Sight and Sound, December 2001

Babes in Babylon

'Mulholland Dr.' may be David Lynch's audacious salvage job on a TV pilot, but the result is a triumph says Graham Fuller

Mulholland Dr. unwinds in a benighted LA dreamscape where two girl detectives fall into lipstick-lesbian embraces, a Mafia power play is sublimated in a menacing Pinteresque discussion of an espresso's drinkability, smug studio types commingle with doo-wop-singing starlets, Sunset Boulevard riff-raff and the ghosts of Hollywood past, and shattered identities are mosaicked back together in an oneiromantic fable about Hollywood's conspiracy-riddled dream factory.

On its release in America in October, David Lynch's film, which is as perversely sadomasochistic as Josef von Sternberg's Dietrich farragos and as lushly surreal as Raul Rufz's early work, lured critics into oxymorons. The Village Voice's J. Hoberman described it as "thrilling and ludicrous", the New York Times' Stephen Holden dubbed it "the grandest and silliest cinematic carnival to come along in some time." And as if inspired by the moral reactionaries who savaged Michael Powell's masterpiece Peeping Tom, the New York Observer's Rex Reed unintentionally vindicated Lynch' s film with the sheer uncomprehending viciousness of his attack.

But Mulholland Dr., in which nothing is as it seems, is something of an oxymoron itself. Never intended as a movie, it became one when Lynch pulled it from the wreckage of an open-ended television series he had planned to make for ABC (the sponsors of Twin Peaks) in 1999. It consists of most of the $7 million pilot for the show, which had been rejected by the network as too slow, weird and offensive, and approximately 45 minutes of new material financed by Studio Canal Plus, which reportedly doubled the original budget. Lynch has admitted that even after the French company's intervention he didn't know how to reconfigure the narrative, which peters out on an optimistic note in the pilot after the female sleuths have discovered a woman's decomposing corpse, but that the ideas eventually came to him in the space of half an hour (presumably over several cups of java). The resulting movie may be the most audacious salvage job in recent Hollywood history...

Given its unpromising beginnings, this lethally perfumed neo-noir may be even more remarkable as a successful marriage of form and subject. That is, if one is prepared to see it as a cinematic equivalent of pathetic fallacy, which, even as it recasts its amnesiac love object as a femme fatale who sexually taunts the woman she has discarded, takes on the aura of a siren song luring the viewer into a magnificent deception. Although Lynch comes across in interviews as the least manipulative of showmen, he has a marked predilection for demonic conundrums - think of Bill Pullman's sax player Fred phoning home in Lost Highway (1996) and getting Robert Blake's gnomic Mephistopheles on the line, even though he is standing in front of him - that cannot be solved, or squared away with such forays into folksy pastoralism as The Straight Story (1999).

Alternately blithe and threatening, Mulholland Dr. is one schizoid fantasy. After a stylised opening credits sequence that depicts a partially silhouetted jitterbug contest and a bleached-out shot of the smiling girl who wins it with her proud parents, we see and hear a woman murmuring in her sleep hidden under pink and green bedclothes - and we need only recall the unconscious plunge into the severed ear of Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) in Blue Velvet (1986) to recognise this brief scene as a portal to a dream. What this as yet unknown dreamer dreams is a tale of a sheeny brunette escaping her nocturnal murder when a car full of joy-riding kids smashes into the sleek limo her would-be killers have driven up on to Mulholland Drive, the iconic hilltop artery that snakes west from Cahuenga above the bejewelled black velvet necropolis of Los Angeles. She dreams, too, of two slate-eyed cops, the kind that always harass Philip Marlowe, investigating the crash site, of the concussed brunette taking refuge in an apartment on Havenhurst, and of a bug-eyed Hollywood insider telling a colleague about the dream he's had of a terrifying man lurking behind the coffee shop on Sunset where they're having breakfast; they actually head out back to confront the monstrous vagrant. The scene is crucial because in the anxiety dream we're witnessing it signifies the release of the dreamer's id.

