MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001, Director David Lynch)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

Mulholland Drive has been seen by numerous critics as the pinnacle of David Lynch’s filmmaking career, as the film in which he finally put together all of the elements that had appeared in his earlier films but had never quite congealed in so effective a fashion. It is certainly one of the most critically-acclaimed films of the twenty-first century thus far. In August 2016, the BBC conducted a poll to rank the greatest films of the twenty-first century to that point, with Mulholland Drive coming in as the greatest of them all. Meanwhile, a 2019 poll conducted by The Guardian ranked Mulholland Drive as the eleventh best film of the century thus far. Then again, a 2017 list of the twenty-five best films of the twenty-first century thus far constructed by film critics for the New York Times didn’t rank Mulholland Drive at all, but that might be a comment more on the problematic nature of such lists than on Mulholland Drive. After all, that list did include The 40-Year-Old Virgin. One thing that is for certain is that Mulholland Drive is one of the most intriguing and challenging films ever made, with numerous critics having taken cracks at unraveling its many mysteries.

I will present here a reading the film from beginning to end, based not only on what occurs in the film at a given time, but also on foreknowledge of what occurs later and on insights provided by a number of additional critics.I will also present elements of an interpretation along the way. For now, let me simply say that there seem to me to be two basic kinds of interpretations of this film, each of which attempts to account for the its strangeness. First, most critics of the film seem to want to argue that most of the film is actually a series of dream sequences (or maybe even one long dream sequence), with only the final part taking place in “reality.” Second, my own preference (as I put forth in my discussion of the film in my book Postmodern Hollywood) is to see the strangeness of the film as rooted in its postmodern, metafictional nature: by this reading, most of the film’s scenes seem strange because they are not film scenes in the usual sense but instead are pastiches that refer to similar scenes in film history. They are not representations of reality, but representations of other representations and comments on the machinery of representation in film.

One need not, of course, choose either of these approaches entirely over the other, especially given the long-term association in American culture between dreams and the Hollywood film industry, often described as a “dream factory.” Roger F. Cook, who is among those who regard the first two hours of the film as one long dream sequence, nevertheless notes how thoroughly this sequence is essentially constructed as a “pastiche of scenes” that “presents a sampling of excerpts from various Hollywood film genres.” Meanwhile, for Cook the fact that this dream is composed of fragments from various film genres shows just how thoroughly the consciousness of the dreamer has been “colonized” by these genres (373). In any case, one of the key characteristics of the cultural history of Mulholland Drive is that it has been able to trigger such a wide variety of reactions and critical approaches[1].

Mulholland Drive begins as opening credits show over a black screen, with eerie noises in the background. Then, it quickly morphs into a seemingly wholesome school-dance-type scene, as clean-cut young people cheerfully dance the jitterbug, while dressed in clothing that might have come from the 1950s. The dance, however, is displayed in an extremely unconventional manner that makes clear that what we are about to see is not likely to be a realist film. The dancers are presented against a strange, purple background. They are on different size-scales; some are presented merely in silhouette, while others appear to defy gravity. Anyone familiar with Lynch’s work, of course, would not expect realism, just as anyone familiar with Lynch’s previous films would know that his films are typically set in the same time period in which they are made, yet somehow manage to project the feel of the 1950s, at least in part. Thus, while the film has a very strange beginning, it is not really so strange for a David Lynch film.

The surreal opening sequence.

At one point late in this dance scene, we see an overexposed image of a bright-eyed young blonde woman (played by Naomi Watts) smiling between two much-older individuals, perhaps her parents, or even grandparents. This image briefly comes into focus before flaring up to engulf the screen in a white haze. Then the smiling young woman steps forward, once again dominating the screen, before the scene ends with a cut to a rumpled bed, which many observers have taken to indicate that these first unusual images exist inside the dream of someone who has been sleeping in that bed. This interpretation is not clearly supported by what we have seen to this point, however, though it becomes more likely given some of the subsequent events we will see in the film. Many aspects of this film, in fact, only lend themselves to any sort of coherent interpretation in retrospect, after we have moved through later parts of the film.

The screen fades to black, followed by a shot of a street sign reading “Mulholland Dr.,” seen in what appears to be the flicker of headlights. Then, with ominous music sounding in the background, we see the vehicle to which those headlights apparently belong. Thus begins what would appear to be the first actual scene of the film, though it’s an odd scene indeed. The vehicle drives along the dark, winding road, accompanied by solemn music and opening credits; it is eventually revealed to be a limousine carrying a beautiful, young, dark-haired woman (played by Laura Elena Harring) as its passenger in the back seat, with two men in the front seat. Suddenly, the limo comes to an unexpected stop, and the woman clearly appears to be alarmed. Two cars full of screaming, carousing young joyriders approach at a high speed from the opposite direction, apparently drag racing. The driver of the limo pulls a pistol on the woman in the back seat and orders her out of the car; as the second man gets out and begins to pull the woman out of the car, the joyriders swing around a curve near the limo. One of the cars crashes head-on into the limo in what appears to be a surely fatal crash. Yet the woman staggers out of the car, stunned and disoriented, but able to walk away from the crash scene and climb slowly down the steep hillside toward Los Angeles. Confused and perhaps in shock, she walks and even runs, at one point passing a road sign that identifies the street she is crossing as “Franklin Ave, 7400 W,” then later crossing another, identified as “Sunset Bl, 7200 W.” Confused and perhaps in shock, the woman reaches a residential area, then hides in the bushes when a seemingly drunken couple approach her on the sidewalk, while police and rescue vehicles converge back on the site of the crash.

