One would be hard-pressed to engage in casual conversation or even scholarly research regarding David Lynch’s exceptional Mulholland Drive (2001) without coming across phrases such as “what did I just watch?” or theories “explaining” the movie’s ending. Already convoluted by recycled television content standards, this dream-like storyline follows budding actress Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) as she arrives at Hollywood and befriends Rita (Laura Harring), an amnesiac whose quest for identity is but one of many amongst the interwoven tales. Given the deliberately futile attempts at delineating life and its realms of reality and fantasy, perhaps Lynch’s trademark surrealism can breathe new life into an alternative approach to understanding the film. Mulholland Drive’s inexplicable nature can actually provide revelatory insights into the lives of the audience, especially considering the utility of unsolvable mysteries in shedding light on an even greater mystery: life itself.
Often when dealing with life’s struggles from a vulnerable position, emotion takes precedent over logical thinking to the point that our decisions become clouded by our feelings. Lynch creates a similarly oblique sensation via the subliminal camera techniques by director of photography Peter Deming, whose camerawork truly takes viewers out of their comfort zones. Deming’s unconventional cinematography invites audience members to experience Betty’s fragmented reality firsthand, with unsteady point of view shots that disorient viewers when they feel the greatest need for clarity. These peculiar lighting techniques mislead spectators who are obliged to piece together the visuals without any enlightening insight into why certain images warrant exposure.
While Lynch grants viewers the authority to enter into his mysteries as detectives, he also allows the lack of resolution itself to become a coherent meaning. He achieves this by framing his unorthodox sound production around the notion that an epiphany can be realized through contrast with the familiar. As opposed to a more logically consistent score, much of the film’s soundtrack is composed of symphonic pieces interrupted by easy listening tracks like Linda Scott’s “I’ve Told Every Little Star,” forcing listeners to figuratively adopt a tactile approach of feeling around for meaning.
This process is made all the more difficult by the fact that much of these sounds are post-produced, causing unnerving transitions from loud to soft noises, and even the moments of complete silence, to heighten the tension. Nowhere is this hallucinatory effect more evident than in the Club Silencio scene, where the continuation of Rebekah Del Rio’s performance, despite collapsing midway through, puts Betty and Rita, and by extension the viewer, in a trancelike state.
In this search for truth, even the urge to identify with the actors is met with disappointment, caused in part by the unreliability of their character’s fluid identities. Of course, the awkwardly stiff acting feeds into this puzzle, and the utter transformation by Naomi Watts suddenly showcasing immense talent only complicates matters – especially in the audition scene where a more realistic acting approach is ironically situated within our suspension of disbelief. Diane is eventually subject to the fateful doom of having her shattered subconscious cling onto a constructed reality and, as such, utilizes the life of an actor for existentially studying the universal longing for relevance. Watching the film, we are encouraged to grapple with these issues ourselves, but the difficulty of reaching a consensus as a result of Mulholland Drive’s mystifying technical devices becomes itself a fulfilling conclusion.
In times like these, the acceptance of, and indulgence in, not knowing proves satisfactory in its own right. The coronavirus pandemic has quite literally shattered the aspirations of many, so who is to deny one’s creation of a dream where logical reasoning is unthinkable? Half of the fun when it comes to embracing the “ignorance is bliss” mentality lies in the unexpected nature of this realization, such that even the walls surrounding our quarantined lives are incapable of confining our imaginations. Lynch himself believes this time of prolonged daydreaming can only bring people together in a more “spiritual” and “kinder” way and, watching this film, there’s little mystery as to why.