We don't know it yet, but the next scene introduces her alter ego - a naive, relentlessly cheerful blonde called Betty Elms, the jitterbug champ, who has flown into LAX from the Ontario city of Deep River (also the name of Dorothy Vallens' apartment block in Blue Velvet). She disembarks from her plane in the company of a friendly elderly couple who tell her to be careful as she sets out to become a movie actress, but cackle malevolently through discoloured teeth when she leaves them. Arriving her absentee aunt's flat, Betty finds the brunette there. She has lost her memory but takes the name Rita from a Gilda poster; her amnesiacal solipsism may convey Rita Hayworth, but with her crimson lips and black cocktail dress she evokes the Gardner of The Killers.

Betty persuades Rita to find out who she really is, and they coyly embark on their adventure like a cross between Rivette's Celine and Julie and a pair of Nancy Drews. (Nancy is the ever polite teen supersleuth who began her fictional career in 1930; coincidentally, perhaps, she is from a place called River Heights and favours blue, the occult colour in Lynch' s palette from Blue Velvet on.) Their trail leads them to the corpse of a woman called Diane Selway, after which they make rapturous love and Betty twice tells Rita, at the peak of her ecstasy, that she is in love with her. Significantly, as will be revealed, Rita does not reciprocate.

There then follows what could well be a dream within the dream as Betty and Rita repair in the early hours to a dank nightclub called Silencio where the revels are overseen by a barking aural prestidigitator. Here Rebekah Del Rio's rendition in Spanish of Roy Orbison's 'Crying' reduces the new lovers to tears, as the fetish-stroking version of 'Blue Velvet' sung by Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) did Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). This post-coital flight into Swinburnian lachrimosity and Magritteian surrealism has an erotic morbidity that only an appreciator of the limits of decadence such as Lynch could pull off, though it might be argued that the sequence is no closer to most people's experiences of dreams than those Salvador Dali designed for Hitchcock's Spellbound.

It does, however, offer a jarring comment on the betrayal that can take place when cinematic illusionism - in this case, sound-picture synchronisation - is exposed as a trick. When Del Rio swoons unconscious to the floor, her theatrical croon continues unchecked, and Betty - perhaps because this act of violence threatens her romantic epiphany and her suspend disbelief - is deeply disturbed. Lynch had originally intended to use 'Crying' in Blue Velvet, but opted instead for Orbison's 'ln Dreams'. Dean Stockwell's Ben lipsynchs the song with the same baroque affectedness demonstrated by Del Rio, but he too is cut short when Frank rips the cassette of the song from the tape recorder. On both occasions Lynch is breaking through the dream fabric of the film, reminding us of the fragility of cinema's hallucinatory power.

These stabs of consciousness also puncture the dream-protected sleep of the dreamers. In Blue Velvet Jeffrey, bruised and bloody after his beating by Frank, wakes up on a vacant lot, though he still has another dream to get through. Back in the apartment in Mulholland Dr., Betty disappears and Rita opens a small blue box - one of several Pandora's boxes in the film that literalise its Chinese-box structure - and we tumble Alice-like (or like Jeffrey) into Diane's living hell as an unwashed, bitter prostitute and drug addict. Diane is in love with a self- satisfied star called Camilla Rhodes and has been having sex with her in her dingy flat. But she learns at a party to which Camilla has invited her that Camilla is not only to be married to the arrogant director Adam (Justin Theroux) of the 50s doo-wop movie they're both acting in but appears to be having a fling with another blonde on the side. Camilla's flagrantly voluptuous kisses with both the director and the blonde hit the paranoid Diane like Oedipal hammer blows and prompt her to arrange Camilla's murder.

That Rita and Camilla are both played by Laura Elena Harring and Betty and Diane by Naomi Watts is the audience's key to understanding that the film has jack-knifed from Diane's wishful dream of herself as a confident, happening starlet with a passive lover she can control to an ugly reality in which neither Betty nor Rita exists. This disarming scenario also weaves in Adam's perilous provocation of a couple of Mob lieutenants, who insist that he hire a talentless moll, prompting him to take his golf club to their limo. In his Mulholland Drive home he then finds his wife in bed with the pool-boy, takes a beating from him, and flees to a seedy hotel./P>

Rita's look is based on Ava Gardner in 'The Killers'
Mulholland Dr. is the Lynch film most rooted in a specific milieu, deploying a Chandlerian use of LA's iconic topography and its potential for terrifying rendezvous in the dark. When Adam is summoned to a corral at the end of Beechwood Canyon, his night drive there is reminiscent of Marlowe's drive to Purissinia Canyon off the Pacific Coast Highway in FareweIl, My Lovely. Under a Lynchian sputtering light bulb, an unsmiling, homily-drawling Poverty Row cowboy suggests, in a scene as chilling as it is absurd, that the hotshot director should overcome his artistic reservations and hire the moll.

