Diane, a failed actress, betrayed by her lover, whose murder she has also organised.
Upon awakening, Naomi Watts’ powerful performance shows us a woman destroyed in her split consciousness, in memories – a series of flashbacks begins – of what led her to murder. The other face of Midwestern sunny Betty is anguished Diane, with a sick subconscious.
Diane wakes up surrounded by boxes – Is she going to be made homeless? – and the neighbour tells her that the police are looking for her. The Hollywood dream has become a nightmare. After the sequence of flashbacks, we discover Diane besieged by someone knocking on her door, the two elderly people (from her flight to L.A. at the beginning of the film!) sneak in and, reduced to tiny figures, chase her, and Diane throws herself onto the bed (with fuchsia sheets and a green blanket); the woman she loved is dead – because she herself masterminded her murder – and she kills herself. In the last scene, with Los Angeles in the background, the faces of Diane, Camilla and the scary face of the homeless person slide over each other, and from a careful reading of the credits, the homeless person turns out to be a woman. One more clue to suggest that she may represent Diane’s unconscious.
The last image is the singer of the night club, who says ‘Silencio’. Lynch is probably inviting us to appreciate the charm of the questions rather than the answers, although the magic of dreams – combined with the magic of cinema – invites viewers and critics to find multiple analyses and dissections of the text.
A challenging, brilliant and disturbing film, psychotic and lucid, erotic and human, though cerebral. A wise film-maker’s reflection on the mystery that binds illusion and identity, on the fact that living is a bit like acting and the key is casting: finding the right role.