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A Multi-Layered Analysis of Mulholland Dr. (by Alan Shaw)

Basic Narrative  | Background & Motivation  | Diane Selwyn Story | Symbolism & Metaphor  | Scene by Scene Analysis  | Lynch's 10 Clues  | Conclusion


The tagline for Mulholland Drive is "A love story in the City of Dreams." And love story it is, but in my opinion, Diane's struggle to love herself is what gives the film its poignant power, even more so than her doomed struggle to love the glamorous Camilla. And that is as it should be, because we do not get much help understanding why Camilla is the person whom she is, but Diane's mind is laid open to us. The Jitterbug scene is a great beginning point to discuss how Diane perceived her reality. It may seem absurd to think that becoming a movie star is a natural next step after winning a Jitterbug contest, but that Diane wanted to believe this is what makes it so important. Dorothy, in the Wizard of Oz, had a similar mindset when she had to battle an evil woman bent on killing her beloved dog. To save the life of her dog, Dorothy runs away ostensibly in search of that magical place she sang about called, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." The lyrics to the song seem no more and no less absurd than Diane's connection between the Jitterbug contest and her Hollywood ambitions, but what makes both of these romantic notions so moving is how heartfelt and compelling they were to these sweet young women. Moreover, if we view these young women as being on an epic quest to protect something dear and precious in their hearts, then the lyrics to Dorothy's song effectively sums up both of their mindsets in poetic fashion:

Somewhere Over the Rainbow:
(Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg)

Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high,
There's a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby.

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.

Someday I'll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far
Behind me.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That's where you'll find me.

Somewhere over the rainbow
Bluebirds fly.
Birds fly over the rainbow.
Why then, oh why can't I?

If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why can't I?

"If happy little bluebirds fly ... Why, oh why can't I?" Happiness and the ability to soar are what both Diane and Dorothy wanted, and in their nave view they thought this could only be possible if they escaped their present reality to go far away to a land of their dreams. We don't know the lullaby from which Dorothy's dreamland took shape, but we do know that Diane's dream was based on her conceptions of her aunt's successful life in Hollywood, and it was triggered by the thrill of her being in the spotlight, probably for the first time. Diane's success in the Jitterbug contest gave her a sense of being valuable in a way that she was not used to feeling. And I believe that she was desperately trying not to go back to her old reality.

While running away, Dorothy tells Professor Marvel, "Nobody cares about me at home. They wouldn't even miss me." And she is adamant about this opinion, as is evident when the Professor expresses his doubts by saying, "Aw, come, come, come." But Dorothy reiterates, "No, they won't - honestly." The fact that her family had allowed her dog to be condemned to death caused Dorothy to lose all hope in them. And I believe that Lynch has developed Diane's character along the same lines, although in Diane's case her angst involving the situation with her family is much darker and more insoluble. This is true even though Diane tries to see the grandparents who raised her in the best light possible, with blurry and unstable images of them embracing her at the Jitterbug contest, and smiley and encouraging faces seeing her off at the airport after arriving in her fantasy land. But the evidence is still there that Diane felt abused and unloved. And the possibility exists that her grandparents may have only embraced her when she was in the spotlight or when she was on the road to Hollywood, implying in a way that they only viewed her as important in that context. This would be yet another slight, devaluing the intrinsic importance of Diane as her potential stardom becomes the focus. If this is the case, then she was simply trading one type of abuse for another, which would not improve her self-image. It is not a bad thing to want to become a star, but it is another thing altogether when you need to become one to feel good about yourself.

In Diane's Betty persona we see a passionate woman and a dreamer. A woman who seems so easy to love, and so determined to find the path that is right for her while she resolves whatever challenges stand in her way. But in Betty we also find the image of a girl wearing a sweater that is too small for her, and who is afraid to face the world without putting herself in surroundings that evoke the loving memory of her dear departed aunt. I believe that deep down Betty was terrified of going it alone, and this is why she would not allow even her aunt's wisdom, in the form of a phone call from her aunt, to convince her to kick out the Rita persona before it was too late. Desperate for love, Betty tried to find in the glamour of Rita a love that would give her a reason to feel good about herself. This parallels the fact that Diane had been looking for love in all the wrong places ever since her brush with celebrity after the Jitterbug contest. Furthermore, Diane stubbornly clung to her misguided quest by embracing Camilla's stardom after she began losing hope of becoming a star herself once she lost the lead for "The Sylvia North Story" to the sultry performance of Camilla. And unfortunately for them both, this caused Diane's desire for Camilla to progress from a passion into an obsession.