"If you do good, you will see me once. if you do bad, you will see me twice," he warns, and Adam takes the hint, deciding to hire the moll even as Betty turns up on the set in the company of a casting agent. Their eyes meet across the crowded studio floor - either a falling-in-love moment the film does not pursue but the planned series might have done, or a hint that Adam, again in the series, might have further endangered his life by casting Betty anyway, despite her running Cinderella-like from the set to meet up with Rita on the afternoon they discover the body. This twist in Diane's dream thus carries Betty from what would have been her Hollywood breakthrough to a confrontation with her dead self.

The cowboy is a more specific presence than Robert Blake's pointy-eared bogeyman in Lost Highway. He is one of several breathing waxworks of old industry folk, whose role it is to twist the knife in Betty/Diane for having had the temerity to come to Hollywood in the first place. The others include Coco Lenoix, the elegant dowager (Hollywood legend Ann Miller) who welcomes Betty to her aunt's apartment only to scold Diane repeatedly at the engagement party where it transpires she is Adam's mother; Louise Bonner, the mad, leonine old movie actress turned seer who casts an imperious eye on Betty when told by Coco she is an actress; and the cadaverous, blue-rinsed phantom lady who presides over the Silencio club and is the movie's eerie figurehead. The cowboy turns out to be Diane's pimp, his words "Get up, pretty girl!" interrupting her long sleep. Then there are ghosts in Diane's life who predate her Hollywood demise - the old couple Betty met on the plane are presumably Diane's parents, who return as tiny hobgoblins at the end of the film to drive her over the edge,

Adding to this notion of Hollywood as the locus of moral squalor is the suspicion that Diane's story borrows from the tragedy of the actress Marie Prevost, just as Lost Highway loosely inscribed the 1947 murder and mutilation of Elizabeth Short, 'the Black Dahlia', in the butchering of Renee Madison. From Toronto, like Diane, Prevost was a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty who became a star in Lubitsch comedies in the mid 20s. She made a successful transition to sound, but went on a crash diet when she put on weight, and eventually died of malnutrition. In his conflicting account in Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger reported that Prevost drank herself to death because she failed in talkies. "Marie dragged on until 1937 when her half-eaten corpse was discovered in her seedy apartment on Cahuenga Boulevard," he sneered. "Her dachshund had survived by making mincemeat of his mistress." The accompanying photograph is startlingly similar to the images of the putrefying Diane in Mulholland Dr., Lynch's fascination with decay, of course, going back to Eraserhead (1976).

Whatever noisome Tinseltown lore Lynch drew on as he cross-fertilised film noir and 509 pop flicks into Mulholland Dr.'s ambient postmodem Hollywood gothic, everything in the movie is subservient to its structure, specifically its spectacular dive into apparent illogic - not quite what script gurus have in mind when they speak of stories taking a hairpin bend as they enter their third acts. Actually, this kind of structural about-face isn't new for Lynch, who abandoned the first half of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me involving FBI man Chester Desmond to tell the story of Laura Palmer's orgiastic disintegration before dissolving the entire edifice in arch surrealism of the 'Red Room' scenes. Nor is it illogic that characterises Mulholland Dr., but dream logic, which permits a stream of non sequiturs and cul de sacs, though many of the characters glimpsed once in the film are 'explained' through their presence in the party sequence, in which Diane describes how she came to Hollywood in the first place. Mulholland Dr. not only echoes the bifurcated Twin Peaks. Fire Walk With Me, but its particular dream logic also echoes Lost Highway's in the way it shows a dream miscarrying from wish-fulfilment to anxiety to wakefulness.

In Lost Highway impotent Fred (Pullman) is imprisoned for killing his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) whom he believed had cuckolded him. In his cell he metamorphoses into the virile mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) who embarks on an affair with a gangster's moll and porn actress called Alice (also played by Arquette). In other words, Fred dreams of being the top dog in an Oedipal triangle involving a sexually idealised Renee. But this wish-fulfilment dream spins into an emasculation fantasy when Alice's ferocious lover Mr Eddy (Robert Loggia) pursues him, and Alice informs Pete, "You will never have me", whereupon Pete turns back into Fred, who, waking up in the desert, remains psychically if not literally in prison.

