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03 juillet 2011 @ 14:19
What Mulholland Drive is about.  
A few days ago, I saw Mulholland Drive for the fifth time.

You should really see it, if you haven't already.

It's one of the most interesting films ever made, and I'm going to talk about it in great details.

Film poster

« It is a good viewpoint to see the world as a dream. When you have something like a nightmare, you will wake up and tell yourself that it was only a dream. It is said that the world we live in is not a bit different from this.
Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure.

Before I give my interpretation of this movie, I think I should first explain why I disagree with various theories about it :

The first part of the movie is all a dream

The most common theory about Mulholland Drive is that most of the movie, the part from the beginning up to the opening of the blue box is a dream of Diane Selwyn, who has been abandoned by her lover Camilla, and that in her dreams, all her desires are fulfilled : she's an instantly successful actress, she has someone who loves her back, and whom she must protect... and so on.
Dreams do play an important part in Mulholland Drive, and nightmares as well. The whole movie has that Lynchian oniric feel to it, we see several shots of Rita asleep in Aunt Ruth's appartment in between unrelated scenes that may let us think she's dreaming, one of the first shot in the movie is the camera zooming toward a pillow which later turns out to be Diane's.
On the other hand, this explanation doesn't account for a number of things. One problem is that many characters who have no contact whatsoever with Diane Selwyn appear in both halves. The man behind Winkie's, for example, is never implied in any way to meet her. Yet he appears in the second half, and seemingly has a role in Diane's suicide.

Also, the movie is certainly dream-like, but it resembles much more a movie, or actually, several movies, than an actual dream. This may seem unremarkable, when you consider that movies typically depict dreams as having a consistent clear-cut storyline with a beginning and an end, as if they were indeed little films, but dreams actually, more often than not, are much more peculiar, incoherent and chaotic. The way dream narratives work resembles more another of Lynch's films, INLAND EMPIRE than it does Mulholland Drive

Diane is insane

Another explanation, very similar to the first, is that the movie depicts a mad person's perception of reality, typically Diane, since she's the main character. While it is more consistent with the movie than the previous one, it's also even less satisfactory. Explanations of this kind are very frustrating, because even if any inconsistency in the movie can be dismissed using the protagonist's madness, it doesn't really help us understand the movie better.

It's very frustrating to have any work of fiction turn out to have been all a dream or a hallucination. It's usually a weak and infuriating narrative device, it's overdone, it's been overparodied as well, and honestly, it's just not a very good idea to have an essential part of the movie turn out to have been a dream, or a hallucination. Another reason it is frustrating is because it amounts to saying that nothing you see matters. We never know what is supposed to have really happened, all we know is that we've been misled.
It's bad in movies where the explanation is explicitly given like Fight Club, we don't need to add it to a movie where this explanation is unsupported by the narrative.
What would you say of an interpretation of the Lord of the Rings where all the story after Bilbo's party would actually be a dream of Proudfoot after passing out on pipeweed ?
Or a dying dream of Isildur ? Or Gandalf's imaginary world after being tortured so much by Saruman he became like Sam at the end of Brazil ?

David Lynch is insane

Another explanation of Mulholland Drive is that the movie doesn't make sense in any way. It's all a bunch of gibberish pointless absurdity, directed by a mad man and a waste of time. While this theory has a point, it's also even more frustrating than the above.
The previous explanations at least represent an effort to understand this very complex movie. This is just dismissing the whole thing because it doesn't spell out everything explicitly. When you see a shot of someone getting out of a car outside of a building, and then a shot showing the same person inside the building, you don't complain that you didn't see the person walking to the door, pushing it and then entering. You don't even have to think about it, because years of movie watching have trained you to understand how movie narration works, and how you can connect a bunch of scenes and shots together to understand the movie.
Mulholland Drive can be confusing precisely because it partly subverts this cinematographic language. But it doesn't do so gratuitously. The movie has a point. In fact, it has several, and the reason it has adopted this structure is because each one of them would probably require a very long time to be made explicitly and clearly in a way anyone would understand without having to think about it.

The second part happens before the first

I like this theory very much. It seems to make sense at first. Diane Selwyn shoots herself after having given Camilla's picture to the hitman, then the hitman kidnaps Camilla who loses her memories in the car crash, then she and Betty discover Diane's corpse after Camilla remembered Diane's name... We see the man who died behind Winkie's in the second part. There are plenty of good arguments for this one as well, but there are also inconsistencies. For example, in the second part, The Sylvia North Story is a film that made Camilla into a star, while in the first, it is a movie that isn't made yet, and will possibly never be. And so on...

¡ No hay banda !

I could go on forever. I'm pretty sure all fans of the movie have their own pet ideas about it, perhaps several, but rather than reimagining all of them on my own and explaining what's wrong with every one of them, I'm going to jump to the conclusion now : there is no perfectly consistent intradiegetic explanation of Mulholland Drive. There cannot be.

