Mulholland Dr. may be the finest example in modern cinema of "making lemonade from lemons." Originally conceived as a television show, Mulholland Dr. might have marked Lynch's triumphant return to TV, after his seminal Twin Peaks died on one of the greatest and most maddening cliffhangers ever devised but not before violently overthrowing staid conventions and proving that the medium could be a format for innovative and daring programming. One must imagine that producers took at least a fleeting look at his CV before commissioning the project, but they gave the money to the director anyway. Naturally, ABC took one look at the completed pilot and threw a fit, refusing to pick it up and make a series of it. Undaunted and unwilling to let all those ideas go to waste, Lynch made a movie.
As it condenses all the various threads and oddities of a planned televisual foray into insanity, Mulholland Dr. bursts at the seams with ideas and threads that go nowhere, unfulfilled dramatic and subtextual arcs that Lynch decided to throw in anyway, because that's what he does. Analyzing these various loose ends does not particularly interest me, as my interpretation of each scene typically shifts with every viewing and often contradicts older readings. Besides, seeking to find the "correct" answers for the intricacies and rabbit holes will only tarnish and dissipate the ephemeral atmosphere of the film, constructed effortlessly through Lynch's expressive color palette and a burbling, ever-creepy score by Angelo Badalamenti.
Boiled down to its essence, Mulholland Dr. is about dreams: it opens with an old Hollywood dance number that reveals its protagonist before we even actually meet her after a few interlocking scenes focusing on other characters. Betty (Naomi Watts), a small-town girl with big-time dreams who comes to Hollywood: her dream of becoming a star is but the first fantasy of many, and it is perhaps itself wrapped in a larger haze. She moves into her aunt Ruth's house, only to find a squatter suffering from amnesia relating to a car accident on...Mulholland Dr. The woman (Laura Elena Harring) assumes the name Rita after spotting a Gilda poster featuring Rita Hayworth, and Betty tenderly cares for her as she recuperates.
Using the opening dance number and the Gilda poster as a starting point, Lynch structures the first two acts of the film as bitter valentine to Hollywood, a celebration of its vibrant golden years and a cynical appraisal of its current situation. Rita, the statuesque brunette and Betty, the blond, ambitious ingénue, come right out of the '50s; when Rita later dyes her hair blond, she echoes her namesake's hair change in The Lady From Shanghai, which didn't make sense either. Lynch shows a surprising amount of cheeriness by allowing Betty to be a fantastic actress, wowing casting agents with a superb audition. Betty even speaks like someone out of a classic film, filled with that punchy giddiness film stars had when the industry was still so fresh that even its greatest performers couldn't hold back their excitement.
Contrasted with her seemingly inevitable rise to the top is the sad tale of director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), a hip young up-and-comer clearly evocative of the current Hollywood system. In the middle of his own casting process, he finds his production taken over by mobsters who insist that he cast an actress of their choosing. When he refuses, he loses everything. He discovers his wife in bed with the pool man, who throws him out of his own home; later he's told that his account is maxed and the bank canceled his line of credit. When he returns to work the next day, he auditions numerous talented starlets until the name Camilla Rhodes comes up, and after barely letting her perform he fatalistically acquiesces to his new bosses, confirming the phrase repeated at him ad nauseam the previous day: "This is the girl." One of ABC's contentions with Lynch's pilot of Mulholland Dr. was that Watts and Harring were "too old," and the talent Kesher must sacrifice to appease his vindictive new bosses must surely hit close to home.
Filling the gaps between the two stories are numerous oddities -- a mob boss with a tiny head, a man whose dream of a horrible figure haunting a local diner, a wayward giver of advice known as The Cowboy; there's even a random aside for one of the most hysterically inept hired killers ever put on the screen, in which the killer attempts to place a silenced gun in the hand of the man he just shot to make it look like a suicide, only for it to go off and hit the woman in the next room before spiraling further. Meanwhile, Betty and Rita's attempt to regain Rita's memories. This arc recalls Lynch's forays into the nightmarish miasma under bright, homogeneous, prefab suburbia: Betty and Rita trace their steps to the place of Rita's accident, then to apartments filled with odd and unsettling residents and one hell of a dead end. Over time, they fall in love with each other, and their romance is one of the most touching additions to any of Lynch's film.
**heavy spoilers from this point on**
In the last act, however, Lynch reveals that the preceding material was all a dream, but not in any manner that could be called clichéd: Betty wakes up as Diane, not a stunning talent but a failed actress. Her home is no longer a cozy, beautifully lit place of comfort but a fetid den of squalor, and we can see immediately that Diane hasn't left the place in weeks. Rita becomes Camilla Rhodes, the woman who "won" the movie part in Diane's dream, and we see that, while the two were lovers in real life as well, but they've split acrimoniously.
While we shouldn't be quick to trace down all the loose threads made even looser by this interpretation, the most reasonable deduction one can make is that the first two acts of the film, even some of the darker areas, reflect Diane's life as she wished it had gone: she met Camilla while auditioning for the film and lost to her, and Camilla later dumped her for Kesher. So, she conjured Kesher's harrowing ordeal both to "punish" him for stealing her love but to vent her jealousy of her lover's talent, that she lost the part only because some cosmic mafia prevented her shot at fame. Ergo, Diane/Betty shunts the pain she feels at having both her dreams and her heart broken onto the shoulders of the movie industry, which too easily lets Camilla off the hook; the real Camilla is a jezebel who tortures Diane by keeping her on movie sets not only to remind the untalented gal what she can never have but to tease her with love scenes. Diane's vision of "Betty" nursing an amnesic Rita back to help obviously allows Diane to essentially hit the reset button on their relationship, but it also gives her the opportunity to subconsciously place Camilla in a position of helplessness that Diane feels in their real affair.
Can, then, the intricate freak show that is Mulholland Dr. be ultimately described as nothing more than a depressed woman's pre-suicidal, masturbatory fever dream? Yes, but that belies the complexity of Diane and Camilla's relationship and the effect that L.A. had on them. Note the film's titular proximity to Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, also named for a famous street in Los Angeles and also a scathing look at the negative aspects of the film industry. Lynch's fractured dreamscape of L.A. preceded Charlie Kaufman's romp through the tangled emotions of the jilted lover in Eternal Sunshine by three years, and Lynch interestingly intertwines the tortured romance between the protagonists and his commentary on the film industry, reflecting his own love affair with the cinema and the disappointment a filmmaker of his outlook and style must feel about the continuing simplification of Hollywood fare. Above all else, though, Mulholland Dr. strikes me, this time, as a reminder that nothing is ever as it seems, especially in a place founded upon dreams.