A Multi-Layered Analysis of Mulholland Dr. (by Alan Shaw)
Like so many others, I thought the movie Mulholland Drive was an inspired work. The power of it does not just emanate from its eerie and mysterious atmosphere, its taste for conspiracy and intrigue, and its poignant love story which ends tragically in betrayal, murder and suicide. The force of the movie comes across in the way most scenes are able to communicate on many different levels at the same time. This, in effect, challenges you to tease apart the significance of the multiple layers if you are to really understand the message at the subtext of the story. And just as the metaphorical structure at the subtext of the story is difficult to grasp, the context of the story at the surface level is also a complicated and puzzling challenge. As in other works by Lynch, there are serious plot twists and shuffled timelines that force the viewer to do some work to decide what the chronological sequence of events in the story really was. But this movie doesn't stop there. Even with a reasonable chronological story line, the logic of the events is still very illusive. The true genius of Mulholland Drive is in the way that it employs an intricate language of symbolism and metaphor that would give even a complex novel a run for its money.
Because of how thick and richly textured this movie is, most reviews of it focus on explaining the plot twists and how the characters are interwoven with one another so that they can make sense of the basic story line. And by doing this, the reviews often de-emphasize the need to understand how to decipher the symbols and metaphors that are major driving forces in the movie. However, that approach can be problematic because without a method for interpreting the symbolism, the basic story line is easy to misread. For instance, two of the major symbols in the movie are the blue key and the blue box. But you cannot totally understand these symbols without understanding why they are blue since symbolic colors are a major device running through the entire movie. Even blonde, brunette and redhead hair colors have special significance. And there are scores of other symbols as well. Names, references to other films, artwork, plot devices, special props, ordinary items like telephones, and certain articles of clothing among other things are also important to deciphering the context and the subtext.
With that said, I think there are many different depths to which you can go in an analysis of this film. In my attempt to be as thorough as possible, I have written an analysis that digs very deep, and in doing so, I have probably gone into more detail than most viewers of the movie would care to attempt. So, like Lynch, I have decided to provide a multi-layered work for those who are interested in better understanding the film. In this review, I will begin by presenting a surface level contextual interpretation of Mulholland Drive which I believe is very approachable for the casual viewer. In it, I will make very little mention of Lynch's abstract symbolism and his extensive referencing of other works, and I will not dig into the philosophical subtext of the film. Next, in a more detailed way, I will describe my method of reasoning through the meaning of the symbols in this movie after I describe what I believe is some of the background and motivation for this work. In my view, looking at the background and motivation give important clues concerning how to unlock the symbolism, and this will require that I touch on some relevant historical details. After doing this, I will present what I believe to be the chronological life story of the protagonist, which is obscured and hidden in the complex narration. I will then go over the scenes in the order that they are presented in the movie with a fuller explanation of how I interpret whatever symbolism I believe is involved. And then, after all that, I will address David Lynch's "10 clues to unlocking this thriller." Finally, my conclusion will attempt to pull together a coherent interpretation of the heart and soul of this masterpiece, explaining why I believe the film can move a viewer so powerfully even if that viewer does not fully understand the logic of the core narrative.
An Interpretation of the Basic Narrative
Mulholland Drive is a story about a woman named Diane Selwyn who is experiencing an extreme mental and emotional breakdown. For reasons that become progressively clearer, her life has reached a point of desperate crisis that has driven her into a suicidal depression. The most apparent cause of her deteriorating condition is guilt over a horrible incident she recently set in motion. Diane is a Hollywood wannabe who fell in love with another aspiring starlet. However, after the two of them become involved with one another, at some point Diane is jilted and humiliated by this woman, and so she hires a hit man to murder her estranged lover. Once the deed is done, Diane descends into a downward spiral of guilt and despair. The first three-quarters of the movie explore a dream that Diane has soon after she has learned about the death of her lover. The last quarter of the movie occurs after Diane wakes up and then explores her memories of the weeks and days leading up to the killing in the form of flashbacks. Diane's flashbacks reveal to us actual events that occurred in her life, while the fantasy story line takes characters from her real life, gives them new identities in most cases, and weaves them into a fanciful and passionate conceptualization of her internal conflict. Because of the fact that the fantasy occurs before the reality segment, the two may seem distinct, but you need to see the end to understand the beginning. And yet, in many ways, the fantasy explains the reality as well. As we see the fantasy and reality story lines played out, we come to realize that there are many complex issues involved that are quite mysterious and that are profoundly important to understanding the forces that shaped Diane's tragic life.
