Mulholland Dr.

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No hay banda: the illusions and obsessions of Mulholland Drive

Sep 6, 2005 (Updated Mar 5, 2007)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

  • Suspense:

Pros:Intoxicating and addictive.

Cons:The more I think about it, the sadder it becomes.

The Bottom Line: ... and it defies "bottom lines", too.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

There is no easy way to describe Mulholland Drive. More, perhaps, than any other movie, it defies taglines, first sentences, and last sentences. Anyone who has ever sat glued to the screen during an episode of Twin Peaks, not completely understanding what is going on, yet captivated by the haunting characters, the haunting settings, and the haunting music is already familiar with classical David Lynch; Mulholland Drive is in the general vein of Twin Peaks, but complicated and intensified manifold. Profoundly melancholy despite its rich colors and Tarantinesque humor, puzzling despite a mostly explicit narration, it is a most fascinating of riddles -- the cinematic equivalent of an old alchemy book. Most questions which Mulholland Drive raises, I feel, will never be laid to rest -- which is probably the film’s chief attraction, though not for those viewers who like closure.

My statement about closure may be misleading to someone who has never seen Mulholland Drive, so I hasten to add this: the significance (or significances) of the film is a world in itself. It has a plot, and most of it is linear; yet its meaning has baffled audiences and generated an ongoing flurry of elaborate theses whose interpretations are mind-bogglingly diverse. The movie has a definitive ending, yet it leaves the viewer with a nagging sense that there is a whole universe lying almost, but not quite, within his understanding. It is this interpretive closure to which I am referring.

The experience of Mulholland Drive is very personal, and, in my opinion, it is most enjoyable when not priorly tainted and prejudiced by experiences of other viewers. I therefore intend this review primarily for those who are familiar with Mulholland Drive, and caution anyone who has not seen it that my essay -- as, indeed, any detailed discussion of this film -- contains major spoilers not only as to the facts of the plot, but the very allegorical fabric of the movie.

If compelled to provide the briefest of synopses to someone who has not seen Mulholland Drive, I would describe its story as an attempt by the mind to re-imagine a failed life and to rid itself of profound guilt. Anything else, as I have hinted before, is a matter of interpretation.


The movie begins with fleeting appearances of jitterbugging couples, the sound of slow heavy breathing, and then an image of someone falling asleep in a mass of crumpled pink bed sheets. At this point, the film shifts to the nighttime Mulholland Drive, where a mysterious young woman (Laura Harring) survives a devastating accident – an accident which, ironically, saves her life, but also leaves her amnesiac. Dazed, she staggers downhill and into a posh apartment occupied by Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), a wholesome hopeful from Canada. After seeing a poster of Rita Hayworth in the bathroom, the amnesiac woman introduces herself as “Rita”, even though she does not remember her real identity. Inside Rita’s purse, the women find, instead of identifying documents or women’s paraphernalia, several packets of money and a strangely shaped blue key. Together, Betty and Rita track down the whereabouts of one Diane Selwyn, whose name is the only one Rita can vaguely recall. In Diane’s apartment, however, they discover a woman’s corpse, so badly decomposed that it is unidentifiable. After this gruesome discovery, Rita and Betty go home and make love.

In a seemingly unrelated plotline, a troubled movie director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), is being intimidated by the Hollywood mafia into casting an unknown blond confection, Camilla Rhodes, into the title role of his new film.

After their lovemaking, the story of Rita and Betty takes on an increasingly fantastic and sinister quality. Rita wakes up in the middle of the night chanting some mysterious incantation which has suddenly popped into her memory. The women leave the apartment and go to Club Silencio, whose lip-synching performance represents, perhaps, one of the most diabolical scenes in the history of cinema. After the Club Silencio scene, the plot rapidly disintegrates, and the movie shifts to Betty waking up in a drab apartment, on a bed covered with pink sheets.

Thus, everything up to this point has been a dream. In the last third of the film, we learn that Betty is really Diane Selwyn, the woman whose rotting corpse she had discovered in her dream. Rita is Camilla Rhodes, a successful and manipulative starlet, who has just broken off her relationship with Diane to take up with Adam Kesher. In the “reality” sequence, Camilla invites Diane to a party above Mulholland Drive, which seems like a conciliatory gesture, but in the end, culminates in utter humiliation and heartbreak for Diane. In her despair, Diane hires a hit man to kill Camilla, but afterwards, pursued by apparitions of an elderly couple (parents? authority figures? jitterbug contest judges? reincarnations of Camilla and Adam? a perversion of the traditionally innocuous image associated with old couples? take you pick) Diane kills herself, and the movie shifts once more to Club Silencio for a brief final scene.


