Guest Article: Deciphering Mulholland Drive


Today we are excited to present a superb article and break down of one of David Lynch’s most highly regarded films, Mulholland Drive.Our guest writer is Shane who hails from across the pond in Toronto, Canada certainly has come out swinging by offering a clear and in some ways conclusive (It is David Lynch after all)  analysis of one of Lynches most meandering and head scratching films.

Most audiences have become so accustomed to the pervasive hand-holding in commercial cinema, that when a more challenging and visceral work comes along, they have a tendency to run into the loving arms of an Adam Sandler or Michael Bay movie (that is, if you can make out what’s actually going on in a typically overstuffed action sequence by Bay!). Then, you have a director like David Lynch, whose work can seamlessly balance commercialism and all-out surrealism better than a Lady Gaga music video, though it is not likely that he will hold your hand in the process. I find this to be is truer for his film Mulholland Drive than any of his preceding works.

The first time I watched David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, I didn’t even finish it, giving up two-thirds of the way through the film. A few years later, not knowing what I had missed, I did eventually watch the film in its entirety, and the moment those credits rolled, it sent shivers down my spine like no other film had before. Mulholland Drive truly resonated with me, primarily because I understood what Lynch was doing, and the sheer brilliance of it all. However, what is of particular interesting regarding the film is that a lot of the viewers, critics and audiences alike, did not come away with the same understanding of the film as I had, but that didn’t stop them from heaping on the praise. They felt there was something bigger at hand, like the film is greater than the sum of its parts…and they’re right. Everything has a purpose, from the shots used, to the imagery and characters that are put on display, and I intend to briefly explain how this is, to give others a better understanding of this masterpiece. So, before I go any further, if you haven’t seen Mulholland Drive, I would highly recommend taking the chance to watch it before reading on, and then coming back here for answers. Your choice!

So, I’m going to assume that if you are reading this, you either took my advice, or totally disregarded what I just said…which is fine too! Just don’t come crying to me when you spoil a great movie-going experience on yourself! Anyway, to explain just what in the hell is going on in the film, it’s best to start at its final act.

The film is from the perspective of Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts), a struggling actress whose dreams of being famous and successful (shown in the jitterbug scene at the beginning) are sunk by both a harsh reality, and her apparent lack of acting ability. To add to this, Diane has recently had her heart broken by her former lover, leading Hollywood actress Camilla Rhodes (Laura Harring), who ended their affair in favour of film director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux). As if that wasn’t enough, Camilla invites Diane to a party, leading Diane to believe that she wants to rekindle their relationship, only for it to become apparent that she invited Diane to emotionally torture and belittle her, as Camilla and Adam later giddily announce their engagement. This leads to Diane hiring a hitman to murder Camilla. These events are revealed as broken memories in the final act of the film, as Diane becomes aware Camilla’s successful murder upon seeing the blue key on the table, and she begins thinking back on the events that led up to this point. Eventually, the knowledge of the crime she has committed drives her insane, ending with her taking her own life. I know that this in itself sounds like the plot of an entire film, but it’s too familiar and simplistic for a director of Lynch’s calibre. It is everything that comes before this that grants so much depth to the story, because it is all a dream in the mind of Diane Selwyn. Allow me to pre-emptively address your exclamative “What!”, by clarifying how this is the case, and what it means.

The beginning of the film uses a first-person shot (the first of many) that slinks along bedsheets before settling into a pillow to indicate that it is a dream. From here, Diane’s mind shuffles identities and creates a mystery of its own to hide the truths of reality. Sleep is her means of escape from the dark, nihilistic reality shown in the final act. Now, I know what you’re thinking; using the old “It was a dream the whole time!” trick is a done-to-death cop out, and it prevents us from truly connecting with the real characters as opposed to their dream counterparts. Here, though, it has real purpose, as I believe it ultimately situate’s Mulholland Drive as one of the most unflinchingly personal and revealing films ever made.

Lynch heavily relies on concepts from dream theory in the first two acts, and its basis is that our dreams act as a means of expressing our most inhibited wants, needs, and insecurities through symbolism. In a nutshell, the subconscious has a field day! Since the film’s entire dream segment is a creation of Diane’s mind, each and every character is a projection of how she would like others to perceive her, as well as how she perceives others. Betty, Diane’s own dream interpretation of herself, is a charismatic, perpetually upbeat woman with spades of talent and a bright future in Hollywood. Betty is an embodiment of who Diane wants to be, and how she would like others to perceive her. Don’t believe me? Take Rita then, Diane’s dream iteration of Camilla. She is somewhat aloof, a wooden actress (going by her script reading with Betty), lacks independence, consequently having to constantly rely on Betty, and, most importantly, she desires Betty. Then you have Adam, who is presented as a protagonist, yes, but in reality she views him as the one who took Camilla away from her, and so he is depicted as impulsive and destructive, from smashing the car window of film executives, to ruining his cheating wife’s jewellery with paint. So, clearly Diane’s views of her own self, Camilla, and Adam in the real world have influenced how their counterparts are depicted in her dream.

As the dream plays out, the guilt of Diane’s actions in the real world is simmering in her subconscious, taking on different forms as it threatens to awaken Diane. I mention this so as to briefly explain what is arguably the film’s most surreal scene, whereby two men, who are almost totally unrelated to the plot, sit in a diner called Winkie’s, discussing a recurring dream one of them had. This scene is a dream within a dream (yes, Lynch was doing this before Christopher Nolan ever dreamt up Inception…sorry, couldn’t resist), diving deeper into Diane’s subconscious, indicated by the shots of Rita before and after the scene. The dirty man behind the diner is an embodiment of Diane’s guilt. Just look at the way one of the men, who dreamt of the dirty man, has a great fear of him, and goes on to die of shock at the sight of him behind the diner. This is a manifestation of Diane’s own fear toward consciously acknowledging the reality of her actions (or guilt, i.e. the dirty man), and by extension this is why her mind’s dreamscape is creating such a mystery in the first place: to distract her! Think about what the man who had the dream says: “I can see him through the wall, I can see his face….I hope I never see that face, ever, outside of a dream.” Context can be a deadly tool in a filmmaker’s bag of cinematic tricks, but in the hands of David Lynch, it’s more like putty.

Taking all this into account, Mulholland Drive is clearly a film that warrants multiple viewings. It’s not a complete experience otherwise. What Lynch does, is he gives us all the clues to piece together the mystery he has created for the viewers. As I said earlier, he’s not inclined to hold your hand during the process, nor should he be! We’re the detectives that are so noticeably missing from the story as a whole, and I wouldn’t want to take away that overall experience from anyone. Even after watching David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive numerous times, I can’t help shake the sense that I haven’t quite cracked the whole mystery. I believe there are still numerous lingering secrets tucked away in the film that have yet to be discovered not just by me, but by anyone, period. There’s already enough potential writing material on Mulholland Drive to make even George R. R. Martin water at the mouth, but I’ve deliberately only scratched the surface to enable others a better understanding of the film. It’s like I’m outlining the rules to a puzzle; where’s the fun in showing you how to finish it! I want to allow people the space make their own personal, nuanced meanings of the film, just as Lynch himself had clearly intended.


Author: Shane

Author: Reel Time Flicks

Passionate about film and writing since 2015.

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