In many ways, the beginning of the film is a classic case in storytelling: we have been introduced to a situation and a character that draw our interest, while leaving many questions unanswered. One puzzle, of course, is how the young woman could have possibly survived the crash and still be ambulatory. In fact, she is apparently very ambulatory: while Franklin Ave. does indeed lie between Mulholland Dr. and Sunset Blvd., the distance from Mulholland to Sunset would be more than a mile of difficult terrain, making the woman’s trek seem even more unlikely. In fact, these unlikely details beg for an explanation. One possibility lies in that “Sunset Bl” sign, which reminds us of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), one of the greatest films about the Hollywood film industry. Among other things, this connection reminds us that we are seeing something that is taking place within a movie, not in reality.Later, we will learn that Mulholland Drive also takes place mostly within the film industry. For now, we might simply note that, at the beginning of Wilder’s film, we learn that the entire film is being narrated by a character who, as the film begins, has just been killed. Has, somehow, this young woman actually been killed in the crash? Are we watching a ghost that is unaware that it is a ghost?

Here we might note the film M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, released only two years before Mulholland Drive, given that Shyamalan’s film features such a confused ghost as its main character through most of the film. Perhaps even more relevant, though, is the 1962 horror film Carnival of Souls, which was sometimes being compared with the work of Lynchlong before Mulholland Drive was made[2]. Carnival of Souls begins with two cars of young people drag racing, after which one careens off a bridge and crashes into a river. One woman staggers out of the water and then makes her way through the film, only to have it revealed at the end of the film that, unbeknownst to herself, she is a ghost and that her body has been strapped in that car at the bottom of the river the whole time. Given the similarities in the beginnings of Carnival of Souls and Mulholland Drive, it is certainly intriguing at this point to wonder if these similarities contain a hint—though it is also the case that, in the latter, the woman’s body is apparently not found at the crash scene.

This first segment then ends as the dark-haired woman from the crash next takes refuge by slipping inside an apartment whose tenant is just leaving on a trip (to Canada, we eventually learn, where she will be working on a movie). Then, the film suddenly cuts to a seemingly unrelated scene as two men sit and talk in a booth inside a fast-food restaurant called “Winkie’s”—a type of establishment that is scattered throughout the Los Angeles area[3]. This one happens to be located on Sunset Boulevard. One of the men explains that he has had two dreams about this particular restaurant, in which the other man had featured. In both dreams, they had encountered a horrifying man in back of the restaurant, and the first man has invited the second to meet with him there so he can reassure himself that there is, in fact, no such man out back. Unfortunately, when they go behind the restaurant, a seemingly monstrous man does emerge from behind the dumpster, causing the first man to collapse, clutching his chest as if having a heart attack.

The man behind Winkie’s.

We then cut back to a quick shot of the dark-haired woman, now sleeping in the apartment, followed by an immediate cut to a surreal scene in which a small man in a wheel chair in a strange curtained room is making a mysterious phone call to an unidentified party, whom we see only from behind[4]. It’s a very Lynchian moment, and it is not insignificant that the man in the wheel chair is played by Michael J. Anderson, who had played a similarly enigmatic role as “The Man from Another Place” in Lynch’s classic television series Twin Peaks (1990–1991). At this point, we have no idea what his role in this film will be—and, in fact, his exact role will never be fully explained. All he says at this point is, “The girl is still missing.” The second man, who speaks with an accent (apparently Italian from later events in the film, though he speaks so little at this point that the accent cannot be clearly identified), relays the information to still another mysterious (unseen) personage (who answers on a grimy-looking phone in a seedy location), with the cryptic message, “The same.” That man then hangs up and makes a call of his own, at which point we cut to another location, with a prominent red-shaded lamp, at which the phone is ringing beside an ashtray filled with cigarette butts. Presumably this is the phone that was just called.

No one answers the phone. Instead, we immediately cut to the busy L.A. airport, where the bright-eyed blonde from the opening sequence arrives in Los Angeles, where—we will soon learn—she hopes to pursue a career as a movie actress. She walks arm-in-arm with an elderly woman (eventually identified as “Irene,” played by Jeanne Bates), who is apparently the same older woman we saw with the blonde in the opening sequence of the film. The older man, Irene’s “companion,” as he is called in the closing credits, has also flown in with them. The blonde looks around her in starry-eyed wonder, unable to believe that she is actually in the magical city of Los Angeles. But Betty now seems to have just met the two older people on the flight in, making their presence in the earlier scene enigmatic. The younger woman, we will eventually learn, is Betty Elms, the niece of the woman who has just left the apartment in which the dark-haired woman has taken refuge. Betty has arranged to stay in the apartment in her aunt’s absence, and she takes a cab from the airport to the apartment. The older couple, meanwhile, take a limo from the airport and are seen grinning weirdly in the back seat.

