Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

Few films operate at the juncture of known information and presumed dreaming like 2001’s Mulholland Drive. There are things we know, and questions we know only as unanswered. So prominent is the problem of whether and how to explain, that nearly any attempt to interpret the film ends up using the film to debate interpretation.

We know that following the success of Twin Peaks, David Lynch conceived the Hollywood noir as a TV show for ABC, and has since expressed regret at that pilot’s pacing (too slow), length (too constricted), and continued circulation (we might take from this that Mulholland Drive was never meant for this world, except Lynch narrates the series’ translation to feature film as a natural, even optimal development from its “strange beginning”). We know doubling and fragmentation plague the movie’s plot, though we don’t know precisely how or if its pieces fit. We know, courtesy of Lynch’s tagline and sole explanatory gesture, that it’s a love story set in the city of dreams.

What we don’t know is how to understand it as such, not when the tagline’s simplicity seems wildly incommensurate with the film itself. Such a disparity makes the simple explanation look insincere, like a smug, self-conscious red herring, an in-joke at the viewer’s expense. Many critics have applied all manner of conceptual frameworks and symbologies to the movie’s images, characters, and events, in efforts to solve its mysteries. A smaller but still vocal number of critics take the position of interpretative humility succinctly expressed by Roger Ebert: There is no explanation. There may not even be a mystery.


The question of mystery—whether there is one, and how to engage it—adheres chiefly to the film’s two-part structure. In Part One, we meet acting hopeful and prize-winning jitterbug dancer Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) fresh in LA from Deep River, Ontario. We also meet “Rita” (Laura Elena Harring), an amnesiac car accident survivor who holes up in Betty’s aunt’s vacated apartment. Once Betty realizes Rita doesn’t know who she is, the women partner up to discover her true identity, with Rita establishing leads via psychic premonition and Betty playing peppy lead detective. Harring’s Rita is alternately skittish and tranquilized, mooning around the apartment in a slack velvet robe. For Betty, the mystery of Rita’s damage only enhances her appeal, and the prospect of its resolution is wholly compatible with her ambitions to explore—and ultimately join—the Dream Factory.

“It’ll be just like in the movies. Pretending to be someone else,” Betty says, suggesting they call the police to confirm Rita’s crash. Later, when Rita recognizes the name Diane Selwyn from a waitress uniform, they call the only number listed. Across the shared receiver, Betty whispers, “It’s strange to be calling yourself.” In a film about memory loss, these nods to self-reflexivity are forehead-slappingly evocative, and they presage a Part Two in which Watts and Harring play different but analogous characters: Watts as contemptuous failed actor/jilted lover Diane Selwyn, and Harring as movie star Camilla Rhodes. In its 2 1/2 hour runtime, Mulholland Drive gives us dead and collapsed bodies, implied fucking, seething masturbation, musical numbers, assassinations, and a series of repeated objects/images whose potency is as clear as their functions are enigmatic. But it’s the relations between Watts’ and Harring’s characters, and the nature of the point at which they intersect or convert, that obsesses would-be interpreters. So much so, that the task of describing the movie’s structure results in a hysterical proliferation of language.


Ranking Mulholland Drive number 1 on a list of best horror films since The Shining, David Edelstein characterizes its structure as a kind of switchback: “The movie flirts with being a conventional whodunit. Then—this is what makes it horror—the story line splinters, doubles back on itself, and begins to forge an entirely new set of connections.” Co-author Bilge Ebiri elaborates: “The film’s story starts off as one thing, and is then totally corrupted and becomes something else—or rather, it becomes many different things.” A splinter, a doubling-back, a transformative corruption. These disparate forms, each with its own implications, join a host of metaphors used to describe the way Lynch’s film is something—some thing—and then something else.

Poets are fanatical about describing turns: moments of rhetorical, analytical, or emotional redirection. The range of terminology varies widely in implied speed and force; a turn may be termed anything from a “swerve” to a “seat.” A sonnet turn is often called a volta, a syntactical juncture before the sestet that conventionally concludes the form. Despite its divergence, the volta doesn’t necessarily threaten a poem’s overall unity. It’s transporting—and may even constitute time travel, shuttling what was a reflection on the past to consideration of the immediate present—but it tends to crystallize, rather than cancel or correct, what came before.

