Mulholland Drive (2001)

by Afra Nariman

Mulholland Drive (2001)

Director: David Lynch

Stars: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux, Robert Forester


Dreams are clearly constructed of moments from our reality; so why shouldn’t we view reality as at least partially constructed of dreams? 

The word “dreams” is representative of and can be understood as both our hopes for the future, and our reconstruction of past details from our memories (the dreams sleep is made of) — both of which exist within the fine line between reality and illusion. 

Few films are open to as much interpretation, not only in their totality, but also from scene to scene, as Mulholland Drive. It’s spiritual ancestor, Persona, is also such a film. In the case of Mulholland Drive, which has countless layers to it, I think any reading of it involves a combination of interpretations of multiple layers of the film, many of which are bound to intersect. In this sense, I do not think Mulholland Drive can be reduced to be saying any one thing, or telling any one story. At least for me, it is necessary to engage with this film on its multiple levels, because that is what it demands of its viewer — to engage with it on levels of its reality (the overall story which is revealed in its purest form in the final act), of its dream-world (which takes up the majority of the runtime), and of its philosophically metaphorical and abstract commentary on the ‘self’ and the effects that having ambition and hopes for success in the future have on the individual, heightened in the city where dreams are made and supposedly fulfilled: Los Angeles — Hollywood. 

By interpreting the relationship between the first near-two hours of the film (Diane’s dream world) and the final act (reality), we realize the reasoning for why Diane’s dream world was constructed as it was. In reality, Diane (Naomi Watts) is a failed actress. Just as her dream-self, she once moved to Hollywood with hopes and dreams of fame and success, but she — like most — didn’t make it the way she had envisioned. In Los Angeles, the city is overpopulated with people like Diane — perhaps such as the young waitress named Betty, who serves Diane’s table when she is ordering the hit near the end of the film during the reality segment. While it’s never confirmed, it’s very much possible that this waitress is another young hopeful who moved to Hollywood in search of finding fame as an actress. At least that is what seems to go through Diane’s mind when she sees her. It is her name, Betty, after all that Dianne’s dream-self goes by — a dreamed up version of herself who still has all her hopes and dreams, and a plausible future to smile about ahead of her. 

While in her dream-world, Diane creates herself as Betty, a version of herself where she recovers her lost youth, once again being able to be ambitious and hopeful — reminiscent of a time before her dreams of success as an actress were shattered. She also creates a version of Camilla (Laura Harring) to make up for what else she lost; Camilla’s love. In the dream-world, Camilla is essentially nameless, other than the name she gave herself, Rita, after Rita Hayworth, whose name she spots on a poster for Gilda (1946). In their reality Camilla has moved on from Diane, leaving her to feel forgotten and betrayed; but in this dream-world, Diane/Betty flips it — Camilla’s Rita is wholly reliant on Diane’s Betty. Diane once again feels needed, and eventually loved. In simplified terms, the relationship between the film’s presentation of reality and that of its dream sequence is one where Diane is able to return to a time where her hopes hadn’t been shattered, where she didn’t feel alone, and when the future once again looked bright.

Although also left up to interpretation, it seems to me that the film interrogates the effects of having too much ambition and limitless hope in a harsh world that not only doesn’t cater to that way of being, but takes advantage of it. It interrogates this predicament not necessarily as an inditement on the individual, but to comment on the fact that not everyone will reach their goals, and to offer the wisdom that fame is essentially overrated, as is Hollywood and it’s dangerously misleading reputation as the city where dreams are made. More than anything, the film interrogates the world we live in, specifically using Hollywood as a heightened example, where systems are put in place that gradually strip us of our souls and our sense of self. This is a commentary on the toxic nature of the Hollywood system, but can also be extended to a larger understanding of today’s world in general. The future, and our limitlessly hopeful plans for it, are what will haunt us. 

In the film this is personified by the elderly couple, who represent the future — both in their physical form (as old people), and through their roles in the film. We first see them when Diane/Betty arrives in Los Angeles. After telling the elderly couple all about her big plans and dreams to become a famous actress, we see the elderly couple hauntingly laughing and snickering once she leaves, presumably knowing Diane/Betty’s fate. Then near the end they push her into intentionally ending her own life after everything had fallen apart for her. It’s important to note that the relationship between the two aforementioned scenes involving the elderly couple crosses boundaries between the dream sequence and the reality sequence. The first scene is of the film’s dream portion, and the other from the reality portion. Of course, there’s a reasonable explanation that because they were the last faces Diane ever saw in reality, they would simply and logically be faces she assigned to the elderly couple in her dream; but the scene in which the elderly couple is laughing feels uniquely separate from the rest of the dream sequence. It’s as if we are witnessing the singular moment of the dream sequence that isn’t constructed by Diane’s subconscious. Being that when the elderly couple enter reality, they do so in a supernatural way; I would say it’s reasonable to believe that they are somewhat of a “pink elephant,” consciously a part of both segments of the film, and intentionally used by Lynch in ways that hint at the interconnectedness of the dream world with that of reality, and the lack of real control we have over either. After all, in what is considered the dream sequence they appear in a normal fashion, as a regular elderly couple; but in the reality sequence they appear as demons in a rather magical way — which again, I see as an indication of the crossing over between reality and dreams and how Lynch believes these two forms of life feed into and inform one another. They coexist. This integration between dreams and reality — and the fact that in my interpretation, details between the two sequences can be correlated, even directly connected, or at the very least combining to comment on any one particular thing — also makes it possible to interpret the film at a more abstract, philosophical and symbolic level: it’s commentary on the ‘self.’