Brief shots of palm trees and of the famous Hollywood sign help to establish the almost mythical nature of the Hollywood setting. Betty herself seems almost a figure from Hollywood myth, the stock character of the ingenue who comes to Hollywood seeking stardom. In fact, she seems a little too much of a stock character. Noting how Watts, herself a brilliant actress, consistently overacts when playing Betty, Denham and Worrell argue that Betty is clearly not to be perceived as a “real’ person:

“There is something very contrived about Betty’s character, as bad fiction is contrived. The viewer knows, and is meant to know, that Watts is play-acting when we watch Betty. We are meant to be aware that everything Betty says is scripted, preordained by an idealized paradigm that lacks the texture, substance, and complexity of real life.” (22).

Betty arrives at her aunt’s classic Los Angeles apartment building, entering its courtyard through an arched gateway in a manner that for her is akin to entering the courtyard of a fairy-tale castle. The manager, Coco Lenoix (played by veteran Hollywood star Ann Miller), shows Betty to the well-appointed apartment, on the way passing a deposit of dog shit that momentary disrupts the fairy-tale atmosphere. Betty is awed by the beautiful apartment, which to her is clearly magical—though her tour of the place is interrupted when she discovers the dark-haired woman naked in the shower.

We’re only twenty-four minutes into this extremely rich film, and most of that time has been spent presenting an impressive collection of mysteries and enigmas. We still don’t know who the dark-haired woman is, for example, but then (as it turns out) neither does she. In fact, the mysteries are just beginning. Needing something to call herself, the dark-haired woman adopts the name “Rita,” after she sees a poster for the classic film noir Gilda (1946), starring Rita Hayworth (whom the woman, in fact, vaguely resembles). The bubbly and loquacious Betty, assuming Rita is a friend of her Aunt Ruth, babbles on about how she has come to town from Deep River, Ontario[5], in the hope of becoming a successful film actress, while Rita, still stunned, looks on almost wordlessly. The two are virtual opposites in terms of both appearance and personality.

Finally, Rita lies down to sleep, while the film suddenly cuts to a helicopter shot of downtown L.A. Then the camera cuts to street level, where we see two sinister-looking men (they will turn out to be gangsters) arriving at a downtown building. The men—Luigi Castigliani (Angelo Badalamenti[6]) and Vincenzo Castigliani (Dan Hedaya)—have come to meet with Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), a film director who is currently casting a new film. The gangsters have come to insist that Kesher cast a young actress by the name of Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George), who rather resembles Betty, in the female lead of the upcoming movie. During the meeting, a quick cut shows that the small man in the wheel chair (whose name is Mr. Roque) is listening in on the meeting from his curtained room. Kesher angrily refuses their casting suggestion, but they are adamant. It would appear that the Castiglianis represent the interests who are financing the film, so they have considerable clout. In any case, those who remember The Godfather (as a director such as Kesher most certainly would) know that it does not behoove filmmakers to resist the casting advice of gangsters. After the meeting, Kesher bashes up the Castiglianis’ limo with a golf club, creating the expectation that he might be in for some hard times ahead. Meanwhile, one of the film’s producers pays a call on Roque and concludes (after a rather enigmatic conversation) that the film needs to be shut down due to Kesher’s refusal to cast Camilla. His deference to Roque suggests that the small man is a godfather-like figure with considerable power.

Mr. Roque.

The film then suddenly cuts to an entirely new context featuring entirely new characters. In Mulholland Drive, almost every scene is a minor masterpiece of its kind, and this one is no exception, but the individual scenes do not necessarily cohere in any conventional fashion. The film rejects the realistic conventions of Hollywood film far more thoroughly and effectively than do most other postmodernist films, while nevertheless relying on its own deviations from realistic conventions to generate energy and interest. In this scene, set in an office building, Joe Messing (named only in the credits), a rather scruffy-looking hitman (played by Mark Pellegrino[7]), laughs it up with another man, who has just told him an apparently humorous story about a car accident. We have to wonder if this is the accident seen at the beginning of the film, but otherwise there is nothing at this point to connect this scene to the rest of the film. Messing has come to collect a “black book” from the other man, who seems willing to hand it over, but Messing nevertheless shoots him, execution-style. In the process of setting up the scene to make the shooting look like a suicide, Messing inadvertently fires a bullet through the wall and into the office next door, where it wounds a rather large cleaning woman. By the time he is through, in order to clean up his mess (he is apparently well-named), Messing has also executed the cleaning woman (though with great difficulty), a janitor, and a vacuum cleaner.

