As anyone who knows me can tell you, a rite of passage to be my friend includes a mandatory viewing of my favorite movie: David Lynch’s 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive. Over the years, numerous acquaintances have given in to my subtle persuasion and taken the two and a half trek into Lynch’s surreal LA odyssey. Of course, I welcome any excuse to watch the film again, but on these occasions, my favorite part is not the movie itself, but the reactions it garners afterward. Every time, without fail, my friends turn to me, bewildered and expectant, asking for some sort of explanation for what they just experienced. And every time, without fail, I get to smile and tell them that really, truly, there is none. After all these viewings, Mulholland Drive remains a mystery to me. That’s what I love the most about it.
For those unfamiliar with the narrative of Mulholland Drive, it is quite simple on a surface level. Naomi Watts plays Betty Elms, a bright-eyed, ambitious young woman who arrives from a small town in Canada to stay in her Aunt Ruth’s LA apartment while she chases her dream of being a great actress. In her aunt’s apartment, however, Betty meets Rita (Laura Elena Harring), an amnesiac who is seeking to figure out who she is after an attempted murder turned car crash. Together, Betty and Rita try to solve the mystery of Rita’s true identity.
While the film’s overarching storyline is rather simple, a plethora of seemingly unrelated and narratively insignificant scenes featuring one-off characters and locales complicates things. Additionally, objects of unknown significance recur throughout and remain unexplained. The movie seems grounded in reality, but certain parts delve rather suddenly and unexpectedly into Lynch’s signature surrealism. Therefore, it can be at times difficult to differentiate between fantasy and reality. As a result, the movie denies audience members easy answers. It doesn’t rely on any conventions and it doesn’t condescend to viewers: it challenges them. Altogether, these factors make Mulholland Drive more mysterious than mundane.
By the very nature of its making, Mulholland Drive was bound to be an enigma. The film was originally conceived as a television pilot by Lynch, who sent a 90-minute cut over to ABC as the first episode. After being turned down, Lynch scraped together enough money from StudioCanal to shoot some additional scenes. The resulting movie is an entanglement of plot lines that Lynch likely intended to flesh out over the course of a television series, but instead resolved (or perhaps didn’t resolve) in the film’s final half hour. And while Lynch claims that the movie tells a “coherent, comprehensible story”, the challenge of piecing together all the aspects of the movie in a logical way, so that they all make sense and fit together, is one I have not been able to solve, nor one that I believe has one easy answer.
Theories about the film abound. Some believe it to be an extended dream-sequence, shattered by a dismal reality. Others believe it to be a tale about the trauma suffered by the protagonist after sexual abuse. Some think the film is a love letter to Hollywood. Others think it is a condemnation of it. Watching the movie with these theories in mind, I can find merit in all of them, and my own conjectures on its meaning change with every viewing. The reason for this goes beyond the film itself: it has to do with its creator.
David Lynch is famous for being tight-lipped about all the art he makes. He refuses to answer questions or reveal his intentions. While this can, at times, be frustrating for viewers, I find that his silence on his films leaves them wide open for interpretation and rife for discussion. Far from filmmakers who explain all the allegories, symbols and intricacies of their movies (such as Darren Aronofsky throughout the press junket for Mother!), Lynch leaves everything up to the audience. Whatever his intentions were with his films are secondary to what viewers take away from it. Without his approach, Mulholland Drive would perhaps have lost its charm years ago.
Mulholland Drive is, in every way, a perfectly-constructed question mark. From its conception to its creation, it only asks and never answers. For nearly two decades, it has confounded audiences, and thanks to its creator, it will likely remain that way. I, for one, look forward to continuing to get lost down this road for years to come, never quite knowing where it leads.