In Diane's mind there are so many conflicting emotional crosscurrents that she is having trouble sorting everything out. Indeed, if we were to look into her mind and give these different crosscurrents personalities of their own, it would be like entering a society full of strange and enigmatic characters battling over what to do with Diane Selwyn's life. And in fact, that is what we do by entering the fantasy world that Diane dreams up after falling asleep in the beginning of the movie. We enter her mind at a point during which various characters--or more precisely various personas--in her mind are trying to kill off one of the major personas who is patterned after a woman whom Diane loved in the real world. This woman has played a central role in Diane's life, and the woman's persona in Diane's mind is now seen as the source of all of Diane's problems by some of Diane's other personas. To some of these personas, Diane's life is like a movie production, because in the real world becoming a movie star in Hollywood is very important to Diane. The persona that the others hate represents a woman that Diane had loved so deeply that her persona had been the star of this production for some time now, and the personas that attempt to assassinate her are interested in replacing her with someone else. We enter Diane's fantasy world at a point right before the assassination attempt, when the hated persona is traveling up Mulholland Drive, the fabled road that leads up a hill where important personalities in the movie business live. The hill is almost like Mount Olympus to Diane, because the people who live on that hill are like gods in the movie business, and now the hated persona is heading up there to try to become one of them.
This is where the fantasy begins, and from there the plot thickens. The assassination attempt fails because of a car accident, but the hated persona is driven down the hill, injured and unable to remember anything. The other personas are now able to go on with their movie making without her, and as they begin to fight over who to re-cast as the next lead, some nefarious personas are still out looking for the hated one to try and finish the job. And a couple of other personas are curiously drawn to a place called Winkie's where there is some kind of monster living in the alley behind the store. We do not learn about the nature of this beast and why it is behind Winkie's until near the end of the movie.
As the fantasy gets underway, it turns out that the personas in Diane's mind are about to have a visitor. Right before the real Diane Selwyn fell asleep, she was struck by an important memory that is now inserting itself into her troubled fantasy land. Her memory had to do with her younger years when she was the winner of a Jitterbug contest in Deep River, Ontario. At that time in her life, she had an innocent and somewhat naïve personality that is all but gone now in her current disturbed mindset. However, somewhere deep inside Diane's mind there is the desire to bring back this innocent persona, because it is seen as the key to survival for the suicidal Diane. In the real world, Diane has bought a gun and placed it in a drawer next to her bed, and she is considering using it on herself if she does not find a reason to live again. In contrast, the innocent persona of her past was enthusiastic about life because she was filled with a passionate dream about becoming a Hollywood movie star. And perhaps even more importantly to the current day Diane who feels bitter and unloved, this innocent persona of the past who was so full of hope, also felt deeply loved by Diane's dear departed aunt. Therefore, in a last ditch effort to resolve her distress, Diane inserts the innocent persona who feels hopeful and loved, into the mess of a world that her mind has become. But will this innocence be able to survive as it comes into contact with all of the other forces at work within Diane's mind? This is a difficult question for a viewer to ask, because it is not necessarily clear to the viewer that Diane's innocent persona is even in danger until the fantasy is just about over. This is because some of the forces that threaten to destroy that innocence cannot be completely understood until the end of the movie. But the fantasy itself plays out the question for us anyway, showing us what the result ultimately is of bringing the innocence of the past into contact with the jaded world of the present.
The innocent persona of Diane is given the name Betty for reasons that again do not get explained until the end of the movie. It is important to note that the first thing that Betty does when she arrives in the airport, which is her doorway into this fantasy world, is separate herself from two individuals who show up with her. I believe these individuals represent her grandparents who were there with her when she won the important Jitterbug contest of the past, but she acts like she does not know them very well in this fantasy. Although they say many nice things, they seem to show a sinister side to themselves as they leave the airport laughing maniacally. Like the monster behind Winkie's, we don't see them again until the end of the movie.
