Mulholland Drive—Above the Lights of L.A.
by Michael Maciel
David Lynch is exhausting. I have never worked so hard to decipher a work of art as I have with Mulholland Drive. I’m not a movie critic, and I’m not well-acquainted with Lynch’s movies (Mulholland Drive is my first) but I feel that I’ve caught him at his best.
It’s impossible to discuss Mulholland Drive without telling how it ends. But this is not really the right way to put it, because this movie does not stand still for time. The beginning and end blur together, the same way that the lead actors do; characters shift in and out of roles; landscape and mindscape are indistinguishable throughout most of the movie. If this were a book, no single chapter would make sense unless you had already read every other chapter. And to make matters even more difficult, the chapters are not presented in order. Nevertheless, Mulholland Drive is an extraordinary film—first, second, and third time around.
Since you’ve already seen it (if you haven’t, stop reading now and watch it), I would like to begin by proposing the “actual” timeline as I see it:
Diane Selwyn, a naïve nobody from Nowhere, Ontario, wins a small-town jitterbug contest and heads off for Hollywood to put her name in lights. During her flight, she waxes on about her dreams of becoming a star to a jaded old couple who tell her that she is a fool, and that she will disappear (like her mother did) into obscurity. After she lands at LAX, someone steals her luggage while she is waiting for a cab, setting the tone for the string of failures that lie ahead. As the old couple drive away from the airport in their posh limousine, they laugh hilariously (the woman slaps her husband’s thigh several times – a real “knee-slapper”) at the pie-in-the-sky hopes of young (and stupid) would-be actresses like Diane who have no idea that they are nothing more than grist for the mill of the Dream Machine.
Diane meets another actress, Camilla Rhoades, at an audition for the lead role in a Spanish-theme movie. The director, “Bob”, doesn’t think much of Diane and gives the role to Camilla. Diane and Camilla nonetheless become friends, and Camilla helps Diane get parts in subsequent movies.
Camilla, a Rita Hayworth type with the face and figure of a Hollywood goddess, receives favors from an underworld figure who likes to play at being a movie director. She in turn carelessly uses people when she sees something she wants, and one of the things she wants is Diane. She seduces Diane into a lesbian relationship, and Diane falls in love with her. In effect, Diane becomes the pet of a pet.
Diane thinks she has found true love, but for Camilla it is nothing more than a romp. Camilla dumps Diane so that she can marry director Kesher, whom she will spy on for her hoodlum benefactor. Diane won’t let go of the relationship, however, so Camilla sets her up for a rude awakening. She invites Diane to a dinner party at Kesher’s home on Mulholland Drive, where she plans to announce her engagement and to humiliate Diane in front of her rich friends. She flaunts her “affection” for the director in front of Diane, and even goes so far as to openly flirt with another woman.
Diane Selwyn, crushed and enraged by the betrayal, hires a hit man to kill Camilla Rhoades. The hit man has a curious trademark, a blue key, which he leaves in a conspicuous place so that the person who hires him will know that the deed has been done. The key is overly dramatic, befitting a two-bit killer working in Hollywood. He fancies himself as the leading man in his own imaginary movie, but he’s really a buffoon who, when we first meet him, bungles a murder by unintentionally shooting a second victim sitting on the other side of an adjacent wall.
Diane also, like the hit man, thinks that the murder she is paying for is “make-believe.” After Camilla is dead, Diane is shocked into the reality of what she has wrought. She locks herself in her apartment, where she is tormented by her love for Camilla and by the cruel prophesies of the old couple on the plane. In the height of her anguish, and while police detectives are banging on her apartment door, Diane shoots herself in the head and dies.
Thus endeth the physical part of the story.
Now for the metaphysical. Mulholland Drive the movie (which bears little or no resemblance to the timeline I have just described) is told from the standpoint of Diane Selwyn and Camilla Rhodes after they have died. In an afterlife bardo of confusion and self-justification, the two of them play out self-created roles in an attempt to sort out and perhaps rectify the tragedy they have jointly created.
