Come on, it will be just like in the movies. We'll pretend to be someone else.Where Bergman makes it impossible in Persona to clearly distinguish between dream and reality, to come to an informed decision about what the story of the film is, Lynch only seems to do the same in Mulholland Dr. Perhaps, after seeing the film for the first time, a viewer might be confused and wonder for a moment, but there are several keys that provide a basis for a coherent interpretation. The more interesting question is what the implications about the characters are if we assume that the first half of the narrative is merely the dream of a guilt-ridden woman who had her lover killed.
The first part of the film is almost conventionally telling the story of two women falling in love with each other: one is wide-eyed Betty (Naomi Watts), who has just stepped out of a plane from Canada to become an actress (and, if possible, movie star) in Hollywood, and immediately defies the cynical expectation that her dream will soon crash and burn. She moves into her aunt’s eccentric but luxurious apartment building, absolutely stuns the producers and actors with a transformative performance in an audition for her first role and is only prevented from getting an even more impressive part in a big production by a strange and vast conspiracy. The other is “Rita” – a mysterious woman (Laura Harring) who has lost her memory after a car accident and sought refuge in the very same apartment. Together, the two women try to figure out Rita’s (she takes her name from a movie poster – Rita Hayworth in “Gilda”) identity – a search that ends when they find a dead body. After they sleep together and Betty confesses that she is falling in love with Rita, they go to a club, witness a strange show that questions the reality of things (musicians appear, play their instruments or sing, then disappear from the stage as the music plays on), and then things come crashing down. A strange blue box appears that seems to fit a key that Rita had in her purse, along with a wad of cash – but before they can open it together, Betty disappears completely – and so does this reality, once Rita opens it on her own.
The shorter second part of the film provides a stark contrast to the first, both aesthetically and story-wise. Before, Mulholland Dr. was a mixture of genres: a love story, a mystery show, a venture into mob films when it followed the mis-adventures of director Adam (Justin Theroux), slowly losing control of his own production due to outside interference, one scene strangely reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s earlier work. Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) is a failed actress, desperately in love with someone who doesn’t love her back (Camille, played by Laura Harring), and finally, after an evening apparently designed to humiliate her (not only does Camille declare that she will marry the director she cheated with, she has also become the star Diane always dreamed of being, and she demonstrates that she has had similarly meaningless flings with other women), she decides to use the money she inherited from her aunt to hire a professional hit man and have Camille killed. After getting the confirmation that the task was executed, she suffers a slow break-down – daydreams about Camille being alive, panic attacks when someone knocks on her door – and finally, she kills herself.
Love is the central theme of Mulholland Dr. My first reaction to the film was clinging desperately to the idea that the first part of the movie wasn’t a dream – since the second is so utterly devastating and hopeless, a portrayal of a woman completely destroyed by unrequited love and unfulfilled hopes. In her dream, Diane re-imagines herself as Betty, a good person, someone whose naivety is never punished, someone who selflessly helps a stranger and is rewarded for the effort, someone incredibly talented and perfectly able to transform herself through performance – from the friendly Canadian girl to someone not very unlike Diane in the scene she is asked to play for the audition. Diane longs for a happy ending, for something to undo what she has done and what has been done to her – so in her dream, Camille becomes Rita, someone made innocent through loss of memory, a blank slate for her to re-create from scratch and in need of exactly the kind of help that Betty can offer. Diane’s hatred of herself goes so far that she kills someone named Diane Selwyn in her dream, and the shocking discovery of her body only strengthens the bond between Betty and Rita. The director who once did not appreciate Diane’s talent becomes an aged, washed-up man who is laughed at behind his back, the other who took Camille away a ridiculous figure caught up in a conspiracy he never understands, cheated on by his wife, beaten up, broke. The hit man she hired – the man who performed the crime she is trying to undo in her dream – is now a useless hack who can’t even get one simple job done without messing up, so that he poses no true danger.
Things are too good to be true. Everything that happens is pure wish-fulfilment, a contrast to the stark realism that follows once this fantasy is torn down. The key – is a key. The reality of what Diane did seeps into her fantasy. The blue key, signifier of Camille’s murder, appears in Rita’s purse, and once they discover what it opens (the question Diane asked the killer, after he showed her the key for the first time – that was answered with roaring laughter), the walls come tumbling down and the dream can no longer be sustained. As Diane wakes up, or perhaps dies, this world disappears. Silencio – the mysterious word spoken in the club – is the silence that follows once both the band and the tape stop playing.
2001, directed by David Lynch, starring Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Ann Miller, Dan Hedaya, Justin Theroux, Lee Grant, Billy Ray Cyrus, Robert Forster.