Classic Movie Review: “Mulholland Drive” and the Absurdity of Dreams

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As humans, we are doomed. We don’t like to fail, it drives us to swallow change – even if we don’t want to. Anyway, it is a reality. As failure looms large, most people ignore it as if a Trojan horse of lies invades our brains. And this phenomenon is not unique to any particular demographic group, anyone is likely to detach from the reality in which they live. It is a depressing ouroboros that will be present until our eventual demise. The complexity of these ideas is great, however, David Lynch captured its very essence with his film Mulholland Drive. We all dream, but what happens when reality hits and forces us to accept our failures?

Mulholland Drive follows Naomi Watts as Betty Elms – landing in Los Angeles to fulfill her Hollywood acting dream. When Betty arrives at the apartment where she will be staying (courtesy of her Aunt Ruth), she finds a confused woman (played by Laura Elena Harring) who was involved in a serious car accident the night before. The car accident in question causes her to develop amnesia. Due to her amnesia, the woman examined a poster of the 1946 film Gildafeaturing Rita Hayworth, and believed her name was Rita.

Betty tries to help Rita find out who she really is. After stopping at Winkie’s Diner, Rita examines the waitress’s name tag which says “Diane”. Rita begins to remember a woman named Diane Selwyn. Afterwards, Betty and Rita start looking for Diane Selwyn.

The first half of Mulholland Drive has many events and characters that do not impact the Betty and Rita storyline. In a way, it’s like Lynch slowly placing puzzle pieces in front of you where the pieces don’t fit. Meticulously and thoroughly putting these ideas into your mind with no rhythm to accompany them. What is the significance of the failed assassination attempt? Why do the old people in the taxi have such expressive faces?

As the movie progresses and the puzzle continues to unravel, another movie is happening at the same time. Enter filmmaker Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) who is at the end of his rope with his career and his marriage. Studio executives are pushing a woman named Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) down her throat to play the lead role in their new film — against her will. Adam’s wife is having an extramarital affair with a man named Gene (Billy Ray Cyrus – yes, THAT Billy Ray Cyrus). Nothing seems to be going well for Kesher, however, his unfortunate events bordering on slapstick are slowed down instead of Betty and Rita’s story.

There is a significant event that foreshadows the end of the film. In Winkie’s Diner (the same as Betty and Rita were), a neurotic man named Dan (Patrick Fischler) recounts a nightmare he had the night before to a man named Herb (Michael Cooke). The nightmare occurs at that exact Winkie’s Diner involving Herb, where Dan states that Herb will be standing at the counter – staring at Dan. Then Dan and Herb went outside – walking to a place behind the restaurant. How a man emerges, scaring Dan endlessly.

After telling the story, Herb—dismissed from the story itself—proceeds to pay for the meal he and Dan had had. Dan turns around and realizes the nightmare is reality, seeing Herb in the same place he was in the dream. They both exit, following the steps Dan outlines. The man behind the restaurant shows up, causing Dan to be terrified.

The man behind the restaurant is a representation of our refusal to accept our failures. It’s tucked away, deep in our subconscious, digging into ourselves. The fear extracted from Dan is the sense of reality that comes and envelops him.

Throughout the movie, a blue box and a blue key are shown, and it’s not until the end of the movie that the box is opened. At that point, the dream ends and reality sets in. The film now splits between the old illusory reality and the actual reality. Betty is actually Diane Selwyn – a depressed, failed actress who is having an affair with successful actress Camilla Rhodes (who was Rita in the illusionary reality). Adam Kesher’s story remains the same except that Camilla is dating Kesher and he is now detached from previous acts of misfortune.

Dreams are the sum of hopes and our own known fragments of reality. In this spirit, Mulholland DriveIllusory reality is an implosion of pieces of real reality. The hitman is actually hired by Diane to carry out a hit on Camilla. The mystical phrase spoken mostly throughout Adam Kesher’s story, “It’s the girl,” takes on a gruesome meaning. Camilla was actually hired in the real world because she slept with Kesher.

Once Diane finally accepts reality, she is then confronted with the elderly couple in which her illusory counterpart, Betty, once had a positive relationship. The elderly couple embodying the fear of their own reality slowly approaches Diane. Diane is unable to carry the cross she now carries and does a horrific act in response.

The pieces of the puzzle are feverishly coming together before our eyes. Which makes Mulholland Drive so perplexing is that all this information is given to the viewer in the space of twenty minutes. You’re given so much to digest in the first part of the movie, then when it moves on to the real world, you’re forced to digest so much in a short time.

Mulholland Drive is best described as a horror movie. In the typical sense, horror movies put us in a box – preparing us for what needs to be seen. Lynch’s approach to horror is more abstract and fills the viewer with an unease in itself. Letting the viewer reflect on himself, digest what has been seen. When we saw the man behind the restaurant we all knew he was coming. But the meaning behind the man makes him infinitely more gruesome.

The reality of our own failures is terrifying. David Lynch, as a filmmaker, is empathetic to his subjects but unafraid of the reality of their own shortcomings. Diane is not a bad person for failing or being unable to receive an acting role. She stayed true to herself, even when Camilla preferred to sleep with the director to get a role, and flaunted it in Diane’s face. While the fact that she lands a hit on her former lover isn’t representative of a good person, a moment of weakness isn’t the sum of her own worth (even weighing the severity of her action). Diane is not wrong to dream, she is only an unfortunate product of the pursuit of her dream.

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