Whereas it was Camilla who was the dominant one in life, it is Diane who takes control in the hereafter, recasting and re-scripting their story as she would have had it unfold. She is the talented one who wows the studio execs at the audition and gets the lead role. She is the strong one who helps and shelters Camilla. In life, Camilla was so separated from the promptings of her own heart that in the afterlife she cannot remember who she is. Though she is Earth-smart, she is nearly helpless in her current surroundings, relying on the imaginative Diane to construct the plot wherein she can retrace the steps to her lost soul.
Together, Diane and Camilla work their way to the end, where they experience the dregs of their tortuous sorrow, only to have the unreality of their fears and their pain exposed at Club Silencio, a kind of night club for the dead. The key to their escape from the astral plane, that place between heaven and earth where earthbound souls wander in their passions and confusion, is their recognition of the love they hold for each other. By unraveling their karmic entanglements, they will eventually set each other free from the guilt and shame of their perpetrations upon each other.
The key to the afterlife scenario that I have described comes at the end of the film when “Aunt Ruth” thinks she hears a sound from the bedroom when Rita drops the blue box. Aunt Ruth is in the physical world; Rita is one step above it. Had all of this taken place in someone’s imagination, the writer would not have depicted it this way. Aunt Ruth also could not see Rita hiding under the kitchen table, a table that was way too small to conceal an adult woman. Neither did she see Rita running into the courtyard. If you watch closely, Aunt Ruth turns to look as she is getting into the taxicab, but the expression on her face tells us that she does not see Rita running. These scenes establish that the action is taking place on two different levels—real action on real levels, but only slightly brushing up against each other.
Another scene that reinforces this is when Betty and Rita go to Diane Selwyn’s apartment. Trying to avoid the detectives who are on stakeout in front of the complex, they sneak around to the back where from hiding they see a man escort a woman carrying a travel bag to a waiting car. The woman has blonde hair and is actually Diane Selwyn being escorted out of this world. “Betty” is able to observe this because, since she is in the bardo state, unconscious of this part of her soul identity.
The detectives, both in this scene and in the “accident” scene, are not detectives at all, but are agents (angels if you will) assigned to guide the newly dead through the astral plane. This is obvious when you consider that the accident did not actually take place, but was Rita’s metaphor for the kar(car)mic collision she had with Diane. The real-time incident with the limo on Mulholland Drive was the “surprise” staged by Camilla to sneak Diane in through the back door at Kesher’s dinner party, the incident which precipitated Camilla’s murder.
When Betty knocks on the door of the woman who traded apartments with Diane, there is no answer. Betty says, “There’s no one home,” which there isn’t, because Rita’s fear is overriding Betty’s plot line. Then Betty reaffirms her dominance in the bardo state by overriding Rita, having the woman appear at the door. This scene is strong evidence that both Diane and Camilla are experiencing the bardo state together, with Diane in the lead. We view the woman in two different modes: one as she is “constructed” by Betty in the bardo state, and the other in real-time as she heads toward Diane’s apartment after we are led to believe that she just had a conversation with Betty and Rita. In “reality”, she has had no such conversation. She is on her way to collect her stuff from Diane when she thinks she hears something, perhaps the gunshot from inside Diane’s apartment. The key to this is the way she is “called away” from her encounter with Betty and Rita by a ringing telephone. Both the woman and the phone are elements in Diane’s reconstruction of the events.
Throughout the film, telephones are used to link different states of consciousness, much the same way that they sometimes do in dreams. They are disembodied communication devices. In the opening scenes, there are at least five different telephones emphasized by the camera, the last one being Diane’s, the reverberating ring of which takes us from one reality to the other.
