In many ways, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) was a summation of his career when it was made, the addition of any set of themes, images, and intertextual references into one composite whole. Similarly, it allegedly stands as his final work on celluloid, as he has now transitioned into the more nebulous realm of digital video. It is, then, perhaps fitting that with it, he ransacks the history of cinema, not always specifically but broadly, paying impulsive tribute to the recognizable traits of Hollywood movie genres more exhaustively than ever before. Furthermore, the film is largely about Hollywood, a Los Angeles-set exploration of the dream-machine, the naive thirst for stardom, and the cruel machinations of the entertainment business. Lynch targets these ideas from a characteristically obtuse angle, recontextualizing Lost Highway‘s doppelgänger technique but also twisting its focus on jostled identities into a flip-flopped dream, deceptively straightforward at heart rather than ourobouric.
A hopeful young actress named Betty (Naomi Watts) is the victim of these Hollywood fantasies. She comes to Los Angeles to take a stab at an acting career, staying in her aunt’s vacant apartment. When she gets there however, she discovers the place is not empty, for it houses the amnesiac woman who stumbled off Hollywood’s hills in the first ten minutes of the film following a brutal car crash. In a Hitchockian manner, this woman (Laura Elena Harring), a voluptuous brunette, handpicks the name Rita for herself when she sees it on a Gilda poster on the wall. Contrary to rational logic, Betty is not unsettled by the creepily silent, blank-slated Rita. Alternatively, she assists her in a Nancy Drew-style investigation into Rita’s real identity, leading her enthusiastically into the puzzle even when it suggests noirish tomfoolery – Rita’s purse contains wads of cash and an inexplicable blue key. A rotting corpse is eventually discovered in the apartment of a certain Diane Selwyn, the lone name that Rita can remember, prompted by its sighting on a waitress’ pin.
From here, Mulholland Drive goes further and further into a mind-bending rabbit hole that confounds our expectations of both personal identity and genre presentation. With tantalizing dream logic, Lynch carves a tale that is as unpredictable as it is continually entertaining, shifting from comedy to horror in a matter of seconds and with great skill. This is Lynch’s greatest and most emotionally debilitating film since his debut feature Eraserhead in 1977, and it’s a tremendous fit for Brattle’s “Best of the Oughts” series. (Full review here.)
Mulholland Drive plays this Wednesday and Thursday at the Brattle Theater. (Showtimes here).