Having bewitched audiences with the likes of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, David Lynch has once again shifted the goalposts of filmmaking as he enters the fourth decade of his career. Mulholland Drive is an astonishing, extraordinary piece of work, a mesmerising masterpiece and the jewel in Lynch's crown. It is a beautiful, hypnotic, twisted and strange film which draws the viewer inescapably into a unique and fascinating universe of crime, dreams, sex and tragedy. It is, quite simply, the best film of the decade.
As with much of Lynch's work, there is no simple way to describe what Mulholland Drive is about. Lynch himself has always been coy or hesitant to give meaning to his films, leading some to brand him as the Lars von Trier of surrealism. There is a possibility that his whole career is a prank, and behind those kinetic hands and immense head of hair, he is secretly laughing at us. There have been instances in Lynch's career where he has been self-indulgent or excessive, but he is genuine in everything he does, and Mulholland Drive is proof of it.
Hence when we come to identify the themes of the film, and attempt to unlock its symbols, we realise very early on just how many different interpretations there could be. In fact - to go all self-reflexive for a brief moment - writing about Mulholland Drive is emphatic proof of the subjective nature of film; what I write is what I understand to be true, but I must acknowledge even as I write these words that there are many other ways of seeing the same thing. Not since 2001: A Space Odyssey has a film sparked so much dispute and discussion over its meaning and implications, and my piece, however well-constructed or meticulous, cannot give you all the answers. That is the eternal appeal of Lynch, of all great filmmakers, and is one of the great joys of life.
The experience of watching Mulholland Drive echoes the experience of writing about it. It is one of a very rare breed of films which hold you in such a hypnotic state that your normal critical faculties become temporarily suspended. You slowly forget to pay very close attention to the mystery at the heart of the plot, because the sense of mystery is so all-pervading that it engulfs everything. You stop trying to unpick scenes to decipher what they might mean, because they are staged in such an eerie and beautiful way that you simply have to sit transfixed and let them wash over you.
This is not to say that the film doesn't want you to think - on the extreme contrary. Mulholland Drive is a hugely intelligent film, and every shot feeds you with information through its visuals, its dialogue or simply its sense of atmosphere. Angelo Badalamenti's unusual score sends shivers down your spine, and almost every conversation consists of broken dialogue; as in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, there is a constant sense of threat and unease, with any reassurance feeling like the opposite. Because there is no natural flow from what one character is saying to the next, you find yourself moving at the pace of the film, waiting on every word they say in the knowledge that it will be significant.
Mulholland Drive is prominently about dreams, specifically the relationship between dreams and reality. There is no straightforward narrative which is easy to follow; to paraphrase Roger Ebert, in dreams the mind only focuses on what fascinates it at that instance in time. It makes no sense to impose something as abstract and heartless as logic onto such a surreal and subtly shifting landscape; to do this would only confuse us further. Instead we simply have to embrace the experience and see where it takes us - we have to dream as the film dreams.
The film has been described as a 'poisonous valentine to Hollywood', since it marries a fleeting celebration of Hollywood and acting to Lynch's continuing themes of darkness and horror lurking not far beneath a beautiful surface. Mulholland Drive takes his thesis of 'small towns with secrets' from Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, and expands it to an entire city; everyone is part of this world where simultaneously dreams are made and lives are nightmarishly torn apart.
One aspect of the plot is about creativity, self-belief and natural talent struggling against a system where power and connections are everything. The scenes involving Justin Theroux's director being intimidated by the mob are a sly allegory for Lynch's nightmarish experience on Dune. His character goes from defiance to sheepishness and reluctant acceptance; the Cowboy he encounters could either be his conscience or the personification of the system, winning by its old-fashioned combination of muscle and clever talk (or in this case, non sequiturs).
The film is also an examination of the nature of acting, in which characters or identities are created and inhabited for short, disconnected periods of time. This is an illuminating observation, and ties in with the overall theme of dreams and reality.
For the first two hours, we follow Betty Elms, played brilliantly by Naomi Watts. She is an aspiring actress who comes to Hollywood to seek her fortune. At the same time, a woman (Laura Elena Harring) has a car accident which makes her lose her memory; she wanders from the eponymous road through the streets of Hollywood, ending up at the house where Betty is staying. Betty befriends 'Rita' (who takes her name from a poster of Rita Hayworth), helps her find her identity, and the two become lovers.
In the final half-hour, once the blue box has been opened, we find that everything has changed. Watts' character, now called Diane, is a failed actress while Harring's character, now called Camilla, is about to marry a successful director (Theroux). Diane is immensely jealous of Camilla's success and hires someone to kill her. But once the deed is done, she is driven crazy by guilt, regret and a longing for affection, and ends up shooting herself.
The most generally accepted version of events - and the one to which I personally subscribe - is that the initial period is Diane's dream and the last half-hour is the bitter reality. Diane invents the characters of Betty and Rita to escape her grim reality, or re-experience the past. Betty is intelligent, resourceful, confident and destined to be a star - just look at her audition for the film, in which she seduces both us and the film crew. Rita by contrast is pathetic, frightened and vulnerable; she is the perfect means for Betty to satisfy her ego, and their scenes of lovemaking are essentially self-love.
But those who dream cannot dream forever, and many dreams end with cracks of reality begin to break through. In both the 'dream' and 'reality', Camilla Rhodes is the obstruction preventing Diane/ Betty from realising her ambitions: in the 'dream' she is cast in the role she wants (thanks to the will of the mob), and in the 'reality' she is her ex-lover who has grown weary of her charms. The colour blue is another symbol which demonstrates this: the blue box is a passageway between the dream world and the real world, and Betty begins to convulse when the blue lights flash around Club Silencio.
Diane's dream is the ultimate expression of her inability to accept that she is a failure, both professionally and personally. Like the lead character in Sunset Boulevard (which is referenced in the opening minutes) she falls from brief stardom and egomania to obscurity, self-loathing and destruction. She masturbates in a desperate attempt to recapture that sense of ecstatic affection she felt as a star. But soon the ghosts from her past drive her over the edge and she chooses death over another day in her personal hell.
Mulholland Drive is one of the most open-ended, ambiguous, mind-bending and mesmerising films you will ever see. Any attempt to address or summarise the issues it raises will only scratch the surface; there is too much going on in this powerfully hypnotic film to reduce down to pithy one-liners and short paragraphs. Multiple viewings are essential if one is to unlock every puzzle, and each viewing only improves the experience as more ideas come to light and new puzzles emerge to stimulate your mind. It is a truly extraordinary experience, with stunning performances, perfect direction and simply gorgeous visuals, all of which blend together effortlessly into what can only be described as a masterpiece.