After Betty’s gloriously reconstructed audition, she goes to Kesher’s studio and watches the audition for the 60’s movie, a blend of the the jitterbug contest that she won in her hometown and the actual audition for the Spanish movie, which Camilla got through her underworld connection (“this is the girl”). Her apparent contact with Kesher (they appear to mysteriously stare at each other) is one-sided. Kesher does not see Betty. The look on his face is the same as Aunt Ruth’s when she thought she heard footsteps running into the courtyard. It is at this point that Diane comes dangerously close to losing control of her construct in the bardo state, evidenced by the look of fear on her face. She leaves the studio and runs back to Rita.
The Winkie’s coffee shop acts like a way station between the two worlds. It has a front and a back door, emphasized twice by the camera focusing on the “entrance thataway” sign taped on the glass. In both shots, the characters are headed in the opposite direction. This is also where the telephone is located, halfway between the two doors.
Several interesting things happen at Winkie’s. When the hit man asks the prostitute if she has seen any “new girls” on the street, girls with dark hair, we find out that Camilla is a hooker, or more specifically, a call girl (this is her connection with the mysterious movie producer). The young man talking about his dream at the beginning of the movie is also in a bardo state, probably constructing the man he is talking to, someone important in his life and probably the reason he committed suicide. As he leaves the table, the camera shows us that his plate of food is completely untouched, indicating that he is not actually there. The names Diane and Betty are from waitress nametags at the coffee shop, indicating that this is where Diane worked and where she probably first met Camilla. In her bardo construct, Betty takes Rita to Winkie’s because this is “their place”. She also meets with the hit man here to get back at Camilla in a symbolic as well as in a literal way.
Both Diane and Camilla reinvent themselves in the bardo state as innocent people. Diane is the cheerful and helpful Betty. Camilla is the lost femme fatale. The way out for them is to uncover the truth about themselves, their actions, and their ambitions. Only then will they be able to move on. This is why the “angel/detectives” appear as cops to Diane and Camilla, because they represent the threat of having their construct “busted”, revealed for what it is, forcing them to face up to their sins. They avoid the detectives while Betty leads Rita to the scene of Diane’s suicide. Watch the way Betty keeps Rita from looking away from the body, and observe the look on Betty’s face. It is a look of total compassion, compassion so pure that it is entirely devoid of pity. Betty is telling Rita, “This is how much I loved you, and this is the recompense for the sin of having you murdered.” More than a mere justification for her actions, Betty is bringing Rita one step closer to remembering who she is by helping her to own up to her role in the tragedy. Neither of them can be free until this happens, because they are so inextricably intertwined in their karma. As Rita comes closer to realizing the truth, she takes control of the construct and leads Betty to the next phase of their soul journey.
Karmic ties need the element of drama to keep themselves intact. The ego thrives on drama, and is therefore the perpetuator of karma. We add intense personalness to the drama of our lives. We take a basic storyline and color it with vivid and vibrant hues. The more intense, the more gravitational pull it exerts upon our soul. The meaning we apply lends weight to our story and substance to the chimeric self. Expose the drama as a drama and the self is forced to let go of its heavy fiction. Show the ego that the drama of life is an illusion, and it has to look up to a greater reality. This is what Rita and Betty experience at Club Silencio. When the singer collapses in the middle of her rendition of “Crying”, they are stunned into awareness and march as one back to the apartment to open the blue box. Betty disappears before Rita inserts the key, because this is the end of Betty’s part of the construct. Rita is left alone to face her fear—to pass through the mystery into the light. In the end, we see them as they truly are—happy and free, floating joyfully above the lights of L.A.
David Lynch movies are so complicated. Fascinating.
Great analysis of this movie. I’ve seen it at least three times. Personally, I always thought that the whole first part of the movie was Diane’s fantasy of her life in Hollywood the way she wished it would have been, taking place in the moments after she shot herself before she actually died. However, I like your interpretation:
“In an afterlife bardo of confusion and self-justification, the two of them play out self-created roles in an attempt to sort out and perhaps rectify the tragedy they have jointly created.”
I haven’t seen the movie in several years; I think it’s time for another viewing.
Well – WOW! Just wow! That’s a LOT to think about! Your analysis certainly helps.