Being that Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is famously an influence on Mulholland Drive, there is naturally also an examination of the self in this film — albeit a difference one than what we see in Persona. Just as the film’s commentary on ambition and the future can be interpreted through reading the dream and reality sequences together — as I did with the role of the elderly couple — so can be done with the two lead characters of the film: Diane/Betty and Camilla/Rita. In reality, both women likely came to Hollywood seeking similar things — fame, fortune, success, notoriety, etc. — but both didn’t reach all of their goals. Diane didn’t quite make it as the famous actress, or “movie star” that she hoped she’d become, while Camilla evidently did achieve her goals. She is a huge star, presumably considered a great actress who is working with, and also falling in love with, one of Hollywood’s most successful directors. They are representative of two possible outcomes to what happens when one has lots of ambition and limitless hope for future success in a world that promises that its possible (Hollywood). The film offers a glimpse into the consequences of both outcomes, of those who ‘make it’ and those who don’t. Both types, it seems, are doomed. 

For Diane her consequence is realized in the reality segment and reflected in how she constructs her dream. For Camilla it’s represented by how she’s portrayed in Diane’s dream, but if you take Lynch by his word, it’s important how and why she’s presented the way she is. Lynch dedicated almost 2 hours of the film to what happens in the dream sequence, so what happens must matter, and much of what the film says must lie within these two hours. Sure, Camilla’s Rita is only a construction of Diane’s subconscious, and it’s notable that she is reliant on Diane’s Betty and that in itself is a point being made; but for the sake of this conversation regarding the film’s examination of the ‘self,’ it is also notable that Camilla’s Rita has forgotten who she is, she’s lost her sense of self, her purpose, her direction, her identity. For what it’s worth, this is also somewhat showcased in the reality sequence in that she gets caught up in the glitz and glamor of Hollywood. Success has changed her. In Diane’s eyes, in reality Camilla has also forgotten who she is. Both Diane and Camilla end up dead in reality, so the film seems to be saying that no matter what happens on your search for fame and success, especially in the city where dreams are supposedly made and lived, the future is kind to no one and you’ll lose yourself, both physically and spiritually, along the way. The city of Los Angeles is less-so the city of dreams for Lynch, than it is the city where dreams overcome you, change you, and eventually kill you. 

In a similar light to that last point, the film also offers commentary on the artistic process, specifically Hollywood. There’s a few scenes that speak to this criticism, none with more to say in my eyes than the “no-band” performance at the Club Silencio. One of the concepts discussed in this scene is the idea of illusions, and how easily we fall for them. The performers and musicians are only faces, vehicles to connect with the audience, but everything heard is prerecorded — the musicians aren’t really playing any instruments and the singers are merely moving their lips without making a sound. Nevertheless, their performances bring the audience to tears. Lynch is likening the relationship between the club’s performers and their audience, to Hollywood and its audience (us). Hollywood offers us the illusion of artistic prowess, but really they are only going through the motions to give us an image of what they think will connect with us. At the same time, we are moved by those products given to us by the very people who simply go through the motions, offering us illusions rather than anything tangibly real, or what could be considered genuine artistic expression. There is no originality, honesty, or spontaneity (risk-taking) in Hollywood; only phonies. Movies are illusions that move us as much or more than anything that’s considered real. In this, Lynch explores the relationship between cinema and truth, pointing at the manipulating nature of cinema — exemplified by the fact that Lynch makes the first 2 hours of a 2.5 hour film a dream sequence.

Of course this scene itself has various possible interpretations, and this is only a single takeaway of mine from it. As is true for almost every scene of the film, each scene is layered to the point of offering us multiple ways of interpreting them; and unique to this film, these various interpretations don’t necessarily contradict each other and can exist and be true, or real simultaneously — just as our dreams and reality can according to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.


Rating: 5 out of 5.

View this Review on Letterboxd:

Like and Follow on Letterboxd to see my other reviews, and for new ones regularly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s