David Lynch's film Mulholland Drive Explained

by Wes Clark

(NOTE: The article title, "David Lynch's Film Mulholland Drive Explained," is presumptuous. It has been pointed out to me that there are psychological levels and meanings to this film above and beyond what I have written here. I accept this. This film is more contextually "thick" than classic film noir from the 40's and 50's is. From a viewing of Twin Peaks, I think David Lynch likes this sort of thing very much. My comments attempt to make sense of it in a flat and direct manner; a "why did the person do what to whom"-kind of thing. However, I believe that this film will pay off a deeper or more speculative analysis. For instance, one fellow contacted me and suggested, what if Camilla didn't really exist? What if she were merely a dream character/wish fulfillment character for Diane Selwyn? Good question, and I'm sure there are others like it. But for those who left the theater totally puzzled and are looking for a simple outline, the following may prove helpful.)

The first thing you see in the movie after that outlined dance sequence (that refers to Diane Selwyn's jitterbugging contest) is a red pillow and the sound of labored breathing. The camera moves toward it, as if from the view of the sleeper. This is actually the most important shot in the movie! In hindsight it establishes that Diane Selwyn is going to sleep. Then darkness. Everything that happens for nearly the next two hours (Betty arriving at the airport, Rita's crash on Mulholland Drive, the movie deals and auditions, the hitman, Cafe Silencio, etc.) is Diane's dream.

Diane Selwyn's rotting corpse on the bed is Diane dreaming of herself. At one point, calling Diane Selwyn's number, Betty significantly says "It's weird calling yourself." That's exactly what she's doing. (It makes me think of a line from another great film noir, Chinatown: Lt. Escobar: "Isn't that your phone number?" Jake Gittes: "Is it? I forget. I don't call myself that often." Lynch had many film noir references inTwin Peaks.)

When Betty and Rita find the stylized blue key at the Cafe Silencio they bring it home to open the blue box. Significantly, Betty disappears from the scene. The camera zooms into the box, and an alarm is heard. The Cowboy pokes his head into the room, says, "It's time to wake up, beautiful," and Diane awakes and makes herself coffee. This is real-time, waking life - for Diane, an unpleasant, hopeless place. She has a visit from that brunette with whom she shared an apartment and sees the blue key on the coffee table.

The next things that happen are flashbacks that explain how Diane's dream was constructed. Finally, she commits suicide.

So, here's the story assembled in an order that makes sense:

1. Diane Selwyn, aspiring actress, loved Camilla and had a lesbian affair with her.

2. Camilla was cast for the movie over Diane. Diane was jilted.

3. At a party at the producer's house on Mulholland Drive, Camilla announces her wedding plans, making Diane angry.

4. Diane contracts with the hitman at the diner to have Camilla killed. The un-stylized blue key is the signal that this has been done.

5. Diane has the blue key in her apartment. She has her dream, a more hopeful version of her relationships with people  constructed from the above. It puts her in the position of power and desirability.

6. Tormented by demons either real or imagined, Diane shoots herself.

7. End of movie, silencio.

The guy who spits espresso is Angelo Badalamenti, who wrote that moody score.

I'm not entirely sure about the Cowboy, but he is shown walking through the party when Camilla announces her wedding to the producer. So he could simply be a person Diane remembers from the party and is inserted into her dream. Or, and I like this explanantion I read somewhere, the Cowboy is a mythic representation of the West and early Hollywood - and therefore the film industry, which Diane badly wants to crack into. One thinks of the cowboy in "The Great Train Robbery" (1903), who points his gun at the audience and shoots, forever intertwining film and the old West.

People wonder, "So does the entire thing hinge on Betty being delusional?" Not delusional, but dreaming. ("A film is a dream." - Orson Welles) Having been jilted by Camilla and not getting the part in the film, she's depressed, angry and murderous.

What about the entire Aunt Rose apartment?" It was dreamed. There's a scene just after the key is inserted into the box where the aunt looks around hearing a noise but doesn't see anything. Perhaps she's Diane's aunt, perhaps not.

That creepy diner scene towards the beginning of the film may be the director's way of indicating that during the first two hours, the dream world and the real world for Diane are interchangeable. The guy with the burnt face behind the diner could be thought of as a sort of figurative or literal demon, with the old couple are his emissaries. They "visit" Diane in her apartment and cause her to commit suicide at the end of the film. The homeless guy is something like the godlike fellow who pulls the lever in "Eraserhead," Lynch's first film.

Oddly enough, this most adult of films noir has a basic premise in common with "Wizard of Oz." An entire two hours is filled with a dreamlike jumbled plot constructed from fragments of real life.