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Thursday, May 22, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Mulholland Drive (2001)

Director: David Lynch
Starring: Naomi Watts, Lara Elena Harring, Justin Theroux

Mulholland Drive is David Lynch’s mind-bending masterwork about disenchantment with both love and the dream of Hollywood stardom, which are presented here as inseparable. It’s the sort of film you have to see more than once – first simply as an experience that washes over you and leaves you dazed, and then again to attempt to put the pieces together. This isn’t a film that can ever be fully “explained,” but that doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s part of its genius.

The film opens with someone lying down in bed – we don’t know who because it’s from their point of view, but the fact of this shot jibes with the most prevalent theory about the film, that two thirds are Diane’s (Naomi Watts) dream, the other third her reality, and makes it almost certain that the person lying down is Diane. In the dream, a car accident takes place, foiling an attempted murder and leaving Rita (Laura Elena Harring) stumbling around with amnesia. She wanders into the apartment of an actress who is on her way out of town, and makes herself comfortable, not counting on the fact that the woman’s niece, Betty (Watts) will be showing up to look after the place. Betty and Rita set about trying to find out who she is, her identity connected in some way to the money in her purse, a mysterious blue key and a woman named Diane Selwyn. It is also connected somehow to a man named Mr. Roque and a lowlife whose ineptitude when it comes to killing people has darkly hilarious results. In their quest for the truth, Betty and Rita fall in love and then go to the club Silencio where they seem to have some kind of supernatural experience and find a blue box into which Rita’s key will fit. However, once the box is opened, Rita and Betty cease to exist.

Running parallel to this story is another, this one involving a director named Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux). Adam is coerced into casting an actress named Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) in his film. “This is the girl,” the Castigliane brothers inform him in what is the film’s most sinister line reading… until we meet the Cowboy (Monty Montgomery), who proceeds to terrify Adam with his polite soft-spokenness and his promise to Adam: “You will see me one more time, if you do good. You will see me two more times, if you do bad.”

Following the opening of the box, we’re thrust into (actually sucked into) the “reality” part of the story where we finally meet Diane Selwyn (Watts), a downtrodden woman who has failed both as an actress and in her romance with a movie star named Camilla Rhodes (Harring) who is engaged to… Adam Kesher. Many elements from the first part of the story reappear in different forms in the second. At a dinner party Diane talks about meeting Camilla when they both auditioned for the same role – the name of this film is the same as the film we see Betty auditioning for earlier. There is also a connection through Adam and his film. In the dream, Betty shows up on set, locks eyes with Adam but ultimately has to leave, which is just as well since Adam must cast Camilla. In reality, Adam casts Camilla and Diane gets a smaller role, where she looks on as Camilla and Adam fall in love. And, of course, there’s the fact of Diane hiring someone to kill Camilla and being given a blue key.

Much of the film’s emphasis is on the falseness of Hollywood reality, where the beautiful, glossy surface hides a darker truth underneath. Adam must pretend to want to cast Camilla, that she’s “the girl;” Rita adopts her name after seeing a poster for Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth; at the club Silencio, Rebekah del Rio pretends to sing and collapses on stage while the song carries on without her (“There is no band. It is an illusion,” the M.C. tells us). When Diane is given the key by the hitman, she asks what it opens. He laughs because it doesn’t open anything. They key is just another empty symbol, a pretence to add to the layers of falseness and illusion that are weighing Diane down and driving her towards madness.

What’s fascinating about this film is the way that the dream section is linear and relatively straight-forward, while the reality is jarring and harder to follow, as it’s filtered through Diane’s increasingly fractured psyche. It jumps forward and back and there’s no way to be certain that what’s happening is “really” happening or just a delusion on Diane’s part as she attempts to cope with the way that she’s been used and discarded by the woman that she loves. Words can’t even begin to describe how amazing Naomi Watts is in this film, playing the dual role of sunny heroine Betty and sullen revenger Diane. It’s difficult to believe at first glance that the two roles as being played by the same actress, she immerses herself so completely into the opposing personas of both. Harring is also good playing two roles that are equally tricky – but deceptively simple looking – as blank-slate Rita and vampy climber Camilla. Together the two have excellent chemistry – romantic in the first sequence, and adversarial/sadomasochistic in the second.

Mulholland Drive is a movie you’ll find yourself thinking about long after having seen it. You’ll want to get to the bottom of it – although the idea that you can is, itself, one of the illusions produced by the film. It was designed so that not all the pieces fit together, creating a maddening, thrilling experience.


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