Mulholland Dr. (2001)

D: David Lynch
S: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring

Although Mulholland Dr. ultimately turns out to be a more cohesive (or at least comprehensible) film than Lost Highway, and although it is very well made in the director's characteristic style, this dark trip through the surreal heart of contemporary Hollywood is never as incisive or disturbing as you feel it might have been. The arguably too literal resolution actually serves to undermine much of the intriguing weirdness that makes up its running time. Although it all fits together and has many striking scenes along the way, you tend to walk away feeling cheated of something a little more enigmatic, or even more meaningful (or perhaps more meaningful because it is enigmatic, or perhaps just appearing to be more meaningful because of all the enigmas... you get the idea).

A car crash on a quiet stretch of Mulholland Dr. A beautiful woman (Laura Harring) wanders in the Los Angeles night with no memory of who she is. She crosses paths with an eager young actress (Naomi Watts), fresh from the styx and up for a big audition the next day. The two develop a friendship as they try to uncover the mystery of who Harring really is and why she came to be on Mulholland Dr. that fateful night. Being a David Lynch film, things get curiouser and curiouser. The closer they seem to get to an answer, the more hallucinogenic the urban landscape seems to become. There seems to be some link with the production of a retro musical directed by a hotshot youngster (Justin Theroux) whose financiers (Dan Hedaya and musician Angelo Badalamenti) are putting pressure on him to hire an actress of their choosing and whose personal life seems to have taken a turn for the worse. Strange characters begin popping up out of the moral murk (including Lafayette Montgomery as a sinister cowboy and Rebekah Del Rio as a night club performer) whose import may be deep and meaningful, or may just turn out to be trivial. You never can tell.

If Mulholland Dr. is a typical Lynchian cinematic puzzle, then it is one which has been elegantly crafted with some fascinating curves and dips. But it fits together to reveal an altogether too conventional picture made up of dime store plots and characters given only a slight twist by the master of casual obscurity. The film is set in a fantastical world in which identity is defined by clues which may be more the result of a dream than any real connection with the characters' personalities. The idea of dual, submerged, or simply bogus identities runs throughout the film, a point pressed home by its setting in the entertainment industry. Lynch gleefully plays with the schizm between the real and the represented, drawing attention to how a scene or a moment between people can be read in different ways. In one striking episode Watts reads for a part in a movie which we have seen her rehearse with Harring the night before. The reading at the audition is so radically different that our sense of perspective on the events shifts. In another a night club emcee explains the relationship between sound and image and illustrates how they can be separated just before one of the film's key set pieces plays upon our inability to remember what he has just said. With scenes like these Lynch clues us in to the film's dream structure and like Luis Buñuel before him directs our attention beyond the text and into the mind, where all story becomes merely part of a process of assimilation in which we make sense of our experience of the world.

Lynch has always been at his best when explore a sense of disconnection from the world. Even in The Straight Story, his themes revolved around a core feeling of absence, a character driven by a need to fill an important gap in his life which had left him feeling incomplete. Armed with the weaponry of surrealism, the director has always explored psychic enigmas in settings where the mundane appears wondrous and the bizarre seems commonplace; a nightmarish landscape of the paranoid imagination. Mulholland Dr. is certainly on the same map, and gives perhaps one of Lynch's clearest trips through this familiar territory. Its fascination with elastic identities, false clues, and revealing throwaway moments could easily have wandered out of control in lesser hands. It is testament to his growing ease with his subject matter that he has been able to reign it in and deliver such an ultimately straightforward bit of psychobabble. Yet after the challenge of Lost Highway it seems that finding this more accessible address is less a rewarding journey. The resolution feels like the last few minutes of Psycho, when you knew it made sense, but wished you hadn't had to hear it all the same. Luckily Lynch is cineaste enough to ensure that the extended 'explanation' is itself an elegantly crafted bit of visual and aural narrative. He does not even have to alter tone as we journey through the more literal world of rational interpretation: sometimes events in 'real life' are just as weird as anything we can dream.

On a technical level, the film is extremely well done. The cinematography is rich and expressive, the editing holds pace and keeps sight of the rhythm of the story (when things finally take a turn for the bizarre, the effect is beautifully measured), Badalamenti takes time from his acting duties to provide another effective score (and he's not half bad on screen either), and the performances are all in tune with the Lynchian cinescape. Watts and Harring play a dangerous game with excessive facial expressions, playing, respectively, the wide-eyed innocent and the wide-eyed amnesiac. Fortunately both of them are also attuned to the quirks in Lynch's script and so find the fault lines between roles and role-play which allow them to remind us that it is all part of a massive, elaborate game. Though the film on the whole is not especially unnerving, Hedaya and Badalamenti are hilariously sinister as the Italian movie financiers.

Mulholland Dr. is not quite as mainstream as The Straight Story (insofar as that means that casual audience can enjoy it as easily as fans), but it is a very digestible David Lynch film for the unattuned. It might be as useful a jump-off point for close study of his work as Blue Velvet itself was. Of course the beauty of that film was its ability to play on so many levels with equal ease. Mulholland Dr. works just fine, but it may lack the staying power of many of its more uncompromisingly twisted brethren when it comes to close and sustained reading over time. Most people will not care about that of course, and for those who do not, it is certainly worth a look if you are in the mood for something sexy and strange.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.