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Saturday, March 16, 2013

21st Century Essentials: Mulholland Drive (2001)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: David Lynch
Starring: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux
Country: USA/France

Twelve years on, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, has its own established mythology: the failed TV pilot resurrected with an assist from StudioCanal, the audition scene that made Naomi Watts a star, the battling “realities” of the plot and double performances of the cast. It’s a dazzling film about love and the dream of Hollywood stardom, by turns nightmarish and seductive, but wholly engrossing and endlessly captivating, the kind of film which reveals new layers and meanings with every viewing*.

It begins with a car accident on Mulholland Drive and the arrival of a girl from Deep River, Ontario with dreams of Hollywood stardom. That girl, Betty (Naomi Watts), and the amnesiac from the car accident, who calls herself Rita (Laura Harring), cross paths and work together to unravel the mystery that has led Rita to Betty’s doorstep with a purse full of cash and a blue key. Running parallel to their story is that of Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), a film director whose latest project has been hijacked by mysterious men who hand him a woman’s headshot and insist that “this is the girl” – the one who will be the star of his film. Betty is the one he really wants, but instead of getting the film, she gets Rita, and then...

For all its emphasis on Betty and her almost unshakeably sunny disposition, Mulholland Drive is ultimately a film about disenchantment and the falseness of Hollywood reality, where ugliness lurks beneath every beautiful, glossy surface. Pretense and illusion mark every corner of the narrative: Adam must pretend to want to cast Camilla Rhodes as the star in his film, Rita is inspired to take her name from a poster for Gilda, Rebekah del Rio pretends to sing at Silencio, Diane Selwyn (Watts, again, in the second half of her amazing double performance) is given a blue key by a hitman who laughs when she asks what it opens. Like everything else in Hollywood, it’s just an empty symbol made to seem, through smoke and mirrors (both of which feature prominently throughout the film), to be more than it is.

Mulholland Drive is a marriage of two stories, two tones, two styles. The first, happier story, in which Betty comes to Hollywood, finds her fantasy of stardom undercut not by lack of talent, but by forces beyond her control, plays hero to and finds love with Rita, is almost certainly a dream. The second story is the grimy reality in which Diane begins to lose her mind as a result of a failed acting career and her betrayal by her lover, Camilla Rhodes. What’s interesting about the narrative is that the dream section is linear and (relatively) straight-forward, while the reality section is full of jarring cuts, filtered through Diane’s increasingly fractured and frenzied psyche. It’s one of many elements that make this an absolutely fascinating masterwork that must be seen – and then seen again and again.

* What I noticed this time: Betty’s aunt leaves a note for her which reads, “Enjoy yourself, Betty” and is pinned to a robe. The note is unpinned and read after Betty covers Rita with the robe so that, essentially, Betty is being invited to enjoy Rita.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. I love your blog--21st century essentials is a great idea, and you're including the perfect films for it. It's useful for those like me who are catching up on all they missed during the last decade.

Norma Desmond said...

Thanks - hope you continue to enjoy!

The Taxi Driver said...

Interesting observation about the robe and the note. I linked to this. Just thought you'd like to know: http://mikesyoutalkingtome.blogspot.ca/2013/03/weekend-reading.html

Norma Desmond said...

Thanks for the shout out! Much appreciated.