David Lynch’s films have always existed in their own Red Room, somewhere between surreal reality and unbridled nightmare.
The chorus for Roy Orbison’s In Dreams, lip synched so memorably by Dean Stockwell in Lynch’s Blue Velvet, are an even more suitable fit for the noirish themes of murderous obsession, unrequited love and broken dreams (both literally and figuratively) that permeate his 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive:
In dreams I walk with you
In dreams I talk to you
In dreams you’re mine all the time
We’re together in dreams, in dreams
While critics continue to interpret the director’s intentions, the evidence to support the theory that much of Mulholland Drive is a long, unspooling dream taking place in the emotionally damaged mind of ‘Betty’ (Naomi Watts, giving a superb breakout performance) is tangible.
The film opens with a trippy jitterbug sequence which concludes with a smiling and happy Betty bathed in the spotlight before cutting to a woozy POV shot of a bed that dissolves to black – suggesting what follows may not be entirely reliable.
The noir-heavy framing device of Mulholland Drive centres on Betty, an aspiring actress who arrives in Hollywood and encounters an amnesic woman (Laura Harring) hiding in her aunt’s apartment. As they draw closer while exploring the mystery surrounding the car accident ‘Rita’ was involved in, the story widens its scope to involve director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) being pressured by nefarious mobsters to cast actress Camilla Rhodes in his next movie. After discovering a dead woman in an apartment belonging to ‘Diane Selwyn’, a name Rita remembered earlier, the two are drawn to the enigmatic Club Silencio and discover a mysterious blue box, the contents of which can be unlocked with a key in Rita’s possession.
Clues that what we are watching is not real are sprinkled throughout. Betty’s exaggerated mannerisms early on (a shot of her with arms crossed behind her head is especially posed) and ‘golly gosh’ dialogue smack of artifice, while the overarching plot could be lifted straight from a 1950s B-movie (alongside the various other nods to the period, such as the jitterbug dancing, a shot of Sunset Boulevard and the fact Rita names herself after a poster of Rita Heyworth).
Furthermore, an audition scene in which the naive and sweet Betty is able to completely dominate the room by transforming herself into a sexually charged seductress seemingly comes out of nowhere and lends added weight to the suggestion she is employing dream logic.
There are numerous dialogue cues too, such as when Betty says to Rita “we can pretend to be someone else” or when Betty calls Diane Selwyn’s apartment and suggests to Rita: “It’s strange to be calling yourself.”
Likewise, just moments after the blue box is opened, jettisoning us out of the dream and into the real world, the sinister Cowboy (Monty Montgomery), seen earlier threatening Kesher, says “hey pretty girl, time to wake up” to Betty/Diane as she lies broken and bereft in the same bed we saw her in at the start of the film.
The numerous narrative threads that are seemingly unrelated at first interlock, whether it be the real identity of Camilla Rhodes or the episode early on involving a man who comes to a Winkies diner (a key location of the movie) to see whether a nightmare he’s experienced about meeting a terrifying black figure will occur in real life.
Lynch is a master of using light and darkness to amplify the pervasive sense of dread that lingers on the periphery of each frame. The aforementioned scene involving the pale-faced Cowboy and Kesher is lent extra peril by just how calm he is in his demeanour and the fact he won’t tolerate the “smart alec” behaviour of the director.
The use of sound and music, as in all of the director’s work from his queasy debut feature Eraserhead (1977), is just as powerful in its ability to move and unnerve, none more so than during the Club Silencio sequence when Rebekah Del Rio performs her Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s Crying to spine-tingling and surreal effect. Likewise, Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting and ethereal score further muddies the waters between reality and dreamscape.
Like many of Lynch’s films, it has only grown in stature, so much so that it topped the BBC’s list of greatest 21st century films and was one of only two films from this millennium to make it onto Sight and Sound’s most recent poll of the greatest films of all time.
In dreams Mulholland Drive walks with us and talks to us, rewarding and beguiling us with each subsequent viewing.