One thing we do know about Camilla is that she enjoyed seducing people. And she probably enjoyed it when someone became a devotee of hers as well, as apparently Diane quickly did. So it can be argued that Camilla may bear some of the responsibility for Diane's dashed Hollywood dreams, because she essentially worked to keep Diane focused on doing only bit roles in movies that advanced Camilla's career. As Diane's star remained dim, Camilla's began to shine. And Camilla seemed to enjoy rubbing Diane's nose in this fact as well. Camilla was the star, not Diane. This issue plays itself out in Diane's fantasy world when the personas in her mind seemed bent on believing that Camilla Rhodes should be chosen to be the star of the movie that was to be Diane's core identity instead of a persona like Betty, who represented Diane's lost innocence. And this was true even when the persona who took the name Camilla Rhodes was yet another actress who had harmed Diane by kissing Camilla at Adam's party. This reveals the fact that Diane's self-image was in terrible shape when we see that part of her believes that the people who are harming her are more deserving than her. But Diane would not have been vulnerable to this twisted way of thinking if she had grown up with a healthy amount of love for herself.

At the core of this film is the struggle between love of self and love of the images that we hide behind when we are afraid that others will not love us. This is the tension that is played out between Betty/Diane and Rita/Camilla, and in the movie a resolution begins to take shape when Rita changes her image to look more like that of Betty. But the change is only cosmetic, and as such it is simply too little too late. In the end, Diane is even less able to love herself than she was in the beginning. In fact, she has become disgusted with herself. I think this view is most clearly expressed in the scene that I believe David Lynch would call "the eye of the duck." David Lynch uses this phrase to refer to his idea that to get a sense of the overall state of being of a duck, you need to look at a duck's eye. No other spot on a duck is as good a place to look if you really want to know the duck. And Lynch argues that there are scenes like that in every film. In this film I believe that scene is the extended scene that begins with Diane answering the phone near the red lampshade, then traveling up Mulholland Drive, then meeting Camilla, then following her up a secret path, and then interacting with her at the summit that was Adam Kesher's house. After that interaction Diane ends up walking alone into the party, depressed and defeated, while Camilla leaves her behind and advances to a place of greater success and importance. The arch of Diane's life is all there. Her fear of being abused, her attempts to find love by repressing memories of past abuse, her reentering into abusive relationships, and finally, her growing broken and ruined emotional state after suffering new abuses and betrayal.

The tragedy starts in this extended scene with the look on Diane's lonely face while her phone is ringing. Clearly that look tells us she has suffered at the hands of that sweet voice that begins talking when the answering machine answers the phone. And yet Diane takes the call anyway and hesitantly agrees to trust Camilla with her heart one more time, still trying to be hopeful that the love she is seeking can still be found. Yet, Diane is still very much afraid when she is in the limousine traveling up Mulholland Drive, up the path that represents the road to successfulness in Hollywood. She is all alone, and because of her fantasy where we saw that the driver was an assassin, we know that she doesn't even trust her driver. When he stops unexpectedly, in fear she says, "What are you doing. We don't stop here." However, the fear seems unnecessary, because the driver simply stopped for a surprise meeting that Camilla had arranged. And certainly the context of the story tells us that it is okay for Diane to meet Camilla there, and there is nothing to fear, but the subtext of the film is saying something quite different. Just as when Betty was surprised to find Rita in her aunt's house, Diane's surprise meeting with Camilla ultimately leads her off of the path that her aunt would have wanted her to take. Instead she follows the path that Camilla offers her. In the scene from her real life Camilla says, "Shortcut. Come on sweetheart. It's beautiful. A secret path." Again, the subtext is that Camilla, the picture of seduction, is leading Diane astray, and Diane never gets back on the right road. So it turns out that the fear that she had felt when the car stopped was warranted after all.

With the smile she gives Diane and the sensual air about her, Camilla convinces Diane that there may actually be a chance that their relationship can be resumed. It is as though Diane has already repressed her memories of the pain she suffered in the past because of Camilla. She has forgotten that in reality Camilla just enjoys the art of seduction, the act of "playing it close" with whomever she wants. And true to form, when Diane and Camilla reach Adam's house, Camilla begins to turn her enticing attentions onto Adam. Adam and Diane are both in her web, as the double toast that they make to Camilla shows. When Coco, Adam's mother, walks over and shows signs of being irritated at Camilla, Camilla just looks at Diane who obediently takes the heat off of Camilla by apologizing for being late. It is extremely unlikely that Coco was waiting for Diane, but Camilla wanted her devotee at the party, so she held things up by hiding out while waiting for Diane. Camilla is most likely the one responsible for things starting late, but she needed a devotee like Diane at the party who could constantly heap praise on Camilla around the Hollywood hotshots. This is probably one of Camilla's tactics for creating some buzz about herself, but it requires loving devotees like Diane. Furthermore, deep down, it seems that Diane knows she's just a pawn. As they walk off and Camilla gives Diane a mischievous look, Diane can no longer pretend that Camilla was inviting her to the party because she wanted to rebuild their relationship, or even that she wanted to spend any serious time with her. By taking Adam's arm, Camilla has dropped her pretense of interest in Diane, and in a betrayal that grows throughout the night, Camilla once again leaves Diane behind. As Diane follows Camilla and the others into the party, Diane looks drawn and anguished, with her shoulders hunched and her head down. To me, this is the eye of the duck moment within the eye of the duck scene that shows us how wretched and alone Diane feels on the inside. Brokenhearted since childhood, her pain appears to have only deepened as an adult. And it is the transition from her innocent childlike persona as Betty with her continual yearning to love and be loved, into her twisted and defeated adult personality as Diane that grips viewers no matter what they think the story line is about.