Mulholland Drive is frequently described as having two “halves.” The dream of Part One, and the reality of Part Two. Details vary, but most readings agree that Betty is a figment subsumed under Diane. But the turn in Lynch’s film isn’t a midpoint. Though Part Two is widely interpreted as “real,” its temporality is closer to the brief duration of a dream relative to hours spent awake. I don’t point this out just to nitpick, but to distinguish Mulholland Drive from films whose gimmick-cum-purpose is to juxtapose opposing perspectives (Laetitia Colombani’s 2002 Amélie-gone-awry He Loves Me…He Loves Me Not comes to mind, as does David Fincher’s Gone Girl and subsequently inspired thrillers). Movies like these seem to destabilize reality, only to assert the primacy of one narrative and expose all else as a dream/hoax/illness. By contrast, what Mulholland Drive does is closer to Lynch-favorite The Wizard of Oz: what came before was a fever dream, but you were there. And you, and you.


In 1966, Susan Sontag traced the search for meaning back to an eternal youth spell for objects; a way of reading that makes old things, concerned with old ideas, resonant for perennially new audiences. Film is the lighthouse of her polemic, the medium whose pronounced sensuousness seems most resistant to aggressive critical alteration.

But movies like Lynch’s tend to expedite the interpretative impulse. Whether venerating his work’s genius or lamenting its prevailing nonsense, the decoder-ring approach assumes mastery over something that’s already changed by the time it’s tamed by understanding. The Mulholland Drive of our coherent re-imagining is no more faithful to the film itself than Betty’s arrival to L.A., rendered wordlessly by the film’s opening, is reducible to the stilted story Diane recounts at Adam’s dinner party.

If “[t]he task of interpretation is virtually one of translation,” the process of translation is vaguely archeological, dusting off or drilling through a surface. It’s precisely that surface Sontag longs to preserve. Take A Streetcar Named Desire; in translation,

Tennessee Williams’ forceful psychological melodrama now became intelligible: it was about something, about the decline of Western civilization. Apparently, were it to go on being about a play about a handsome brute named Stanley Kowalski and a faded mangy belle named Blanche Du Bois, it would not be manageable.

So what about Mulholland Drive? What if, instead of Freud’s uncanny, or poststructuralist subjectivity, or the language of dreams, or Lynch’s own frustrations with Hollywood, it were about the unlikely entanglement of an earnest, fearless ingénue and an amnesiac femme fatale? And then about a shadow pushed to destroy herself and her lover, who is and has everything she desperately wants and is too unstable to successfully secure; about systems of men with opaque power, and a corrupt film industry fueled by and fueling their desire; about kissing, cheating, the glitter of lights seen from above and at a distance, fright and secrecy, decomposition, wearing red and black together, and the paradoxes of performance (music in lieu of a band; an audition more real than the room it plays in).

Is this manageable? Is it enough?


Ultimately, Sontag wants not to argue against meaning, but to disturb the compulsory correlation between meaning and merit, so a thing can be good, or at least pleasurable, apart from what it means. Pushing for an erotics of art, she asks, what if we retain worthiness, but turn to a different mode of study?

The voice that comes closest to answering this call, and to giving Mulholland Drive the reading it deserves, belongs to literary scholar Heather K. Love. Her 2004 reading of lesbianism as figured by Mulholland Drive may be concerned with applying a framework to content (as that description likely suggests), but it’s also uniquely, fearlessly attentive to form. She describes the film with an easy immediacy not usually used on Lynch, particularly in her discussion of Betty and Rita’s sex scene.

Betty and Rita have just confronted Diane Selwyn’s graying corpse. They go home, both inexplicably certain that Rita needs a makeover (for protection?). The camera pans over a countertop littered with cosmetic paraphernalia: brushes and combs, hot rollers, cotton swabs, bottles of hair dye, and two red wigs redolent of Gilda herself. None of these objects could possibly result in the smooth blonde bob wig Rita ultimately wears, in the Single White Female reveal-shot of Betty standing beside her in the mirror. Holding Rita’s gaze, Betty seems pleased with her/their work: “You look like someone else,” she says.

