A baffling yet hypnotic puzzle
Through "Mulholland Drive" Director David Lynch returns to his pet theme, `surrender to cinema as one would to a dream,' feels PRADEEP SEBASTIAN.
A seductive masterpiece with a twist...
``WHAT THE hell is `Mulholland Drive' all about?'' is what people have been asking me ever since David Lynch's seductive masterpiece premiered a few weeks ago on STAR Movies. Five of my friends, for instance, watched it together and by the end, each one had a different version of the movie. There's just one thing that they all agreed on that it was hypnotic. For those who haven't yet caught it, I have just two words: "See it". It might baffle but it won't disappoint.
Of all the celebrated `puzzle movies' out there "Memento", "Vanilla Sky", "12 Monkeys", "The Usual Suspects", "Lost Highway", "Death and the Compass" and so on "Mulholland Drive" is perhaps the most satisfying ("Memento" is the most teasing). You can't or shouldn't trust the narrative in a puzzle movie. Because they don't just skewer and shuffle the narrative, they trick you into trusting a narrative that could be... false.
I must warn those who haven't yet seen "Mulholland Drive" not to read on because there are plot spoilers on the way.
Unfortunately, this is the case with all puzzle movies you cannot discuss them without hinting at the solution. To me, the solution is fairly straightforward: three fourths of the movie is the revenge fantasy of a failed, jilted actress. The next which is also the last half-hour of the movie is after the heroine wakes up from her fantasy. Everything we have been seeing up to that point is her fantasy. A dream.
Before I begin looking closely at the puzzle and its solution, let me quickly refresh your memory about what has gone on before our heroine wakes up. Betty (Naomi Watts), a pretty, eager, hopeful young girl arrives in Los Angeles from a small town hoping to make it as an actress.
At the airport, we see her breathless from the excitement of finally being this close to Hollywood. Her aunt, who is vacationing, has allowed Betty the use of her apartment. Entering it , Betty realises that there is already someone in the apartment! She finds a tall, beautiful, nude brunette in the shower. The girl (Laura Elena Harring) says that she wandered in by mistake, that she had an accident and cannot remember who she is. Seeing a movie poster with Rita Hayworth in it, she calls herself Rita. Betty, moved by her plight and excited at the thought of solving the mystery of Rita's true identity, invites Rita to stay with her. And so begins their very strange Alice-like adventure in Hollywood-land.
They meet all kinds of strange and wonderful and frightful characters. Rita seduces Betty. They become lovers. In parallel narratives, we meet other characters: a famous director (Justin Theroux), sinister movie moguls, a mystical Cowboy, a man scared to death by his dreams, a bungling assassin, a strange nightclub called Silencio (where everything is ``a tape recording, an illusion'' another clue) and a mysterious blue box with a key.
Okay, so far, so good. Now comes the tricky part that has you a little baffled. Three fourths into the movie, everything changes in a flash: a girl who looks like Betty wakes up in a dark, dank apartment, leaving us puzzled. The narrative as we know it grinds to a halt, most of the characters disappear and even Betty doesn't seem to be anything like the Betty we knew. And whatever happened to Rita?
From here on we learn, from scenes that slowly unfold (in `real time' and `not dream time') that her name is not Betty but Diane, an actress who has failed and who had been jilted by her lover. This is when we are meant to catch on to the twist that everything that has gone before is Diane's fantasy. In her dream, depressive, loser Diane reinvents herself as happy, lucky, talented Betty. It is Diane reshaping her life. What, in truth, has actually happened? Diane had come to Los Angeles hoping to make it as an actress. She auditioned for different parts but didn't get any.
On one particular audition for a TV part she lost to another actress called Camilla. But she falls in love with Camilla and they become lovers. Camilla, now a star, begins having affairs with several people, including the filmmaker of a movie she is starring in. Feeling used, betrayed and helpless, Diane begins to fantasise (which is the point where we come in, Rita in the car having an accident on Mulholland Drive) that she is Betty having an adventure with Camilla who has now become a helpless, vulnerable amnesiac and calls herself Rita.
Director David Lynch with actresses Laura Elena Harring (Left) and Naomi Watts (right).
When Camilla/Rita announces that she is engaged to Adam, the filmmaker, Betty/Diane, feels devastated, angry, vengeful and hires an assassin to kill her. Guilty and disappointed and frightened by her reality, Diane finally shoots herself.
If you recall, the movie opens with that dance contest sequence, after which a sudden hush falls and the camera in an extreme tight close up glides over what looks like a red blanket and we hear the sound of breathing on the soundtrack. But that's the first clue that we miss: it is Diane curled up under the red blanket, lost in a dream a daydream where she has become Betty.
She makes it (the film) up as she goes along and we, the audience, watch it as though it were all really happening. The dream ends just after the Cowboy appears saying: ``Time to wake up, pretty girl." It takes us a while to figure out what has happened as the girl wakes up and we see that she looks like Betty but... is not Betty (Naomi Watts' amazing schizophrenic performance almost fools you into thinking it is a different actress playing Diane).
The dinner party at the end clinches it all: if you notice carefully, you'll see that most of the mysterious characters who appeared in Betty's life are actually just guests at Camilla's house: Rita is Camilla, Coco is Adam's mother, the sinister mafia movie producer who spits out that espresso is just an unknown, innocuous guest eating at the table and in the background is another guest, walking out the door, who happens to be wearing a Cowboy hat. But of course! That's how fantasies work we use people we barely know and have only glimpsed once and turn them into the characters we want them to be.
At one level, the film's appeal lies in an audience identifying with a heroine who uses fantasy to reinvent herself; to dream up a new life and extinguish her previous one where everything went wrong. Who among us will not fall back on our dreams to cope with reality, to readjust it? Particularly when things (love, work, fame, for instance) don't turn out in the precise fashion we want them to in real life. The details, particulars and texture of each of our fantasies might vary but their function is the same to help us escape oppressive reality.
At another level, Lynch presents us with a heroine who is also movie-mad. Her dreams are manufactured by the ultimate Dream Factory, namely Hollywood. And even if all of us aren't aspiring to be actors or stars like her, there are enough of us throughout the world whose lives are hooked up to cinema. Subconsciously and consciously, our notion of life or what life ought to be or could be and who we want to be, comes from the movies we love and the characters we identify with.
Lynch's genius is that even after we discover Diane made it all up in her head, we realise that for her, Betty was real. Which is why, even when you watch it again (I have seen it five times so far and it won't be the last) you feel sucked into it all over again. Lynch believes it and he makes you believe it. In some ways, Diane's fantasy is also Lynch's fantasy. It is Lynch having fun as a filmmaker: The fantasy provides him a way to return to his pet theme: surrendering to cinema as you would surrender to dreams.
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