Diane's reverie similarly curdles. In the wish-fulfilment part of her dream she sees herself as a winning amalgam of Doris Day and Grace Kelly who, on arrival in Hollywood, meets the brunette of her dreams (so to speak) and proves she is a brilliant, seductive actress in her first audition. Anxiety takes over when she runs out of the film studio, and her sense of selfhood begins to crack when Betty and Rita stumble on the body.

Though Lynch denies any interest in psychoanalytic theory, Mulholland Dr., especially in its reconstituted form, offers a field day for amateur analysts in the audience. Whatever he originally intended as the 'conscious' action of the television series, the first two-thirds of the movie - up to where the body is found (and where the pilot more or less ended) - now comprise the dream elements that are 'analysed' by the action of the grim third act that culminates in Diane's suicide. Where Lynch makes most effective use of dreaming in Mulholland Dr. is in exploiting, consciously or not, its capacity for overdetermination and the notion that a dreamer is all the characters in his or her dream. Nothing here is as overdetermined or as downright kinky, though, as the scene in Blue Velvet when Frank, his mouth smeared with Dorothy's lipstick (or, if you like, his mother's menstrual blood), kisses Jeffrey and leaves him similarly anointed.

Rueful Diane's limo ride up Mulholland to the engagement party exactly replicates her dream of the as yet unnamed Rita being driven to her (botched) murder as Angelo Badalamenti's synth score infuses the scene with ominousness. When Adam finds himself cuckolded, he dispassionately pours pink paint into his wife's jewellery box. His acting out on his sexual jealousy in the very house where Diane's humiliation takes place symbolises her desire both to violate and to possess Camilla, Adam's wife-to-be - pink is the colour with which Betty is most identified, through her clothing, lipstick and nail polish, and the Freudian symbolism of soiling a woman's jewel box is all too obvious.

And there is more. The vapid moll who wins the lead role in Adam's film in Diane's dream, and whose headshot names her as 'Camilla Rhodes', turns out to be the 'real' Camilla's other girlfriend - her role as a sexual rival to Diane is sublimated in the dream to that of a professional rival to Betty. Meanwhile a beautiful blonde waitress in the coffee shop is called Diane and a junkie hooker hanging out with the lowlife whom Diane will hire to kill Camilla is such a dead ringer for Betty that you have to look twice to make sure it's not Naomi Watts.

More pregnant in meaning, however, is Rita's hacking off her locks and donning a platinum-blonde wig that makes her look like a brassier version of Betty, shortly after which they make love. Talk about over-determination: the revelatory moment suggests that, as well as being a fully paid-up member of the Oedipus complex, Diane is pathologically narcissistic. The scene ushers Mulholland Dr. into the company of Hitchcock's Vertigo, Bergman's Persona and Bunuel's That Obscure Object of Desire. Twinning, of course, has been a consistent theme in Lynch's later work, as witness the 'good' and 'evil' Dale Coopers in Twin Peaks and the two Arquette characters in Lost Highway. In 1992 David Lynch met Dennis Potter, and there was subsequent talk of Lynch directing Potter's adaptation of D.M. Thomas' novel The White Hotel. Lynch and Potter would have made uneasy bedfellows, though there are several points of comparison between their works, including the interest in using lipsynched songs to convey emotions mere naturalism cannot adequately express. Then there is their dubious fascination with sexy amnesiac women who inspire homicidal thoughts (also shared by Martin Amis, whose novel Other People works as a sequel to his later London Fields). The best analogue to Mulholland Dr., in fact, is Potter's ill-fated Blackepes, with its twinning of the jaded blonde ex-model and the 'fictional passive brunette - herself an amnesiac by the story's end - whom she bequeaths to her novelist uncle. Potter's writing frequently dealt with characters who fail (Cream in My Coffee) or succeed (The Singing Detective) in gathering up the shards of what he called their "sovereign" selves. This is especially instructive when contemplating a drama of deconstruction like Mulholland Dr. with its lost angel Diane, whose sovereignty has been fractured long before we enter her dream.

'Mulholland Dr.' opens on 4 January

Copyright 2001 British Film Institute

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