The next thing Betty does is head straight to the former home of her aunt, which is the place where she felt so deeply loved as a child. It is from there that she wishes to make her mark on the world, and in this case, the world of the current day Diane Selwyn's mind. However, when she gets there she discovers the fugitive persona that other personas have just attempted to kill. This is an unexpected turn of events for her, but it intrigues her. She does not know who this persona is, but she believes the persona has some connection to her beloved aunt, so Betty immediately begins to trust her. It turns out that the persona did see Betty's dear departed aunt as the aunt was leaving on a trip to the north, and by complimenting the aunt's red hair, the persona makes a good impression on Betty. This is a very significant point. There are many clues that later hint at the fact that the aunt's red hair made a strong impression on Diane as a child. And as we shall see, the fugitive uses an association with the red hair to become associated with the aunt. Betty loved her aunt deeply, and in this dream the fugitive persona has been allowed to enter the aunt's home, which is like a sanctuary of love in Diane's mind. Allowing the fugitive into that sanctuary is a way of telling us early on that Diane's innocent Betty persona is connecting her love of her aunt with her feelings for the fugitive.
However, the fugitive persona actually has no relationship with the aunt. In fact, the persona's fake association with the aunt is somewhat parallel to the type of fake association that the fugitive makes by taking the name of the glamorous Rita Hayworth. The fugitive pretends to be Rita Hayworth, and Rita Hayworth was a Hispanic starlet who pretended to be a red head. The famous Rita Hayworth dyed her naturally black hair red to create a more glamorous image for herself. I believe that both the fugitive's and Rita Hayworth's pretense of a connection to the red hair is related to the fake image-making Hollywood enterprise that ultimately dupes Diane and her innocent Betty persona. But eventually Betty does find out that this Rita persona is not who she says she is. Betty further discovers that Rita has amnesia caused by an accident she was in and for some reason she feels that her life is in danger. Also, Rita's purse is filled with money and a blue key, which causes a fearful reaction in her.
Although Betty does not know what she is getting in to, she decides to help Rita. We begin to see the dynamic where Betty/Diane is drawn to Rita/Camilla almost like a moth to a flame, with no knowledge of the history involving the Rita persona that has made the other personas in Diane's mind so upset. And this means that Betty tries to embrace a version of Rita that is as innocent as is Betty herself. Furthermore, Rita's mystery gives Betty a chance to connect with her goal of becoming a star in more ways than one. She says to Rita, "It'll be just like in the movies. We'll pretend to be someone else." This statement is also one of Lynch's many hints about the nature of the events in this portion of the film, because just about all of the personas are pretending to be someone else.
While Betty is protecting Rita, other various characters are engaging in some bizarre activities. I believe all of the activities make sense when you look at the symbolism involved, but that is a discussion I only take up in my more detailed analysis below. Suffice it to say that Diane's mind is filled with many other important personas, such as: certain legitimate and illegitimate Hollywood powerbrokers; two movie directors; a few actresses; a sleazy actor; a maternal apartment manager; a seedy hotel manager and club MC; a hit man; a prostitute; various pimps; a monster; a midnight cowboy; a female mystic and a male magician; among others. Betty does not interact with most of these personas, but she does with some of them, and most of those that she does interact with like her immensely. In fact, Adam, who is one of the two director personas, was quite captivated by her. So much so, that it is clear that he wanted to make her the star of the movie production that many of the personas are so focused on. However, he could not do this because of the intimidation and coercion he was being subjected to by some of the unsavory personas who had not met Betty. So ultimately, Betty's goal of becoming the star persona in the world of Diane's mind gets sidetracked, and instead Betty focuses on trying to protect and redeem the Rita persona. As it turns out, this will not be easy, because she and the Rita persona discover another persona that represents the dead body of Diane Selwyn. Rita instinctively knows this is why so many other personas are against her, and she is terrified by the implications. So Rita decides to change her image. With the help of Betty, Rita is transformed into a doppelganger of Betty. By merging with the innocence of Betty, the Rita persona hopes to escape the fate of being eliminated from Diane's mind.
Betty has always had the desire to embrace the Rita persona. Rita is like a glamorous Hollywood starlet, and Betty has always wanted to become like one of them as well. So after Rita has put on a blonde wig to make herself look like Betty, Betty tells Rita to take it off and come into the bed with her. She wants to connect as deeply as possible to the glamorous Rita persona by making love to her. As they proceed to do just that, Betty professes to actually love Rita for real. Unfortunately, silence is Rita's only response. And it is this silence that triggers a set of realizations that begins to bring an end to both the Rita and the Betty personas in Diane's mind.
