This article reveals the explained plot and the detailed events in David Lynch’s movie Mulholland Drive, revealing its meaning and storyline. We recommend you to read it only after watching the movie, and not before, in order to preserve the pleasure of the first vision.
After surviving a terrible car accident along Mulholland Drive, a woman loses her memory completely. Frightened and traumatized, she takes refuge in a house belonging to an Hollywood actress where she meets a girl seeking her fortune, who tries to help her remember who she is. In the meantime, a well-known filmmaker is strong-armed by Mafia into casting their actress of choice in the leading role of his film, and a monstrous figure terrorises an unnamed man.
“Hey, pretty girl, time to wake up”
It’s pretty hard to believe David Lynch has claimed he doesn’t consider himself a cinephile after all, because each movie is so beautiful and chosen with great care it can only come from a brilliant mind, deeply loving and understanding Cinema at its best. Mulholland Drive is no exception: within a filmography in which it’s almost impossible to choose movies significantly better than others – except for the unfortunate Dune – the above-mentioned movie represents the pinnacle of Lynchian poetics. The point of no return, a limit beyond which the author’s aestethics can’t go any further. It’s no coincidence that the filmmaker’s following movies, Inland Empire and Twin Peaks: The Return, would be extensions of what we have already seen in this one and other Lynch’s movies. That doesn’t necessarily mean Mulholland Drive is the best of Lynch’s, nor that his following works fail to meet expectations: it simply means this movie marks a definitive point of arrival.
A fun fact about this movie is it has started as a resounding failure: ABC agreed to produce Lynch’s television pilot for a new TV series conceived during Twin Peaks at the end of the 90s – it was firstly conceived as a spin-off from this series, as found out later – hoping to recreate what is considered the American filmmaker’s highest-grossing film nowadays.
Things went wrong because the broadcaster was not satisfied with the footage and they decided to abandon the whole project. But thanks to the French film production StudioCanal, Lynch managed to take the unreleased pilot back and he decided to get some new material – about forty minutes of new scenes – reassembling everything, turning it into a film and subsequently releasing it in theaters in 2001. The most acclaimed movie of the last twenty years has started out as a rejected television project: funny, isn’t it?
BBC was wrong to consider Mulholland Drive the best film of the 21st Century: as revolutionary as linked to classical cinema and having its roots in that Old Hollywood Lynch mentions several times (probably feeling nostalgic about), it’s actually the last great masterpiece of the 20th Century.
As Shutter Island, Mulholland Drive is a film about dissociation, but in spite of Scorsese’s main interest into assembling a great human drama within his movies, Lynch prefers to be exclusively focused on the oneiric dimension. The Trauma, the Dream, and the dream as trauma. Mulholland Drive is the greatest study of a dream – and therefore of a trauma – ever seen in theatres, which takes place on three interlacing and overlapping levels – Reality, Dream and Subconscious. As usual, this happens without any explanation being given and leaving the viewer the task of putting things in a particular order (as occurred in Lost Highway). There is no mystery to be revealed nor thriller involved, there is no peculiar human tragedy. In order to love and understand the movie, one has to necessary go with the flow and enter the dream.
Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) is an aspiring Hollywood star who has never managed to break into acting and she has recently ended her relationship with Camilla Rhodes (Laura Harring), a well-established actress who gives her a hand to get minor roles in several movies. After being invited to a dinner party by Camilla and riding in a limousine on Mulholland Drive, her ride is interrupted: waiting for her along the road her ex-girlfriend surprisingly arrives to walk her up to a party at Adam Kesher’s house (Justin Theroux), director of their upcoming film. Diane’s deep shock after Camilla and Adam announce their engagement during the party forces her to hire a hitman to kill the woman has betrayed her. The killer shows her a blue key: when Diane sees it again, it will mean the job has been fulfilled. Although this is a turning point, it’s not placed at the beginning of the movie, but just before the end, so everything else happening in the first two hours of Mulholland Drive is nothing but Diane’s dream and her subconscious mind struggling to deal with her love affair and guilt over the decision to have Camilla killed.
