PRINT October 2001


Mulholland Drive

THAT DAVID LYNCH IS A GENUINE VISIONARY may be indisputable, but he has often seemed like an artist with a set of primal obsessions in lieu of a subject. Compelled to plunge headlong into his darkest fears, Lynch has conjured up some of the most mesmerizing passages in American cinema. But the imbalance between the hallucinatory and the desultory has been a constant in Lynch’s work—and a nagging source of frustration. It’s easy to understand his artistic dilemma, though: Creating sequences of such uncanny power necessarily upsets the very idea of narrative or thematic resolution; those spellbinding intervals overwhelm not just the characters but the film itself.

With the unjustly maligned Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), Lynch made a movie that was at once mind-bending and thematically focused. There was, at the core of that film, a sense of moral outrage over the reality of sexual abuse. In Mulholland Drive (which makes its US debut at the New York Film Festival this month), Lynch explores the same subject, with even greater force—only this time there are (perhaps) two women, and the abusive father is that pitiless dream machine called Hollywood.

Mulholland Drive—which by now everyone knows began as a TV pilot and ended up a feature—opens with a car crash. A gorgeous young brunette (Laura Elena Harring) is about to take a hit man's bullet when a carful of drunken teenagers collides with her limo. Unable to remember even her own name, she stumbles out of the wreckage and into the glittering night carrying a strange, triangular key in her purse and a bag stuffed with cash. Soon she will meet Betty (Naomi Watts), a corn-fed blond newly arrived in LA to pursue her show-biz dreams. Betty and mystery girl, who has christened herself Rita before a poster of Gilda, embark on a Nancy Drew–style search for Rita’s identity. Thrown together by chance, they are drawn to each other. The desire for adventure, to be famous on the big screen (Betty hooks up with a putter-wielding David Fincher–type hotshot director), to know the truth, to become one with another, all merge into a single, overwhelming current of feeling. Betty and Rita make love, then attend a dread-inducing performance in a mysterious cabaret. Betty finds a lockbox in her bag, which Rita later opens with her key, prompting identities and personalities to shift and events to replay, with different players and outcomes. At which point we realize that Lynch is giving us a tour of the ugly works concealed at the heart of the dream machine, fueled by a steady supply of innocent young . . . Betties.

In Mulholland Drive, Lynch’s dual obsessions with film noir and hot babes take on new meaning (it helps that he has an actress as subtle as Naomi Watts to handle all the twists and turns in Betty’s violently zigzagging trajectory), and Hollywood’s terrible logic is exposed with mordant clarity. Never before has Lynch made a film that arcs this exquisitely, from bewitching start to ineffably sad finish.

Kent Jones is a New York-based critic and film programmer.