What makes Mulholland Drive so frustrating is that it is not incomprehensible. In fact, anyone with enough curiosity to watch the entire movie will probably understand most of it in a way which is more or less plausible. Alas, it seems that no one – perhaps not even David Lynch himself – can explain all of it, and even the very notions of understanding and explanation are very slippery in Lynch’s world. The film seems easy to grasp in fragments – too easy, in fact – and leaves the viewer with an insurmountable longing to understand it consistently and as a whole.

Of course, we never fully understand our own vivid dreams. Like a real dream, Mulholland Drive begins to slip away as soon as it is over. Every fragment of the movie, every symbolic statement permits several explanations, and theories on various aspects of Mulholland Drive abound, ranging from suspiciously simple to exceedingly far-fetched. At the same time, there is no single, unifying interpretation of the film – no theory-of-everything, if you will; no paradigm which would at once allow all the pieces to fall neatly into place and exclude all other possibilities. It is this wide range of possible explanations, combined with the fact that no explanation will ever be sufficient, that gives the film its inimitable haunting quality.

As in an actual dream, Diane’s own illusion functions like a kaleidoscope, recombining people and their roles; some images appear, it seems, only as striking visual glimpses incorporated from reality; and then there are certain things which can never be rationalized. To make matters even more complicated, even the “reality” in Mulholland Drive is seen through the eyes of Diane, who is wracked with guilt, extremely depressed, and ultimately delusional. And still, this is not the end of the complication, since both Diane’s dream and her distorted “reality” take place in a movie. As can be expected of Lynch, the lines between reality, illusion, dream, memory and story-telling are very blurry – or, as we are told in Club Silencio, there is no line, at all.


Sometime after Mulholland Drive achieved its formidable cult status, the auteur offered to “help” the viewers understand his movie by furnishing a list of ten guiding questions. My own feeling about the Ten Clues is that they should be taken with a very big, healthy grain of salt.

I am a firm believer in Umberto Eco's principle that "an author does not interpret". ( Name of the Rose, postscript) It makes sense: for the author to interpret his own work, particularly one as rich and multilayered as Mulholland Drive, defeats the purpose of creating it in the first place. Therefore, unless the interpretation clearly represents a concession of defeat (such as, for example, Stendhal's ham-fisted effort to salvage the dull, pointless Armance), it is most likely to be a red herring. When it comes to the Ten Clues, I don't believe they are entirely spurious, but the questions which David Lynch poses in this "key" are too easily answered, each with more than one plausible answer; and all except one touch upon collateral and relatively inconsequential matters.


So what does it all mean? If I can presume to have an answer, Diane's dream functions as a wishful reconstruction of her life. Mulholland Drive itself represents the impassable breach which formed between Diane and Camilla in “real” life. The road marks a boundary which separates Camilla's world -- the hilltop community of Hollywood's rich and powerful celebrities, from Diane's -- the plebian working-class Los Angeles, populated by wannabes and has-beens. In the "reality" portion of the film, Camilla leads Diane up from Mulholland Drive into her splendid higher world, where the clueless Diane ends up completely at Camilla's mercy. In the "dream" portion, the roles are completely reversed: Camilla (now Rita) descends from Mulholland Drive onto Diane's turf to become her protégé.

Betty herself is the idealized version of Diane: more talented, richer, better connected, and quite possibly younger, as well. Rita, for her part, is Camilla altered for Diane's convenience: her memory and self have been wiped completely clean and her life is in danger. Rita is the ideal dream lover for someone as obsessive as Diane, for now the latter has ultimate physical and mental control over the woman she desires and she can win her love by saving her.

In Diane’s dream, her “real-life” persona is divided between Adam Kesher and the monster behind Winkie’s diner. The helplessness, bad choices and ill fortune are transferred completely onto Adam Kesher: the successful rival now becomes a marvelously cuckolded husband, thrown out of his own house and roughed up by his wife's lover. He is broke and friendless, hiding out in a dingy hotel. Even his movie is no longer his (he is told), and all he can do is grind his teeth in frustration. Like Diane in the "reality" portion, the "dream" version of Adam is carried forward by circumstances utterly beyond his control, determined and manipulated by others. In fact, despite the popular belief that Diane/Betty and Camilla/Rita are either the same woman or represent Diane’s desire to merge utterly and literally with her ex-lover, I believe the "dream" Adam is much more aptly described as the exact equivalent of and stand-in for the "real" Diane.

The monster behind Winkie’s absorbs Diane’s darker tendencies – her jealousy, anger, and violence. He is also the manifestation of the “dream” Camilla, on whose behalf most of the violence and intimidation in the “dream” is perpetrated. The “dream” even conjures up an outside witness to confirm that the monster “is the one who makes it all happen”. I didn’t do it, Diane seems to be saying, it’s the monster – another pitiful, childlike excuse added to the elaborate and equally puerile explanation for Camilla’s success and Diane’s failure in Hollywood.

