In many ways the best articulation of Lynch’s pet themes and ideas, even down to its strange and troubled production history. It was originally meant to be a TV pilot for a spin-off from Twin Peaks, though this concept was scrapped before production. When the pilot (which forms around two thirds, if not a tad more, of the final product) was shown to television executives, they declined to pick it up. In an inversion of the Twin Peaks pilot (which was produced as a feature film out of doubt it would be picked up, then cut and edited to function as TV pilot when the series was picked up), the show that was filmed purely as TV pilot and seemed very likely to be picked up was not, and Lynch decided to turn it into a film by adding another act to the film some of the best material in its own right and also repositioning the first two acts so as to become more powerful as part of the greater picture.
(Spoilers for the film follow.)
Taken by themselves, the individual scenes are fantastic experiences, from the extremely well-executed horror of the diner scene, to the comedy of the hitman scene, to the heartbreaking masturbation scene, they’re all great cinematic experiences in and of themselves. And, as with any Lynch work, the films works excellently purely as a visceral experience, an exercise in mood and atmosphere. It’s so easy to get absorbed into the heightened realities Lynch creates. Some people criticise the film as falling into the “it was all a dream!” cliche, but dreams are exactly what Lynch deals in. Cinema, to Lynch, is dreams projected up on a big screen for everyone to see. The dream cliche is only inappropriate when it invalidates audience investment into past events, not when it simply reframes and recontextualises them as part of a bigger picture, as Mulholland Drive does.
My reading of the film – which seems to be by far the prevailing reading, but it’s a Lynch film and I’m sure there are many other fascinating readings too – is that the third act of the film (everything after Rita opens the box) is the “actual” reality of the film, and the first two acts are dreams reflecting Diane’s psychological state. The film does begin, after the dance section, with a pan-down to a bed, further and further, until we enter a very movie-like car scene ending in two extremely over-the-top movie cops analysing the situation terribly. Sleep, then dreams.
Scenes like the hitman comically displaying extreme incompetence translate to Diane hoping he didn’t actually have the skill to kill Camilla, the policemen’s dialogue (more like film cop dialogue than real cop dialogue, because how would Diane know what cops really speak like) showing their incompetence translating to her trying to convince herself the cops aren’t skilled enough to trace the hit back to her, her status as the beautiful and skilled Betty adored by Rita translating to Diane’s insecurity and wish that Camilla fawned over her – these are all manifestations of Diane’s subconscious. It’s perfectly Lynch; a character using dreams and thus telling us a story – cinema itself! The film is essentially a simple story of love, betrayal, and depression, but told in an incredibly unique, surreal way through cinema. Where “Lost Highway” told a story through a somewhat similar conceit, “Mulholland Drive” uses the conceit itself as the story, and as greater commentary on the medium itself. The greatness of the story isn’t the surprise that most of the film is a product of Diane’s subconscious, it’s how the film makes the case for film itself as a medium through which we filter our souls, our lives, our emotions, our experiences. It’s a validation of the medium. It’s film selling film.
I love when stories are told unconventionally in some way that has thematic resonance with the story itself. Films like this are right up my alley; I find them intoxicating in how they subsume the viewer into an alternate, heightened reality.
I give it five keys, and a blue box.