The reason is that the main point of this movie is precisely that it doesn't have a perfectly consistent story, and actually, no movie has one.
The scene in which this point is made most clearly is the one at club Silencio. In this scene, a man on a theater's stage explains the audience that nothing they're hearing is true. « There is no band, and yet, we hear a band », he says, as we hear a band. It is all a tape. Then, singer Rebekah del Rio comes on the stage, and starts to sing "Llorando", a song that moves Rita and Betty to tears... Then as the song continues, Rebekah collapses. She wasn't actually singing the entire time. It's actually interesting to note that Rebekah Del Rio is playing herself in this scene. She's an actual person, as opposed to all the other characters in the movie. So there it is, the big revelation about Mulholland Drive : it's a movie.

It's all an illusion. You hear things, you see things, but they're not true. It's all an entertaining illusion, up until it becomes inconsistent, like the trumpettist in that scene, suddenly stretching arms and stopping to play as we continue to hear his trumpet.
The point couldn't be clearer if it was a scene where David Lynch was adressing the camera to say « This is a movie. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. ».

This is the case for every movie, of course. In (almost) every movie, the boring bits are cut out. You don't see every footstep the characters make, how many times they go to the toilet. You actually see very little of the protagonist's life. To function, and to be enjoyable, a movie has to imply many things, because explicitly showing them would be boring.
It must also show rather than tell, as cinema is a visual medium, and merely saying what happens is uninteresting.
Mulholland Drive is the result of pushing these two principles about as far as possible. It's a movie that tells us very little, ultimately, but shows us a lot of things, which can imply so much more.
In the end, of course, the story is all an illusion created by our brain, like perspective in a painting. To create emotions in an audience using illusions and tricks is the purpose of all art forms, it may well be the definition of what art is.
The consistent stories we perceive from a particular work of art are all illusions. They do not exist outside of our heads, and sometimes bear remarkably little resemblance to the truth of the original material, as we can deduce from famous works of art being constantly misquoted.

It's generally true that what we call "reality" is a creation of our brain. Things such as colour, form, the passage of time, that we take for granted and objective, are all dependent on ourselves, and Mulholland Drive does a pretty good job of showing us our expectations are ultimately arbitrary. We only expect a correlation between blowing in a trumpet and a particular sound because we're used to it, and the sound could be associated with opening your hand just as arbitrarily.

Mulholland Drive is basically a movie about movies and about Hollywood, and about the lies Hollywood is made of. The fundamental lie, the fundamental illusion of the movie is its core, as I just explained. Another scene in which it is apparent is Betty's audition. One line is particularly revealing : « Don't play it for real until it gets real. ». Then we see the audition scene's corny dialogue enacted with more passion than in the kind of movie we'd usually hear it. Do Betty, or the actor she plays with, become the character ? Does Naomi Watts become Betty Elms ? The answer is both yes and no.

Hollywood, as seen through the eyes of Betty, is this magical « dream place », where girls go to become movie stars. Hollywood, for the persons who live in it, is a place of dread and oppression, where no freedom nor happiness can exist, full of secrecy and deviousness, and implied violence. People who try to rebel just a little bit against it are coerced into submission, as seen with Adam Kesher's subplot, or with Rita being tracked down for some reason.
At the same time, the movie delivers all the emotions you could expect to find in a movie. We laugh at the dark slapstick of the hitman's failure to be done with his murder, we're scared by the sudden appearance of the creature behind Winkie's, and generally empathize with the main characters' plight. And as Betty and Rita's love story finally blooms and they have sex, suddenly, there's the rub : it is all an illusion. An illusion that can be replaced by another illusion, which reuses the same icons and people as the first to create completely different effects, at odds with the first.
You were lied to. You can't help looking for meaning in a Rorschach ink blot. You've been tricked, but what separates this movie from the usual movie trickery is that it goes to great length to show you that you are being tricked, as it is its main point. Mulholland Drive is full of symbolical self-references. It would not be very interesting to have them explicitly made in the movie, but they're here, hidden behind different names. Adam Kesher's subplot in the first part most likely draws from Lynch's own frustration with studio executive. The Sylvia North story is a movie that is said to have an incertain future in the first part, and which is said to have had a big success in the second part, much like Mulholland Drive went from failed pilot to perhaps becoming one of the three best known David Lynch films, with Elephant Man and Blue Velvet.

Mulholland Drive is the ultimate movie. It has everything a movie needs to be memorable. It creates all kinds of emotions, it tells many different stories, and in the end, it is all an illusion.
It's a movie made for your subconscious, for your episodic memory, which couldn't contain a whole movie. Our conscious minds may be able to put an entire movie plot into our semantic memory, but the episodic memory can only remember some brilliant scenes with memorable visual or aural features. In the end, cinema may be more about this, and this is what make many movies interesting, rather than their scenario. Including, of course, Mulholland Drive itself.

A few links :


(anonyme) on le 03 juillet 2011 15:27 (UTC)
A day will come, when I finally see that movie.

Le Créateur Fou, http://youtu.be/cvyg5lNZzrw
(anonyme) on le 05 juillet 2011 09:23 (UTC)
Merci beaucoup pour cette plaisante analyse d'un film que j'ai aussi beaucoup aimé (à défaut de l'avoir beaucoup compris...).
Je pense que les multiples interprétations possibles contribuent à rendre ce film passionant et à donner envie de le revoir.