The dream is, perhaps, a mosaic put together from the pieces of Diane’s entire broken life, and as such, it refers to many things which are not shown and are therefore a matter of guesswork and conjecture. It is all an echo (we are told at Club Silencio), likely distorted beyond recognition.


Some things in Mulholland Drive are nothing more than what they are: images and ideas from Diane’s “real” life, incorporated into her “dream”. As viewers, we are conditioned to interpret the appearance of certain objects in a movie as incidental to the characters at the time, but significant to the audience as the auteur’s direct message. With the exception of the Club Silencio scene, this, I believe, is not the case in Mulholland Drive. In a garden-variety play or movie, the audience knows that a gun is hanging on the wall because it will be fired, though the gun’s appearance and position is inconsequential to the characters. In Mulholland Drive, however, the main character is constructing her own “movie”, and thus if there is a gun on the wall, it is because Diane/Betty hanged it there with the knowledge and intention that it be fired. Whatever foreshadowing may be gleaned from the film, it is from Betty to Diane sooner than from Lynch to the viewer.

I cannot say with absolute certainty whether my take on Mulholland Drive’s symbolism is correct, but this approach helps reduce the number of possible interpretations for some of the film’s most elusive symbols.

The bearer of bad news. Does Betty’s crazy neighbor represent Cassandra? Why, of course. She does not merely represent Cassandra -- she is Cassandra, in the flesh. As an actress, Diane is certainly familiar with the character and the archetype, and thus conjures up Cassandra as an embodiment of her own inability to forget; for Diane already knows, before the viewer, that “Betty” is not a real identity and that a tragedy is in the process of unfolding. Similarly, when Betty dials Diane Selwyn’s number and remarks that “it’s strange to be calling yourself”, it is because somewhere in the back of her mind she knows that she is calling herself, and thus foreshadows her own inevitable awakening.

The Pink and “Pink’s”. Does the “dream’s” insistence on pink represent anything? Yes, but again, the representation is created by Diane for her own benefit, and only by extension is it Lynch’s for the benefit of the viewer.

Mulholland Drive’s deep reds and blues are easy enough to understand (or to presume to understand): life and death, male and female, earth and water, the Sun and the Moon, heart and soul, day and night, yin and yang, and so forth. The pink, however, is much more troubling. The theory of the child-abuse school of thought, which interprets Adam’s act of smothering his wife’s jewelry (“the family jewels”) in pink paint as a sexual metaphor, seems very dubious to me. Mulholland Drive’s particular shade of pink is too intense, too aggressive to be the “innocence” kind of color, and the theory becomes exceedingly self-serving and assumptive insofar as it writes off Diane’s homosexuality, relationship failure, and inability to cope with Camilla’s rejection as wholesale consequences of childhood molestation.

Does the pink then represent womanhood or homosexuality? Not likely, since the pink splotches revolve, to some degree, around Adam, who is neither a woman, nor gay – but not around Rita or Camilla, who is a woman and bisexual.

Does the pink represent Diane’s guilt over being a lesbian? Again, probably not. The Nazis’ use of the infamous pink triangle was followed by decades of women’s and lesbian groups adopting the color without any negative connotation. While an auteur could use pink in its Nazi-era sense to indicate shame, a character’s mind would not likely channel the color this way in her dream.

All this leaves me with the simplest explanation for the abundance of pink: a sea of pink sheets and a pink pillow were the last things which Diane saw before she fell asleep (though, I admit, that disturbing shade would be unusual for bed sheets), and the color left an imprint in her mind. As much as Diane is recreated through Betty, she still associates that pink bed with herself (and, possibly, painful memories of Camilla). This explains why the pink color is also associated with Adam, since in the “dream”, he takes on much of Diane’s persona and circumstances, particularly of the unhappy kind. After finding the pool-man’s van in the driveway, Adam’s becomes startled when he does not see the pool-man working on the pool; but somehow, it is the focus on the pink and jade lawn chairs by the side of the pool which create the same look of troubled recognition, or an effort to remember something, that we see on Adam’s face when he encounters Betty later.

The Cowboy. Is the Cowboy an omniscient medium who can travel between the “dream world” and the “real world”? This too, cannot be stated without taking Diane’s dream away from her. The simpler explanation is that the Cowboy is a representation of either Diane’s father or some kind of a father-figure. This is not to say that Diane’s real father is a hayseed with a funky hat, a droll, and no eyebrows; but, in Diane’s dream, all imports from the “real” world sport a thick cinematic gloss – notice the impossibly adorable apartment, the gaudy robe. The way the Cowboy addresses Diane at the end of her dream, his calm and authoritative lecturing of Adam (who is, after all, a stand-in for Diane), cowboyhood itself being the classical and somewhat cartoonish representation of absolute manhood and the father furnishing the default example of a man – all this casts the Cowboy into a decidedly paternal mold, even during his very fleeting appearances.