Repeatedly, Diane is rejected and humiliated in small and large ways by Camilla. In the car scene during a rehearsal, on the couch in Apartment #17, right after Diane meets Coco after walking up the secret path, and then most painfully when Camilla kisses another woman during Adam's party. Camilla has been playing abusive games with Diane's heart, and yet still Diane comes running back. Until finally Diane suffers a breakdown, as symbolized by the falling dishes in the Winkie's diner. And when Diane breaks down, her love turns to hatred as she is taken over by the murderous persona in the back alley of her mind. I believe that this is the persona that held on to the terrible memory of the abuse Diane suffered at the hands of her grandparents. And I believe that is why it is this back alley persona that turns that memory--in the form of miniature versions of Diane's grandparents--loose near the end of the movie to haunt Diane and ultimately drive her to commit suicide. In my view, that monstrous persona had existed in Diane's mind for a long time, keeping her too terrified to deal with how the childhood abuse had affected her.

Yet I believe we are given a hint that Diane tried to address the issue of her abuse with a therapist as things were deteriorating faster than she could deal with them. In my view, the therapist that Dan was talking with in the fantasy at the Winkie's diner was probably Diane's therapist. Unfortunately, the therapy was probably too little too late, in a way similar to the fact that Betty's attempts to refashion Rita as a more accurate image of Diane were also a type of therapy that was too little too late. When Diane realized that her relationship with Camilla was unhealthy, she seemed to be unable to walk away. In the scene where she hesitated in picking up the phone and answering Camilla's call, ultimately she answered it anyway against her better judgment. It was only because of a jealous rage that she fought back, and then she went too far, giving herself over to murderous demons. So in the end, even in fighting back, she had allowed her obsession to consume her all the more.

Like the seductive power of Hollywood, Camilla was a force in Diane's life that overwhelmed her. Yet if Diane had any significant love and respect for herself, she certainly wouldn't have let Camilla, or Hollywood for that matter, walk all over her. And there were certainly other less glamorous and more meaningful friendships to be made in Hollywood than the bankrupt one she had with Camilla. Clearly a neighbor like DeRosa, who was willing to switch apartments when Diane was in need and to even cover for Diane when the police were looking for her without being asked, is a person who cared for Diane. And it's possible that she even cared deeply for Diane. Different reviewers interpret the looks in DeRosa's eyes differently, but I saw condemnation when she looked at Rita, and compassion and empathy when she looked at Diane. But Diane couldn't see it, ultimately to her own loss. And clearly Coco showed some sincere interest in Diane's story, while at the same time Coco had many unpleasant looks for Camilla. If Diane needed someone who could give her the kind of advice that her aunt would have given her, a person like Coco would have been the perfect choice. And when Diane's Adam persona was homeless in the fantasy and Cynthia offered him a place to stay and perhaps a place in her heart, he refuses the way Diane refuses comfort from DeRosa. In my view, this is because Lynch is telling us that Diane is unable to desire loving relationships with those who do not reflect Hollywood's glitter and glamour. And this mindset of hers is especially catastrophic because she is so desperately in need of authentic love. Cynthia's response to the rejection says volumes, "Okay, but you don't know what you're missing."

There are many reasons for this film's appeal. And one of them is certainly that Diane's Betty persona is such an easy person to care about and to love. But because of her flawed and negative view of herself Diane was unwilling to receive love from those who were most able to give it to her. And so, as an ode to Hollywood's fallen angels like Diane, this film is a warning to those who would like to fly like bluebirds, but who still need to make a blueshift transition to understand what true love is all about. "A [person]'s attitude goes some ways toward how a [person]'s life will be." If you fall in love with the Hollywood dream, make sure that you have even more love for the person that you are and for the relationships that you have outside of the spotlight. Otherwise, the dream will become a nightmare.

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