Back at the apartment, Betty chats by phone with Aunt Ruth and is surprised to learn that Ruth doesn’t know anyone named “Rita.” Ruth wants Betty to call the police, but Betty has clearly taken a liking to Rita and does not follow this advice. When Betty then confronts Rita, the latter admits that she doesn’t know her real name or who she is. They check her purse and find that it contains no identification—though it does contain a large amount of cash and an odd triangular blue key. These items, though, only add to the mystery, as Rita has no idea what they signify.

Cut back to Messing, who is now exiting a hot dog restaurant in the company of another man and a blonde (played by Rena Riffel), who vaguely resembles a skanky version of Betty. Messing asks her if there are “any new girls on the street lately,” suggesting that the blonde is a prostitute, while making us wonder if he is looking for Rita. Now we cut again to Betty and Rita, then to Kesher (who is headed for home in his flashy convertible), then back to Betty and Rita, who launch into all-out Nancy Drew mode to try to solve the mystery of Rita’s real identity. “It’ll be just like in the movies,” says Betty. “We’ll pretend to be someone else.” The only clue Rita can retrieve from her memory is “Mulholland Drive,” so they decide to pursue that lead by attempting to find out if there had been an accident on Mulholland Drive the night before. First, though, they hide the money and the key in a hat box.

Betty and Rita start their investigation.

Kesher now arrives at his posh apartment for what will become one of the film’s many comic set pieces. Kesher finds his wife Lorraine (Lori Heuring) in bed with another man, Gene the stereotypical pool man (played by Billy Ray Cyrus, of all people). When Kesher reacts angrily, he gets tossed out of his own house by the much larger and stronger Gene. Beaten, Kesher staggers back to his car and drives away. Later, an immense gangster arrives at the house looking for Kesher. Gene attempts to toss out the gangster as well, but this time meets with very different results.

Adam Kesher discovers his wife in flagrante.

Kesher takes refuge in a cheap hotel (where he seems to be well known), but learns while he is there that someone has cleaned out his bank account and canceled his credit cards. He also learns that the people responsible know where he is, though he has paid in cash. Kesher calls Cynthia, his assistant (played by Katharine Towne), who confirms his financial status and offers, suggestively, to let him stay with her, though he declines. She also relays to him that he is supposed to meet with someone called “The Cowboy” at a corral at the top of Beechwood Canyon. Kesher scoffs at the idea, but agrees to the meeting, which suddenly seems to take the plot in another new direction.

Back at the apartment, Rita and Betty agree to continue their search for Diane Selwyn. Suddenly, a strange woman (played by veteran actress Lee Grant) knocks at the door and announces that she has psychically detected the fact that someone is in trouble. The woman, whose name is “Louise Bonner” seems vaguely reminiscent of the man behind the dumpster at Winkie’s, but only vaguely. When Betty identifies herself (“My name is Betty”), the woman quickly responds, “No, it’s not.” Identities seem to be vague, fluid, and unstable in Mulholland Drive, so by now we wonder if Louise might be right. Coco comes to the rescue, but Betty is clearly shaken by Louise’s warnings, and Rita is even more so.

Kesher drives to his meeting with The Cowboy (played by Monty Montgomery), who seems like a character out of some sort of strange, surreal Western, though the scene in many ways also resembles something out of a horror film. The Cowboy first castigates Kesher for his sarcastic attitude, but then advises him that it will be in his own best interest to follow the instructions of the Castiglianis and agree to cast Camilla Rhodes in his new film—but only after going through a sham process of auditioning many actresses, in order to make it look authentic. The cowboy, reinforcing the oneiric feel of this whole conversation, then leaves Kesher with a parting message: “You will see me one more time if you do good. You will see me two more times if you do bad.” The flickering light over the gate to the corral goes out completely as the Cowboy leaves, while the screen fades to black.

The Cowboy.

The encounter with the Cowboy ends essentially at the midpoint of the film, and it is certainly the strangest moment in the film thus far. Then we get a quick shot of the Hollywood sign again, as if to reset the action, and then we get roughly thirty-five minutes of essentially continuous (and coherent) action, in the most conventional segment of the entire film. Most of this segment relates directly to the Hollywood film industry, beginning back in Aunt Ruth’s apartment, where Rita is helping Betty rehearse for an upcoming audition. Betty herself describes the scene as “lame,” and both Rita and Betty have trouble taking it seriously. Soon afterward, Coco discovers Rita in the apartment, having been tipped off by Aunt Ruth. Betty manages to smooth things over, at least for the time being, then goes back to getting ready for her audition. Then she takes a cab to an unidentified studio, though the studio scenes were shot on the Paramount lot (as were the studio scenes in Sunset Boulevard), perhaps the epitome of the classic Hollywood studio setting. In the audition, she reads for director Bob Brooker (Wayne Grace), performing the scene she had rehearsed, but this time with actor Woody Katz[8] (Chad Everett), who has already been cast in the film for which Betty is auditioning. Brooker begins by giving the actors useless and inane advice, but Betty is nevertheless suddenly transformed into a virtuoso performer, and the banal script magically becomes steamy and powerful. The scene features an older man who has sexually taken advantage of a much younger woman, the daughter of his friend. But Betty’s performance is so powerful that the lines of gendered power are reversed, and the girl seems very much in charge. The condescending (and handsy) Katz, in fact, seems very put off balance by the power of her performance, though Brooker seems oddly unimpressed. Katz and producer Wally Brown (James Karen), a close friend of Aunt Ruth, are very enthusiastic, though Betty is tipped off as she leaves the audition that this film will probably never get made. Instead, she is advised of the auditions that Kesher is currently holding for his movie, and so heads straight there.