The Betty persona had been brought into the world of Diane's mind because she represented a certain time when Diane felt loved by her aunt, and she embodied a zealous hope for a Hollywood career, and she personified a certain type of innocence. But all three of these rationales for Betty's existence are now falling apart. First off, Diane's aunt was never around when Betty was present during the entire fantasy and so Betty never succeeded in reconnecting with her aunt's love. And since Betty was also unable to get Rita to say she loved her just like Diane was probably unable to get Camilla to profess love for her, Diane was still stuck in an unloved state. Secondly, Betty did not succeed in getting the other personas to make Betty the star of the central movie production in her mind. Even though the other personas got rid of the first Camilla, they choose another Camilla-type of persona instead of the Betty persona to be the one that they believed could be a star. Again, this was ultimately just like the real life of Diane who had lost confidence in herself long ago, so she did not believe that a person like her could ever become a star. In fact, that is why she wanted so much to become like Camilla. And thirdly, there is a growing realization that Betty's innocence has been lost as well. There is something about Betty engaging in sexual activity to win Rita's love that brings back a horrible memory. There are hints of the issue throughout the fantasy, but the most obvious one comes up when Betty is doing an audition with the lecherous actor named Woody.
In the script for the audition, Woody, an older man, plays the part of a character named Chuck. Betty is much younger than him, something that becomes clear when he wants her to do some unspoken terrible thing and she threatens to tell her dad about it. However, apparently she has done this thing with him before, because she is disgusted with herself, saying, "I hate you... I hate us both!" And whatever she did with this man named Chuck, the fact that the man was her father's "best friend" just makes it even worse. The clear implication is that she was involved sexually with "Chuck" at a very young age, and this represented clear sexual abuse because the script says "Chuck" would have been arrested if Betty had told anyone. We don't know much about Chuck, other than the fact that he wasn't the father, although he was a man who was very close to the father. Later, when we see the grandmother and grandfather appear as demons who chase Diane into her bedroom tormenting her until she commits suicide, we can deduce that Chuck may well have been the grandfather, with the grandmother siding with him in order to cover it up. Thus, the images in the beginning of the film that show the grandmother and grandfather characters being loving and supportive in the Jitterbug scene and in the airport scene may have been misleading. Since Diane distances herself quickly from these figures and never revisits them after Betty arrives in the fantasy, their relationship to her was ambiguous at best. And their bizarre laughter as they left the airport without Betty hints at a more sinister reality in their relationship with Diane. And this means that the Betty persona's innocence was just an oversimplification of her traumatic history. And Diane's attempt to repress the reality of the past trauma, although understandable, was a complete failure.
Betty and Rita come to realize these awful truths during the Club Silencio scene. A magician who performs at Club Silencio tells them in many different ways that what they experienced during the fantasy wasn't real, it was all an illusion. The chance to reconnect with Aunt Ruth, the chance to become a star, and the idea that Betty had not already lost her innocence, were all false truths. Aunt Ruth's name may even be an indication of this because if you just remove the first letter it becomes "untruth". At the end of the magician's performance, he emphatically tells us to "Listen!" Then, as flashes of lightning and peals of thunder fill the theater, Betty's body gets tense and starts shaking uncontrollably. While she does this, the magician's face looks like he is straining, and he is somewhat tense as well. And then, suddenly there is the sound of a man making a grunting sound, like he is releasing something pent up inside of him. Then the magician relaxes with an evil grin on his face, as Betty also relaxes finally, looking unsure of what just happened. Next, in a cloud of smoke the magician vanishes. I believe that this last revelation from the magician was sexual in nature. The magician was forcing Diane to relive how her Betty-like innocence was lost long ago when she had been raped as a child.
