Drive Theory

David Lynch, Mulholland Drive, 2001, 35 mm, color, sound, 147 minutes. Betty Elms and Rita (Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring).

I think people know what Mulholland Drive is to them, but they don’t trust it.
—David Lynch

SOME FILMS YOU LOVE, some you hate; most you forget. If you’re lucky, one will have the power to completely derange you.

I first saw David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive shortly before midnight on October 7, 2001, the same day that airstrikes began in Afghanistan—the commencement of our nation’s own seemingly endless unraveling. Hours later, I would return to the same theater in Chelsea to watch the movie again; over the next six months that Mulholland Drive continued to play in New York, I would revisit it at least twenty more times. My screening companion for these compulsive viewings was always my then girlfriend, each of us narcotized by the film’s impossible romance.

Mulholland Drive, like earlier Lynch projects on screens large (1997’s Lost Highway) and small (1990–91’s Twin Peaks), unfolds with a plot that is simultaneously intricate and open-ended; doublings and mirrorings abound. Blonde sunny actress-hopeful Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), who rescues and becomes enamored with—are the terms redundant?—the beautiful, raven-haired amnesiac Rita (Laura Elena Harring), may or may not be the dreamed-of, ideal self of the abject character who replaces her in the film’s final thirty minutes: Diane Selwyn (also Watts), so undone by her breakup with Camilla Rhodes (Harring again) that she hires someone to kill her. Yet any attempt to “solve” Mulholland Drive’s many puzzles has always struck me as misguided; as sharply pointed out by Chris Rodley, whose 2005 revised edition of Lynch on Lynch is excerpted in the booklet accompanying Criterion’s Blu-ray and DVD release of Mulholland Drive, “[W]ords are the movie’s enemy.…”

Most, but not all, words, that is. In his eloquent, astute study David Lynch: The Man from Another Place, Dennis Lim writes that the film might be thought of “as a reflection on the pleasures and risks of believing in an illusion, be it movies or love.” For the sapphic viewer hopelessly (and equally) besotted by both cinema and women, Mulholland Drive ignites twin passions. References to other movies proliferate: Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977), among others, titles that, like Mulholland Drive, revolve around a central female dyad, the dynamics of which are protean and radically altered by a destabilizing love. And yet for as magnificent as those predecessors are, only in Lynch’s incomparable movie, following a logic that is at once elusively oneiric and emotionally intelligible, is a whole shadow history of Hollywood—that of actresses who loved other actresses, of the shame and humiliation so many of them endured both professionally and personally—tenderly and tragically excavated.

Rebekah Del Rio sings “Llorando” in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).

“I’m in love with you,” Betty whispers to Rita in between slow, steamy kisses. The line, one of many in Mulholland Drive that are repeated at least twice, is soon followed by Rita’s doubly uttered imperative, perhaps the most romantic command of all: “Go with me somewhere.” Their destination is Club Silencio, where the key mystery of cinema is painfully, almost unbearably laid bare during Rebekah Del Rio’s a cappella performance of “Llorando,” a Spanish-language version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” The women begin to weep, perhaps sensing that the wild, dangerous adventure they’ve been on—in other words, their love affair—for the past two days is also about to be exposed as a mirage. I can never watch that scene without tearing up, too devastated at having my own illusions shattered. But then as now, I know what will console me: watching the film again, whether a day or years later.

Mulholland Drive is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection. Dennis Lim’s David Lynch: The Man from Another Place, part of New Harvest’s “Icons” series, will be published on November 3.