The film – and therefore the dream – actually opens with a mistaken identity: in the limousine along Mulholland Drive, Camilla turns into Diane in the dream – here’s the dissociation taking place – and she survives a fatal road accident. Having lost her memory entirely, Diane/Camilla wanders the streets of Los Angeles at night and finally she takes refuge in a famous actress house whose owner is away, filming an upcoming movie. Meanwhile, dreaming about breaking into the film industry a woman named Betty – or the distorted and “purified” projection of Naomi Watts/Diane – arrives in the City of Angels accompanied by an elderly couple with disquieting smiles, who eventually turns out to be a projection of her sense of guilt, and she settles in the apartment owned by her aunt and actress now occupied by the projection of Camilla whom she starts a relationship with.
What comes next is a series of seemingly meaningless events that perfectly fit into the protagonist’s dream/guilt logic: let’s think about the director Kesher – the one Diane hates – portrayed as a helpless inept incapable of facing his wife betrayal with the pool man – true fact, as told by Kesher at the engagement party making it look ridiculous in the dream – losing control of his own movie when the powerful Mafia bosses demand he cast their protagonist; let’s think about the hit man – the same one actually hired to kill Camilla – unable to accomplish a job without causing troubles – an unconscious signal Diane wants Camilla to be rescued; let’s think about Diane/Betty turning out to be a great actress at the audition as to leave the audience speechless and also going with her aunt’s friend to another film set (Kesher’s one), from which she runs off due tue a visual exchange with the director, assuming the famous starring role would be given to her only after she had witnessed the role of the girl “imposed from above” – which it happens to be Camilla Rhodes and having the same features of the woman that the real Camilla kissed in front of Diane at the engagement party.
The overall feeling is that each character’s destiny is driven from above by some sort of force able to control over human destiny. Many mysterious figures strengthen this feeling: the monstrous homeless man scaring the unnamed man to death at the beginning of the movie – who is indeed an involuntary witness of the pact between Diane and the hit man – and reappearing at the transitional moment from dream to reality as a kind of guardian of the subconscious mind; the elderly couple reappearing at Diane’s final breakdown and pushing her to suicide; and finally the great puppeteer, a man in the wheelchair capable of maneuvering the dream.
The most memorable moment of the movie takes place towards the end of the dream, as the projection of Camilla is going to become aware of her amnesia remembering the name “Diane Selwyn” and as a result she carries out investigations along with Betty/Diane contributing to bring the two women in a house where they discover the disfigured corpse of a woman in advanced decay stage. Shocked by the discovery, they take refuge in Betty’s house and they finally arrive at Club Silencio after a one-night stand.
This is the most oneiric and meaningful moment in the whole film: the Club Silencio is a late night theater where « this is all a tape-recording » and a singer dies on stage while the song continues playing.
Back to home, Betty vanishes into thin air and Diane/Camilla finds a mysterious blue box that once opened with a key – the “real” blue key – it reveals the deception of the dream and it marks the passage into the dimension of reality.
Although making a detailed list of each element of reality that occurs in the dream would require a proper essay, a quick excursus should mention the Cowboy – quickly fading to black at the engagement party and key element of the dream – Coco – Kesher’s mother in reality, Betty’s aunt landlord in the dream – the “real” waitress named Betty – Diane takes her identity in the dream while the projection of Camilla remembers the name “Diane” in the dream – and the above mentioned involuntary witness of the killing pact.
In reality, feeling guilty about her friend/lover’s death, Diane can’t bear this situation and she undergoes a devastating mental breakdown; persecuted by the elderly couple additionally transformed into a terrifying creature, she decides to commit suicide by shooting herself with a shotgun, thus becoming the same corpse found in the dream as well as foreseeing her destiny.
There is a lot of classic cinema inside Mulholland Drive, starting with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo – whose interplay between characters was already Lost Highway‘s framework – and continuing with the mood and overall aesthetics of the film, where we see all the characters moving, talking and even dressing and combing their hair as an old-fashioned film noir, despite the story’s contemporary setting. This stylistic choice and this particular timeless atmosphere allow this great masterpiece not being affected by the passage of time, thus making it immortal. A flagship of any true cinephile.
Translated from here by Sara D’Ettorre