There are those movie experiences that stick with you. I remember back in the fall of 2001….it must have been in October I suppose, and I was attending school at the University of Illinois. I was in the midst of filmic obsession, probably viewing at least one arthouse or classic film every day. So I arrived to the Goodrich 16 in Savoy, which was just the town over, to watch Mulholland Dr. I specifically remember being one of only 3 people in the theatre for that evening’s showing. I also distinctly remember feeling completely overwhelmed by the film, to the point that when it was over I could only sit there. I literally didn’t want to move when it was over as I felt so overwhelmed and shaken by the film. When it was over I remember thinking that I had no idea what I had just seen but I had seen something AMAZING. I didn’t care that I didn’t understand the plot. Somehow all that mattered was understanding the emotions. It was an overwhelming emotional experience…feeling terrified and exhilarated all at the same time. It was probably the single most incredible experience in a movie theatre that I’ve had to date. Amazingly, it had been over a decade since I’ve seen the film.
Going back to revisit films that I really love is kind of an odd thing for me. I go long periods without watching films. Lynch’s film at the time was getting a lot of dissection over the plot and the structure. Watching it so far removed from its release allowed me to take the film as it is, which is actually a remarkably simple story. Mulholland Dr. is the story of Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) who comes to Hollywood with dreams of being a movie star. She tries out at an audition that her aunt helps her get, but loses out to a woman named Camilla Rhodes (Laura Harring). They end up hitting it off and eventually become entwined in a passionate affair that leaves Diane feeling helpless and abandoned when Camilla becomes involved with her director. Diane, bitter with rage and hatred for Camilla, hires a hitman to kill her. Diane spends an entire day dreaming, daydreaming and remembering times she had with Camilla and experiences since she got to Hollywood. She ends the day by killing herself over the grief of losing her lover and the loss of her dream.
Of course the film is not as straightforward as I’m making it sound. For the first 2 hours of the film, we see Diane’s dream. It is explicitly a dream as we see a POV shot of someone lying down on a pillow, and we see Diane wake up at the end of the dream. In her dream, she projects all of her fantasies and desires and redirects certain events in her life to skew the outcome of her wishes. In her dream, she is Betty, and Camilla is Rita. She takes certain people from her real life and views their roles differently, in order to redirect her present day guilt and fear. I liken this to The Wizard of Oz, whereby Dorothy re-imagines those in her life into different characters. It’s much the same here. We also know it’s a dream from the cryptic glossiness of the first two hours and from the odd dream logic in which things occur. It is a heightened state of reality where everything is of extreme importance. This is contrasted with reality at the end where Diane is shallow eyed, morose and bitter and even the film loses it's glossy edge for a more realistic and pat portrayal.
Lynch also displays much of his prototypical Lynchianisms throughout, from the velvet red curtains, to flickering lights, to bizarre setpieces, to fractured linearity, to the use of sex to reflect fear and desire. What I was struck by watching it this time, is how the film is mostly about a woman scorned, and when the film is over, the thing that stands out is the desperate sadness and bitterness of Diane/Betty. It is a sad tale of lost love and lost innocence. She projected an immense amount of love and emotion into her relationship with Camilla, but it was not returned to her in the same quantity. Her dream allows her the fantasy of recreating the feeling of being in love, and controlling the relationship, making Camilla do what she wants, that is until the two women attend the show at the Silencio club in the dream. This scene still plays as one of Lynch’s greatest setpieces, filled with clues that the film we have been watching thus far is a dream. It contains that brilliant Spanish acapella version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”, “sung" by the woman on stage as Betty and Rita sit in the audience brought to tears for no apparent reason, other than that Diane is realizing that it is a dream (while dreaming), and that it must come to an end.... that she is about to come back to reality and know that she has had Camilla killed. The scene is one of cinema’s best moments of the last 15 years.
Many also see the film as a myth of the Hollywood dream. It does contain some kinship with Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., but I don’t think Lynch’s film plays best this way. If it’s the tale of the dark side of the Hollywood dream, doesn’t that play a bit too clichéd for our modern sensibility? Don’t we know this already, that Hollywood is nothing but a catch-all for 15 minutes of fame type stuff? Isn’t the myth of the Hollywood dream so 1950’s? If this is all that Lynch was after, I don’t think it’s worth the effort on that basis alone. I think it plays better as a heightened emotional experience, as a surrendering of the senses to dream logic, or as a fractured and tragic love story. It also contains what may be the best performance by any actress of the last 15 years. Naomi Watts thoroughly commands the screen, playing what amounts to two roles and has scenes of intense honesty here that has rarely been duplicated in the last decade. She is emotionally fragile and carries the film on her shoulders. In the scene where she attends the party given by Camilla and the director Adam, there is that look of sadness and disgust on her face as she attempts to hold back tears while watching Camilla and Adam across the table. Lynch’s film ultimately works so well because it makes one FEEL. It is one of cinema’s great experiences. I had that feeling back in 2001, and I still have it now. Trying to dissect it too much leads to over-analysis and rather rote interpretations and I don’t think that’s where the film’s strengths lie. It is best experienced and felt, rather than undermined with too much dissection.