It is a sure sign of desperation when a critic praises a film by describing it as a "game with clichés". This usually means that the movie in question, lacking credible characters or an involving story, can only be redeemed if looked at as a smirking, postmodern pastiche of the most facile pieces of the most formulaic genres.
But this description is finally apt for one very special movie: David Lynch's Mulholland Drive is, first and foremost, a game with clichés. From its opening blast of swing music and the moody vistas of Los Angeles at night taken straight from the annals of film noir, to the numerous, elaborate self-references to virtually every previous Lynch work, Mulholland Drive situates itself entirely within the fantasies and artifices of a cinematic universe.
At the premiere screening for critics of Blue Velvet back in 1986, I debated with myself for a full hour about whether to walk out – so irritated was I by its brittle, adolescent humour, reject-shop surrealism and prurient fixation on all things 'dirty'. In the years since I decided to stay to the end of that screening, I have come to appreciate and value Lynch's work immensely, while still wondering at times how evolved or sophisticated his sensibility really is. Lynch, it seems, will always be a sucker for the easy gag, the overwrought thrill and the salacious, sensationalist titbit.
Mulholland Drive may also incite resistance from suspicious viewers as it establishes its extremely odd world. Betty (Naomi Watts) approaches the jungle of LA showbiz as a fresh-faced, impossibly naive and chirpy novice, a little like Doris Day at her cheesiest crossed with the innocent Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz (the 1939 film that Lynch regularly plunders for his personal mythology).
Betty's opposite number in every respect is Rita (Laura Elena Harring), a sultry amnesiac who names herself after spotting a handy poster for Rita Hayworth in the noir classic Gilda (1946). Rita may or may not be the ultimate femme fatale, but she certainly trails with her a mystery that seems to implicate a sleazy, criminal underworld attached to the American film industry.
Lynch usually hides references to the illusion-machine of cinema within metaphoric conceits like the macabre theatrical rituals punctuating The Elephant Man (1980) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). Mulholland Drive offers us Lynch's most intense vision of the theatre – in an extraordinary set piece that appears to come from nowhere – but it also explicitly takes movie production as its prime subject.
Much of the plot is devoted to rehearsals, auditions, shoots and music recordings, not to mention all the shady behind-the-scenes dealings of studio bosses. Lynch deliberately multiplies and scrambles his evocations of diverse historic periods – this is a Hollywood that could be dated anywhere from 1920 to now. Like Kenneth Anger's infamous 1959 book Hollywood Babylon, the film is a sponge soaking up all the scandals, rumours and imaginings that have ever attached themselves to this 'city of dreams'.
While it has become a standard move for reviewers to declare the films of Lynch (like those of Cronenberg and the Coen brothers) dream-like, Mulholland Drive effortlessly confounds and surpasses this tag. It is both about dreams and (to cite the old Roy Orbison song so beloved of Lynch) 'in dreams'. When precisely the specific dream-visions of its characters begin and end, or whether they occur at all, is a matter for every viewer to contemplate – and cannot be broached here for fear of spoiling the best shocks and puzzles awaiting first-time viewers.
Suffice to say that Lynch raids the landscape of dreams especially for the slippages and transformations of personal identity that occur within them. Betty and Rita begin as blank slates, actors willing to adopt any mask or role. Events reveal the secret selves of these characters, forcing them into performing actions they never thought possible. And, as in Lost Highway (1997) – still, for me, his finest achievement – Lynch reserves his artistic right to periodically alter the entire basis of the plot, derailing whatever sense we may have fixed to that point.
Lynch's most enduring tie to pop culture is his attraction to stories of mystery and investigation. When he drops the mystery framework, as in the sublime and underrated The Straight Story (1999), he loses many of his fans. The novelty of Mulholland Drive is the casting of its heroines as the detectives.
Where Lynch has often told the tale of Oedipus through a male hero who investigates the secrets of life and death locked up in the Sphinx of female sexuality, here he pays homage to Pandora, the archetypal tale of women's driven curiosity. There is even a Pandora-like box figuring prominently in the plot – which is simultaneously a homage to the wayward noir masterpiece so central to Lynch's formation, Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
It is easy to tally all the ways in which Mulholland Drive fulfils our expectations of Lynch as a modern-day surrealist into satire, black comedy and, at times, outright horror. There can be no doubt that what Lynch does well – such as creating disquieting images of banal objects, orchestrating a complex polyphony of sound and music, or plotting labyrinthine architectures of streets and homes – he does better than ever here.
More crucial, however, are the surprising, new elements – especially the enormous tenderness with which Lynch treats the growing relationship between Betty and Rita, and the marvellous, rich performances he elicits from Watts and Harring.
Although the depiction of perverse sexuality can still trigger a precipitous fall into a fearful realm in Lynch's imagination, now he is also willing to explore the sensual, poetic, powerfully transformative aspects of this experience. For all its dark, scary elements, Mulholland Drive is a paradoxically exhilarating, uplifting dream.
See also: Outside / Twin Peaks (2015)
© Adrian Martin January 2002