The Hollywood sign.

Betty arrives at Kesher’s audition session just as he is auditioning Camilla Rhodes. Betty’s eyes meet with Kesher’s and Hollywood sparks magically fly. It’s a classic Hollywood moment, and we all know what happens next: Kesher falls in love with Betty, then defies the gangsters by casting her instead of Camilla. But that isn’t what happens. Betty suddenly remembers an appointment with Rita and rushes off without ever even meeting Kesher, who, meanwhile, acquiesces and selects Camilla to play the lead in his film. Interestingly (and somewhat surprisingly, given the circumstances), Camilla is quite good in her audition, which consists merely of lip-syncing to Linda Scott’s 1961 recording of “I’ve Told Every Little Star,” an updated version of a show tune by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, which premiered in the 1932 Broadway show Music in the Air.

The first Camilla Rhodes auditions.

I would argue that this lip-sync performance (as will another such performance later in the film) strongly supports my argument that Mulholland Drive should be interpreted as a metafictional work of postmodernism. Camilla is not singing; she is simply simulating singing using a pre-existing performance by someone else. Moreover, she is lip-syncing a recording from the year 1961, on a set that is decorated to simulate the feel of that period, thus producing a pastiche of a performance from that time, which roughly accords with the feel of the film’s opening sequence, as well as the vaguely 1950s feel of so much of the film (and, in fact, of so many of Lynch’s films).

Back at the apartment, Rita and Betty rush off in a cab to check out Diane Selwyn’s apartment, where they eventually discover, to their horror, a dead body—presumably that of Diane Selwyn, though it has begun to decompose and is thus difficult to identify. This discovery causes Rita to conclude that she might be in serious danger, so, with the help of Betty, she dons a short blonde wig as a disguise. “You look like someone else,” remarks Betty, in one of the many cryptic comments in the instability of identity that are sprinkled throughout the film. Apparently bonded by their recent experiences, Betty and Rita end the evening with a passionate bout of lesbian sex. This moment rather comes out of nowhere; it seems like something from a fantasy or a dream more than reality. Or, alternatively, it seems scripted: like something from a movie, possibly a bad one. Betty declares her love for Rita, though Rita does not reciprocate.

That night, as the two new lovers sleep hand in hand, Rita begins to mutter in her sleep in Spanish: “Silencio. No hay banda. No hay orquesta.” (Silence. There is no band. There is no orchestra”). Eventually, she awakens Betty, whom she then asks to “go with me somewhere,” though it is 2 a.m. They then take a cab to Club Silencio, another strange, oneiric setting that announces the end of the long, relatively realistic segment that has come before. Indeed, just as it had seemed that the film was settling into a more conventional form, it takes another sudden right turn into the surreal.

The cab ride along the dark streets seems almost like a trip into the underworld. Inside the club, Betty and Rita seem to enter a sort of strange alternate reality. As they take their seats in an ornate auditorium, a mysterious, possibly demonic, opening act (played by Richard Green) theatrically announces, “No hay banda!” then proceeds to proclaim that “this is all a tape recording … an illusion.” Mixing Spanish, English, and French, he extols the wonders of such recordings, which allow us to hear the sounds of things that are not really present. Presumably, he is referring primarily to the performance we are about to see, but he might equally well be referring to Mulholland Drive as a whole, or even to film as a form, which presents to us in recorded form so many things that are not really present. It could even be a commentary on the image-dominated “society of the spectacle” that constitutes the postmodern world.

The man dramatically concludes his introduction by vanishing in a cloud of smoke, after which the club M.C. steps to the microphone on the red-curtained stage and announces the main act: “La Llorona de Los Angeles, Rebekah del Rio.” Then real-world singer Rebekah del Rio herself steps to the microphone, a tear painted on her cheek to signify her status as “La Llorona.[9]” Del Rio then proceeds to present a moving and powerful a Capello rendition of Roy Orbison’s classic hit “Crying,” though in a Spanish translation[10]. Del Rio’s performance, in fact, is so effective and heartfelt that it sends both Rita and Betty into tears; Del Rio herself faints and falls to the floor in the midst of the performance, seemingly overcome. And yet the performance goes on, revealing that she (like Camilla Rhodes in her audition) had only been lip-syncing. It’s a recording, as we were already warned, but recordings, as it turns out, can still have incredible emotional force, which can be taken as a statement about the power of recorded music but can clearly also be interpreted more broadly to include other forms of recorded culture, particularly film[11].