Soon after, Rita concedes to share the apartment’s one bed with Betty. She drops her too-small towel and stands briefly in front of the window, backlit and, according to Love, “punishingly voluptuous.” Love goes deeper on the women’s mid-makeout dialogue, a cliché exchange that explodes what clichés are thought to do.

Betty pauses to give voice to that ultimate cliché of the lesbian encounter: “Have you ever done this before?” In response to this naive (or faux-naive) question, Rita’s honestly amnesiac response is “I don’t know. Have you?” The intense pleasure and surprise of this line is difficult to account for. It shines more brightly for being set against a background of hardened clichés. …Together with Betty’s next response (“I want to with you”), this line suggests that what we have done and who we are does not count for much—what matters instead is what we are about to do, what we want to do.


The intense pleasure and surprise Love locates in Rita’s answer is there throughout the film, in its textures of humor and suspense as well as desire, on both sides of what Love, naming the turn, calls “the hinge.”

The hinge is not just the moment we tunnel into, or perhaps through, the blue box; it’s the entirety of the scene of Rebekah del Rio’s lip sync performance. Del Rio sings a rich Spanish-language version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” evoking the “In Dreams” lip sync, also Orbison, from Blue Velvet. I’m reminded too of the Porter’s teary lip sync of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” in the immersive production Sleep No More, and of artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s 30-minute video “God” (2007), in which a tuxedoed Kjartansson sings with a small jazz orchestra in a ballroom drenched with rather Lynchian hot pink curtains.

In “God,” Kjartansson sings slight variations of an eight-bar minor key melody with the single repeating lyric, “sorrow conquers happiness.” I was lucky to see this work in person at the Hirshhorn last winter, screened on its own in a small room likewise lined in loud pink fabric. Though Kjartansson’s video presents the artist’s actual voice, as opposed to a lip sync in which the body of the performer ventriloquizes that of the singer, the self-conscious presentation of theatricality here has a similar effect. Something staged, something fake, nonetheless makes space for feeling.

Like how an audition, an aspirational pretense aimed at a future fake display, may hold space for something true and spontaneous. In his rigorous dissection of Betty’s audition, film scholar George Toles thinks about helplessness in the context of cinematic thralldom. I, too, find this scene compelling, but not remotely in a way that’s framed by an expectation for Betty to fuck up. “If we were asked to predict the outcome of Betty’s audition early in the scene, my guess is that most viewers would envision (perhaps even wish for) a disastrous comic deflation of poor Betty’s hopes,” writes Toles. Which viewers? The me who binges unexpectedly successful talent show tryouts on YouTube is ready for Betty to come through, and awed when she does, and moved by the later realization that this performance is perhaps Diane’s fantasy of getting it right.

Reading her audition as simply transgressing expectations set forth by her silly run-through in the kitchen with Rita presupposes that we know what a rehearsal is, what an audition is; what comprises a performance, and what’s wholly authentic. Mulholland Drive asks that these very categories be noticed and released, like familiar but ultimately intrusive thoughts during meditation. For Lynch, familiarity helps us recognize things, so they may be made strange—or shown to have always been stranger, more supple than we supposed.


Supposedly every single person in your dreams is really you. Not just the figure you know you are, but your critics, your illogically cruel lover, and every erratic bystander you recognize but can’t explain. I’ve invoked this folk wisdom chronically for years, to absolve myself from things I’ve been told I said and did in someone’s dream. I don’t remember who told me this, but whoever it was was probably doing the same.

I don’t want to talk about what Mulholland Drive means, especially not if talking entails the evacuative puzzling out of whether Betty and Rita, Betty and Diane, Rita and Camilla, blonde Rita and brunette Rita, blonde Camilla and Rita-Camilla, and all the other paired and doubled players are “really” the “same.” Not when what matters are the ways in which Lynch’s work reacts to our need not to understand, but to be understood, at our most oversimplified and meaningless: our dreams.