All that is left now is the tears, and so Rebekah del Rio comes out to sing the Spanish version of a song called "Crying," written by Roy Orbison. Before singing the song, Rebekah del Rio is introduced in Spanish as "The Crying Lady of Los Angeles." This title is also the name of a legendary Spanish woman who was jilted by her husband who left her with their two children for another woman. Overwhelmed by the loss of her lover, she kills her two children and herself. In a certain sense, this is a hint that Diane's grief in the real world has made her homicidal as well as suicidal. And later we find out that Diane is in fact responsible for a homicide. So, even before her song is done, Rebekah del Rio collapses, probably in death, as if to emphasize to Diane that death is all around, and all hope is lost.
With all of this information, Betty and Rita discover that Betty now has a blue box in her purse that they assume the blue key in Rita's purse will open. So the two of them rush back to the aunt's apartment where Rita's purse is located, so that they can get the key and open the box. But when the key and the box are in the same room together, Betty disappears before the two of them can even open the box. It appears that Diane's mind experiences an extreme feeling of guilt when the key and the box are in the same room. The guilt involved forces her to abandon any more pretense of innocence. And since Betty is that pretense, she cannot remain any longer, and so she vanishes. The guilt I am referring to here is the guilt that causes Rebekah del Rio to collapse while being associated with the Crying Lady who killed her two children. It is the guilt that Diane probably had in real life when she found the blue key that signified that the hit man had killed Camilla. Just by finding the key, Diane was forced to confront her guilt. We saw the same kind of collapse that Rebekah del Rio experienced when a character known as Dan faced the beast behind the Winkie's. Dan was a character from Diane's real life who looked at her at the same time that the hit man showed her the key for the first time. Thus, the Dan persona's relationship to Diane involved the key in her mind, and this is the primary reason he is in her fantasy. So, since Dan was afraid of finding something behind the Winkie's, then the key that the hit man left for Diane was most likely found behind the Winkie's. It killed off Dan when he went back there to face it in a way analogous to the way that the Betty persona cannot face the moment that the key and the box are finally present together. Together they represent the knowledge of the horrible act that has condemned Diane to a guilt-ridden existence.
However, the Rita persona did not represent innocence, so Rita does not disappear initially like Betty. But Rita does represent Camilla, the person that Diane paid a hit man to have killed. The blue key was the secret token that would be left for Diane to find, probably behind the Winkie's, when the deed was done. This means that the secret inside the blue box that is opened by the blue key, involves the realization that Camilla is no more. This follows because the box represents the truth that is opened up by the key, and the key revealed Camilla's death to Diane. So, when Rita opens up the box and sees nothingness, she seems to be sucked into it. Then when the box falls to the ground, we see that it is still empty. Thus, Rita follows Camilla's fate as she is finally eliminated. The box has taken her out of the picture of the fantasy world in Diane's open mind.
Needless to say, Diane's fantasy failed to resolve the issues with which she was struggling. She wakes up, interacts irritably with her neighbor, sees the key, and then begins to have flashbacks showing what led up to her current deteriorating state. By in large, these flashbacks involve the cruel break up of her relationship with Camilla, and the fact that she went to a hit man to have Camilla killed in the aftermath of the breakup. Once the flashbacks have ended, she imagines that her grandparents are demons now released from the blue box in her fantasy, and that they have now come to get her. They chase her to the bedroom while she is screaming hysterically. After they have caused her to fall onto the bed, she pulls a gun from the dresser drawer and shoots herself in the head. As she is dying, we see the monster's face again, the one that was behind the Winkie's. It fades into her face because the monster was part of her, representing a twisted persona that drove her to do something for which she could never forgive herself. Next, as she is dying she also sees the Betty and Rita personas, and the Rita persona has on the blonde wig. It is as though the two personas have finally successfully merged and they are truly happy at last. A merger of the past innocent persona that Diane desperately wanted to hold on to with the passionate starlet persona she had always wanted to become. Ending her own life seems to have been a type of retribution for the murder, since she is now free of the guilt and finally able to embrace both the Betty and the Rita personas in her dying moments.
The final scene we see is at Club Silencio, and a blue haired lady is there who we also saw in the earlier Club Silencio scene. She has the final word, "Silencio," which simply means "silence" in Spanish. Whereas before the idea of silence involved the notion that there was only the Hollywood pretense of stardom, love and innocence for Diane when none of it was real, now the idea of silence seems to instead involve the concept that nothing more can be said. Here at the end of the movie I believe that Lynch pays homage to Shakespeare, as we are reminded of Hamlet's dying words to Horatio, "The rest is silence.