Rebekah del Rio.

  As Del Rio’s performance ends, Rita takes a blue box out of her purse and looks at it. She and Betty exchange enigmatically knowing looks, then rush back to the apartment. Betty carries the blue box into the bedroom and sets it on the bed. Rita comes in and takes the hat box out of the closet, then realizes that Betty has disappeared. Unable to find Betty and seeming quite shaken, Rita takes out the blue key and uses it to unlock and open the blue box. The camera zooms in on the dark interior of the box, and the box falls to the floor, drawing the attention of Aunt Ruth, who is now unaccountably back in the apartment. The camera begins to move through the apartment, but we are now back in Diane Selwyn’s apartment, as we realize when the camera moves into the bedroom, where that body still lies on the bed. Then, weirdly, the Cowboy steps into the doorway. “Hey, pretty girl,” he says. “Time to wake up.” Then he steps away, the screen fades to black, and someone else knocks on the door of the apartment, which awakens the woman on the bed, still lying in the same position in which we saw the corpse earlier, but now a very much alive Diane Selwyn.

Surprisingly, Diane is played by Watts (though in a very different, more realistic style than the artificially bubbly performance she put in as Betty)! Many observers have concluded that the entire film to this point had been Selwyn’s dream while sleeping, which explains why the film now shifts to a completely different reality in which most of the actors suddenly assume different roles. But one could also argue that the reality shifts simply because Lynch wants it to this shift, this change in direction serving as a self-referential reminder that the film is a fictional work of art and not a representation of reality. Meanwhile, as the cranky neighbor who was knocking on the door comes in to collect some of her things that were left in Diane’s apartment, the camera pauses suggestively on a blue house key that is lying on Diane’s coffee table. The neighbor also informs Diane that two detectives had come by looking for her, which could conceivably refer to Betty and Rita, who had been playing detective, but which probably refers to some actual police detectives.

Suddenly Diane, much to her delight, seems to see Camilla Rhodes in her apartment, except that this Camilla is played by Harring! Then Diane realizes that it was just her imagination. Meanwhile, the disheveled Diane makes coffee in her seedy apartment, both she and the apartment standing in stark contrast to the bright-eyed Betty and Aunt Ruth’s elegant apartment. Suddenly Diane’s coffee morphs into a glass of whisky, while the new Camilla, now partly nude (and immaculately made-up), appears on Diane’s worn couch. Diane, suddenly also partly nude, climbs onto the couch to join Camilla. Reality seems very unstable at this point in the film, which becomes coherent in a conventional sense only if we interpret the following scene as a flashback within this new reality. Camilla and Diane begin what at first appears to be a re-enactment of the earlier lesbian sex scene between Rita and Betty (but between the same two actresses). But then Camilla suddenly pushes Diane away and declares that they “shouldn’t do this any more,” which implies that they had been doing this sort of thing for some time. Eventually, she manages to push Diane away. “It’s him, isn’t it?” Diane asks. “Him” will apparently turn out to be Adam Kesher, though we do not have any indication of that at this point.

Suddenly we cut to a movie set (apparently in another flashback), where a dowdy Diane watches from the wings as Kesher (still played by Theroux) directs a romantic scene involving the new Camilla and a male actor. Kesher steps in for the actor to demonstrate how the scene should be played. As Kesher and Camilla move toward a kiss that is part of the scene, Diane’s eyes clearly tear up in jealousy. Kesher orders the lights to be shut off, as he continues to kiss Camilla in the dark. The screen fades to black. Suddenly there is a cut back to Diane’s apartment, where Camilla is now leaving, apparently in the aftermath of Diane’s failed attempt at seduction. Diane angrily slams the door in Camilla’s face, assuring her that she is not going to make this easy.

Back in the seedy apartment, Diane masturbates joylessly and violently in response to her frustration at Camilla’s rejection of her. Then she is interrupted by the ringing of a telephone, as the camera calls attention to the same red-shaded lamp we saw earlier. We also see the same butt-filled ashtray, making it clear that this is the same phone we saw ringing earlier in the film’s “other” reality, though we don’t know if this is literally the same ring. This time, in fact, it is Camilla calling, to tell Diane that “the car” is waiting for her right outside her apartment to take her to “6980 Mulholland Drive.” This seems to bring us back to that enigmatic limo ride at the beginning of the film, except that now Diane is the passenger in the limo. And this time there is no car crash. Instead, when the limo stops, Camilla appears out of the woods and takes Diane with her on a “short cut” along a “secret path” that takes them to a posh Hollywood party at which Kesher and Camilla will be announcing their engagement (after nuzzling each other through dinner), completing Diane’s humilation.

The lamp and ashtray in Diane’s apartment.
Kesher and the second Camilla Rhodes at their dinner party.