The Old Couple. There are some appearances in Mulholland Drive – like the old couple, Aunt Ruth, the therapist, the drag-racers, the detectives, and, to some extent, the monster – which cannot be explained at all, because they can mean anything. In the same vein, there are so many possible symbols of death, or fear, that cataloguing them would be pointless, as it is unclear whether they are cinematic devices or the characters’ actual feelings expressed through clichés. The movie’s last word can be interpreted – well, pretty much in any way that strikes your fancy. If these things represent anything, it is, perhaps, the point at which it is well-advised to stop obsessing over the film and realize that it is, after all, a fantasy about a dream.


We now come to the cherry on top of the cake. The scene at Club Silencio is itself a kind of a blue key to the mystery of Mulholland Drive. It stands out from the rest of the movie not only by virtue of its strongly demonical overtones, but, primarily, because it is the only scene in the “dream portion” of the movie none of which can be referenced to the “reality portion”. With the exception of Betty, Rita, and the Blue Box, not a single face, image or sound of Club Silencio occur outside of it.

Much of the Club Silencio scene is a monologue by the emcee, telling the audience in Spanish, French, and English that “there is no band”, that everything they hear is a recording. Subsequent numbers illustrate this point when performers abruptly stop, but the music keeps on playing. This is David Lynch speaking to the viewer directly (and then, to a great extent, misleading the viewer into ignoring his words), it is his own reserved corner of the movie, where, if not all questions are answered, then at least the question. The answer is repeated over and over, in the same cryptic phrase.

The choice of the word “banda” is startling, because it is so ambiguous. Of course, the primary meaning of the emcee’s speech is that there is no live orchestra in Club Silencio, but “banda” refers to more than just the music.

No hay banda. There is no band. Of course, “banda” can also mean “gang”. (In fact, when I first heard Rita chanting the phrase in bed, this was the meaning I instinctively attached to “banda”.) Thus, there is no gang, no villainous mafiosi menacing Rita, Betty or Adam. “Banda” can also mean “sash”, or “strip”, clearly evoking the winding serpentine of Mulholland Drive. Thus, there is no Mulholland Drive. “It’s all an illusion.” And, there is more: “banda sonora" means “soundtrack” – which is to say that even the recording we presume to be hearing in Club Silencio does not exist. There is no band, and then, there is no band, either. It’s all an hallucination. No hay banda.

No matter how many times the emcee drives the point home, however, Rebekah Del Rio’s sudden collapse during her heart-breaking rendition of “Crying”, with the song continuing even as she is being dragged off stage, still catches the viewer by surprise. This part of the Club Silencio scene is both a testimony to the power of the director (the emcee, David Lynch) to enchant the viewer, to lure him into the artificial construct of “reality”, and the final proof that when all illusions and symbols are finally peeled away, there is a black emptiness to swallow us whole. It is only logical, therefore, that it is in Club Silencio, after the performance, that Betty locates the Blue Box to match the strangely shaped Blue Key, found earlier in Rita’s purse. Even before the box is unlocked, however, Club Silencio has made it clear that the box is not a repository, except of further evidence of non-existence, but a portal from one nightmare to another. Even the difference between life and death is artificial: they are both, after all, nothingness cloaked in artifice.

The fact that Mulholland Drive negates the very existence of “reality” is the reason why I was never convinced by the popular treatment of Mulholland Drive as some sort of a critique of Hollywood. To begin with, the idea that David Lynch, of all people, would bemoan the lack of steely-eyed realism in art seems absurd to me. Mulholland Drive, in particular, is not the sort of film which would convey any moral stance, to say nothing of subjugating art to life (whatever the difference is, if any, in Lynch’s world). I did not get the impression that fakery is treated negatively, especially since the film itself indulges in it with such relish – rather, it is neutrally submitted as the only “real” fact, the reality that there is no reality. The fact remains, of course, that Mulholland Drive is set in the world of movies, but this is so simply because that setting is apt to delivering the message: it is all a dream within a nightmare within a movie, borne out of yet another dream inspired by another movie, and so forth; and even the movie inside the dream references Diane. Art is an endless library of references. The same conclusion can be applied just as easily to fiction, poetry, painting, photography, architecture, or any other form which involves imagination and embellishment.


Mulholland Drive infects. Not only is it an ever-receding fantasy in itself, but it entices the viewer to fantasize on. It is deeply affecting, and once seen, it refuses to let go. It is a testimony both to the inevitability and the futility of dreams.

To die: to sleep:
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, -- ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come?

Hamlet, III-1, 60-66 (one of several nods to Shakespeare in Mulholland Drive.)

Recommend this product? Yes

Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good Date Movie
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age

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