One of my first published bits of film writing came from the 1990 premiere of Wild at Heart at the Edinburgh Film Festival; in a genuine bit of confusion, I was mistaken by another journalist for David Lynch, a mistaken identity that only dawned on us both as the interview developed. Of course, I should probably have just gone on with the inadvertent deception, since doppelgangers, performance art and even soul transference at often at the heart of Lynch’s dream-like, ethereal movies. I also remember being interested enough to import from dubious sources a VHS copy of the European pilot for Twin Peaks, complete with a famously firm, no-nonsense, satisfying ending; Lynch was no stranger to adapting his own ideas to the commercial demands of tv or cinema, not always with happy results.
Yet 2001’s Mulholland Drive was probably the most popular of Lynch’s films with the critics and the public; it’s certainly peak Lynch, with a sinister, noir-ish story, floor-length curtains, intrepid, wholesome investigators, street-monsters hiding amongst the bins, tiny people, blue boxes and all kinds of other familiar, unfamiliar elements. Although certain scenes stood out, and the whacked-out visit to undesirable nite-spot Club Silencio is an all-time show-stopper, I have to admit I didn’t quite understand Mulholland Drive at the time of release, and that’s generally been the party line; we all enjoy going on David Lynch’s bug hunts, even if we don’t expect to catch any bugs. Like 1997’s under-rated Lost Highway, there’s a deliberate narrative mind-f**k going on here, with most of the film turning out to be a dream, and only the last quarter taking place in any kind of identifiable reality. This 20th anniversary restoration from Criterion and Studio Canal, tweaked and re-graded by Lynch, gives us the chance to re-trace our route along Mulholland Drive…
So let’s piece together the facts; Laura Harring plays Rita, or possibly Camille, or maybe Diane; a troubling, troubled woman who walks out of a car crash bleeding, much like Sherilyn Fenn midway through Wild at Heart (Fenn suggests that Mulholland Drive was originally conceived as an Audrey Horne/Twin Peaks spin-off). Rita can’t remember her past, and pairs up with wide-eyed ingénue Betty (Naomi Watts) to find out who she is, was, or might be. Does film-director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) have the answers? He was considering Camille for a role in his next picture, at the behest of Mafia influences, but his refusal to cast her sends him down a rabbit hole of intimidation and veiled threats. Kesher’s mother turns out to be Betty’s land-lady Coco (veteran star Ann Miller), but such revelations are tame compared to the visions of the filthy, dream-peddling creature that lives in the alley behind Winkie’s diner on Sunset Boulevard…
Any questions? Repeated viewings eventually churn out a meaning, but specific meanings are reductive in Lynch’s world; it’s better just to float in the dreamlike world created. It’s clear that Diane, Camille, Betty and Rita are all connected, but how? Is Camille Betty’s dream of herself or vice versa? With plenty of fun details, like the sinister cowboy who you’ll see once again if you’re good, and twice if you’re bad, it makes sense on a primal, emotional level even if the details are wilfully elusive; is it helpful to discover that Kesher’s film producer is also Lynch’s? This new blu-ray package has fresh interviews with Harring and Angelo Badalamenti, but also a number of documentaries which aim to straighten out the plot. Too many blu-rays concentrate on re-hashing primary sources from the film’s production, but at a 20 year distance, Mulholland Drive proves rewarding to explore in this kind of granular, shot-by-shot detail.
Mulholland Drive is clearly the pilot for a Twin Peaks-style tv show, re-nosed and with new material added to make it a self-contained story for cinema. Despite legendary levels of impenetrability, it won Lynch an Oscar nomination, and seems to have functioned as a black mirror in which the audience see whatever they want; a noir thriller, a history of Hollywood, a LGBT drama…it’s creepy, it’s obscure, and it’s well worth a good few watches to try and decode. As with the whole Twin Peaks experience, its more about the journey than the explanation, although the copious extras contained here leave no stone unturned in their quest to nail down the secrets of Mulholland Drive.
Thanks to Studio Canal and Criterion for blu-ray access to the restored Mulholland Drive.
Mulholland Drive is out now (Dec 6th 2021) in a 4K blu-ray restoration in the UK as part of the Cannes Classic Collection.
Above artwork by Krzysztof Domaradzki. Click on the picture below. The owls are not what they seem.