David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive contains a proper, causal narrative with a linear plot, even though it doesn’t seem like it.
What makes Mulholland Drive work for me is the way in which Lynch uses all his old cinematic themes, memes and symbols to tell us a fresh story. He’s always been interested in doppelgangers, and the subterranean current of evil and depredation that underlies consciousness and reality (if indeed, there’s any difference between the two). We surround ourselves with fantasies of goodness, of optimism and light, when the ultimate, final reality of our lives is that they end, and all we are left with is “that cold model of the barren earth which serves as paste and cover to our bones.” The essential psychological agony we feel when we contemplate life’s final result is the energy that fuels the films of David Lynch as well as many others.
Lynch’s cinematic style in Mulholland Drive employs standard cinematic techniques in individual scenes, while rejecting causality in the narrative arc with a deliberate obfuscation of point of view. Betty is a pert, perky blonde with a great deal of personal ambition, whose Hollywood dream of becoming an actress in motion pictures seems to play out with almost serendipitous ease. Each of Betty’s scenes employs a standard narrative structure. They exhibit distinct settings, characters that possess rational motivations, which in some cases, conflict, a pivotal moment (dramatic crisis) and a resolution. Moreover, Lynch’s visual style affirms the narrative structure. He uses camera angles, shots, zooms, pans, etc., to reinforce the standard cinematic narrative point of view. This is Betty’s point of view, just as it is Betty’s narrative.
Through symbolism and metaphor, however, Lynch infers an additional layer of meaning every bit as intentional as Betty’s motives. Betty’s character is a perky go-getter. Her identity is fixed and known. Rita, on the other hand, is amnesiac. Her identity is completely unknown. Thus we are confronted with the surface mystery of Mulholland Drive, the mystery of Rita’s true identity, and all that that implies (we know that she was about to be murdered before the accident that resulted in her amnesia). Betty discovers about herself that although she is a talented, pretty, precocious blonde, she’s also tantalized, intrigued and perhaps obsessed with Rita’s alluring mystery. It sucks her in. For her part, Rita is in a state of flux. She’s tabula rasa. And Betty is extremely attracted to that… And the audience is extremely attracted to them both.
There follows mysterious vignettes in which Betty and Rita journey to a mysterious nightclub called Silencio (Silence), there’s a shadowy figure called the Cowboy, and a puzzling blue box that can be unlocked by a key. This key is central to the turn of the super-narrative. When Betty unlocks the box, she disappears. Diane Selwyn, a person mentioned earlier in the film, and whose body the women have discovered prior to their trip to Club Silencio, wakes up. In fact Cowboy appears in the doorway and says “Time to wake up pretty girl,” or something to that effect. Diane looks exactly like Betty and is portrayed by the same actress, Naomi Watts.
Lynch’s camera now demands we abruptly shift our allegiance to the Diane character and we reluctantly submit to the camera’s tyranny, or we leave the theater. Relentlessly, the camera uses the same traditional cinematic techniques to establish that we are now in Diane Selwyn’s point of view. But wait! What about charming Betty? We want to go back to Betty and Rita, and discover the answer to the mystery and achieve the happily ever after ending that we were promised, albeit with a little dash of lesbianism for extra flavor! This is precisely the cinematic trope that Lynch is lynching. The message of Mulholland Drive is that the cinema is an illusion, and if you imagine your life by its principles, you destroy yourself so thoroughly, emotionally and existentially, that real death is a welcome relief. This is the sub-narrative. In terms of the super-narrative, Betty is Diane’s alter-ego. She never really existed. Everything that happened in the movie up to the point where Diane Selwyn wakes up, is apparently a dream of Diane’s. The second half of the film is unremittingly bleak, as Diane’s entire world crumbles around her. She has lost a good role to her lover Camilla, and then lost Camilla to Adam, which heaps betrayal upon betrayal. One element of noir has survived; Diane has hired a hit man to kill Camilla (played by the same actress who played Rita). When Diane realizes that the job has been done, she shoots herself, and that’s the end of the film, except for the final image of the chanteuse from Club Silencio assuring us that there’s no afterlife.
Who was trying to kill Camilla/Rita in the beginning of the film? Diane, of course. Betty, Diane’s alter-ego, was Diane’s subconscious attempt to psychologically deal with the guilt of hiring the hitman. But solving that mystery is not the reason for the film’s existence, just as who killed Laura Palmer was never the raison d’être of Twin Peaks. The purpose was to show the story, with as much psychological truth as possible, of a sad and pathetic loser who kills her lover and herself in Hollywood. What makes the film work as art is Lynch’s steadfast refusal to explain anything, and to pull the starkest images out of his subconscious that he possibly can.