Meanwhile, a number of other characters we met earlier in the film reappear here with shifted identities: “Coco” appears as Kesher’s mother (though she is still named “Coco”), for example, and the first “Camilla Rhodes” reappears as an unnamed guest who shares a kiss with the new “Camilla Rhodes,” while Diane looks on in jealous agony[12]. This motif of displaced identities almost inevitably recalls the experience of Dorothy after she awakes from unconsciousness in The Wizard of Oz (1939), a film that serves as important background to much of Lynch’s work. In that film, the Dorothy awakes to find displaced versions of many of the characters she had encountered in Oz, with the clear implication that Dorothy’s experiences in Oz were actually a dream. This motif, of course, accords well with Freud’s theory of the occurrence of “displacement” in dreams. However, in Mulholland Drive, I would suggest that this connection does not so much reinforce the interpretation of the early part of the film as Selwyn’s dream, as suggest that we look to the world of film (in which The Wizard of Oz is so prominent), rather than the world of dreams, for an explanation.

During talk at dinner, Diane explains that she won a jitterbug contest in Deep River, Ontario, which led her into acting—and eventually into coming to Hollywood seeking stardom after her aunt (who worked in the movies) died and left her some money. There, she met Camilla when they both auditioned for the lead in a film called The Sylvia North Story, which was being directed by Bob Brooker[13].Camilla got the part, but the two became “friends,” and Camilla subsequently helped Diane get some small parts in films. But then, just as Kesher is announcing his engagement with Camilla, the film suddenly cuts again to a new context and we now shift to a completely different setting.

This new setting is Winkie’s again, where Diane sits at a booth with Messing, presumably hiring him to kill Camilla to prevent her marriage to Kesher. They are served by the same waitress we earlier saw as “Diane,” but now she is called “Betty.” After they agree to their deal, Messing shows Diane a blue house key and tells her that she will find that key in a pre-arranged location once the hit has been completed—thus making the presence of the key in Diane’s apartment an apparent indicator that Camilla has now been killed. Then the film suddenly cuts into still another reality, as we shift to that dumpster area behind the restaurant, now weirdly lit, with background music that emphasizes the strangeness. Suddenly we see the horrible man again, though now he is accompanied by a shopping cart, suggesting that he might merely be a homeless person. However, he is holding that blue box from earlier in the film. He drops it into a wrinkled paper bag and tosses the bag on the ground. Suddenly a tiny version of Irene and her companion come waddling jerkily out of the bag, accompanied by weird laughter, followed by a cut back to that blue key on Diane’s coffee table, thus presumably ending the flashback and taking us back to the present time of this final half hour of the film.

The tiny Irene and her companion.

Diane sits in her apartment, while a knocking again comes at the door. This time, however, the tiny Irene and companion crawl in under the door, still accompanied by those laughing noises, which gradually transform into screaming noises. Diane sees the old couple, now returned to full size. Presumably she is hallucinating, overcome by the realization that Camilla has been killed. Diane screams and backs into her bedroom with the old couple, now monstrous, in pursuit. She grabs a pistol from the nightstand and shoots herself in the head. Smoke fills the room, and lightening flashes. Composite shots then show the homeless man, then the innocent young Diane (or Betty), and Betty with Rita, superimposed over a shot of nighttime Los Angeles. Then we are back in Club Silencio, where a blue-haired woman we had seen there earlier steps to the microphone and whispers, “Silencio.” Fade to black, then several seconds of blackness and silence, followed by end credits, accompanied by weird music.

Though it actually began as a pilot for a proposed television series, Mulholland Drive is highly filmic, not only in the way it alludes to a number of specific earlier films, but (as I have pointed out in Postmodern Hollywood)it also

“draws upon numerous classic Hollywood motifs to construct a narrative that situates itself within a number of traditional Hollywood genres (especially film noir and the film about Hollywood) but then explodes the conventions of those genres. Indeed, itdeconstructs the notion of narrative altogether, representing a key example of postmodern fragmentation in the way it is constructed from a series of highly compelling scenes but refuses ever to allow these scenes to come together to tell a coherent story. For three-fourths of its running time, the film seems almost on the verge of making sense, inviting audiences to accompany the characters in their attempts to piece together clues that will help them to make sense of their own lives. Then, however, the film’s detective story plot completely unravels; characters suddenly switch identities, facts and situations established earlier in the narrative suddenly change, and the film veers off into a surreal series of episodes and images that are clearly designed to operate independently of conventional logic and sense-making” (25).

Although Mulholland Drive is often cynical about the film industry and about its tendency to destroy the dreams of innocents who come to Hollywood seeking fame, the film—with its almost loving recreation of various Hollywood stereotypes and its careful attention to artistic detail in the construction of the film’s look and sound—can also be taken as an homage to the aesthetic possibilities of film if it can only break free of the most formulaic of plot and character stereotypes. Indeed, there is a clear element of nostalgia in the film’s look and feel, which continually evoke the 1950s in much the same vague and nonspecific way that earlier Lynch works, such as Blue Velvet and the television series Twin Peaks, had already done. However, this nostalgia is postmodern both in its nonspecificity and in its tendency to concentrate not on the historical memory of the 1950s but on cultural products of the 1950s, such as film noir.

In any case, while Mulholland Drive is a unique work of cinematic art, it does share many characteristics with other works of postmodern film. For example, Hayles and Gessler have compared the flickering realities of Mulholland Drive with roughly contemporary films such as The Thirteenth Floor and Dark City that are directly related to the science fictional concept of virtual reality. In particular, they argue that popular interest in technologies of virtual reality can be seen to influence the structure of Mulholland Drive, even though this film does not literally involve those technologies (497). Ultimately, Hayles and Gessler dispute the simple interpretation of the first two hours of the film as a dream and argue that Mulholland Drive is composed of a matrix of “mixed realities” that “is constructed according to an idiosyncratic but nevertheless coherent semiotic of reality markers that the viewer can learn only by watching the film” (484).

The “dream” interpretation does explain much of the strangeness (and the shifting identities) of Mulholland Drive, though it does leave some puzzles, such as the fact that the Cowboy seems to migrate from the dream world of the film to the film’s “real” world, though any of these lingering fragments might be explained as hallucinations on the part of a Diane Selwyn who is clearly becoming mentally unstable. On the other hand, all elements of the film can be neatly comprehended if one simply views them as the intrusive interventions of Lynch, who thereby declares his control over his creation and his refusal to follow the rules of conventional Hollywood narrative—even as many individual scenes in themselves seem like classic Hollywood moments, even if different scenes seem to come from different genres or time periods. One might then ask why Lynch would make these particular interventions, but Mulholland Drive seems specifically designed to mock efforts at total understanding. It is a film that is probably best left to stand on its own, without demanding a full explanation of its mysteries.


Booker, M. Keith. Postmodern Hollywood: What’s New in Film and Why It Makes Us Feel So Strange. Praeger, 2007.

Cook, Roger F. “Hollywood Narrative and the Play of Fantasy: David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vo. 28, 2011, pp. 369–81.

Denham, A. E., and F. D. Worrell.  “Identity and Agency in Mulholland Drive.” Mulholland Drive. Ed. Zina Giannopoulou. Rutledge, 2013, pp. 8–37.

Ebert, Roger. “Carnival of Souls.” (October 27, 1989). Accessed December 3, 2019.

Hayles, N. Katherine, and Nicholas Gessler. “Unstable Ontologies and Semiotic Markers in The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, and Mulholland Drive.” PMLA, Vol. 119, No. 3, May 2004, pp. 482–99.

Sinnerbrink, Robert. “Silencio: Mulholland Drive as Cinematic Romanticism.” Mulholland Drive. Ed. Zina Giannopoulou. Rutledge, 2013, pp. 75–96.


[1] Robert Sinnerbrink begins his essay on the film with a quick review of some of these interpretive approaches (75–76).

[2] In a 1989 retrospective review of Carnival of Souls, Roger Ebert wrote, “It’s impossible to know whether this movie was seen by such directors as David Lynch or George Romero. But in the way it shows the horror beneath the surface of placid small-town life, it suggests Blue Velvet, and a shot of dead souls at an abandoned amusement park reminded me of the lurching undead in The Night of the Living Dead.

[3] This scene was actually shot at Caesar’s Restaurant in Gardena, California, a Los Angeles suburb.

[4] Indeed, this character is identified in the losing credits as “Back of Head Man.” Even the credits in Mulholland Drive are a bit strange.

[5] Deep River is a small town of just over 4,000 people located about 200 km northwest of Ottawa.

[6] Badalamenti is a distinguished composer who has been the musical director for most of Lynch’s films, including this one.

[7] Pellegrino also plays the thug who pees on the Dude’s rug in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1999), so he seems to have a penchant for lowlife characters.

[8] Everyone calls Katz “Woody” in this scene, though the closing credits, oddly, identify him as “Jimmy Katz.” Then again, Bob Brooker is “Bob Booker” in the credits.

[9] “La Llorona” is a figure from Latin American folklore. This figure, “The Weeping Woman,” is a woman who was abandoned by her husband and left to raise their two children alone, but instead drowned them in river in an emotional response to the abandonment. For a recent dramatization based on this story, see the horror film La Llorona (2019). I believe Hayles and Gessler were the first to point out the relevance of this folktale to Mulholland Drive.

[10] Orbison is an important part of the soundtrack of Lynch’s filmic world. For example, his classic hit “In Dreams” plays a key role in Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986).

[11] Music and film are, of course, not mutually exclusive. Lynch (with the help of Badalamenti) is known for making especially effective use of music in his films. He also often incorporates live performances into his works, perhaps most effectively in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). Of course, once a performance is included in a film, it then becomes a recording, rather than a live performance.

[12] At one point the Cowboy even inexplicably walks through the room, seemingly unnoticed by anyone except Diane.

[13] Brooker is listed in the end credits of the film as “Bob Booker,” which only seems appropriate, given all the other confused identities in the film.