Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr. (2001)


(director/writer: David Lynch; cinematographer: Peter Deming; editor: Mary Sweeney; music: Angelo Badalamenti; cast: Justin Theroux (Adam Kesher), Naomi Watts (Betty and Diane Selwyn), Laura Elena Harring (Rita and Camilla Rhodes), Ann Miller (Coco Lenoix), Robert Forster (Detective McKnight), Dan Hedaya (producer, Vincenzo Castigliane), Monty Montgomery (The Cowboy), Melissa George (Cammie Rhodes), Mark Pellegrino (Assassin), Missy Crider (Winkie’s Waitress, Diane), Billy Ray Cyrus (Gene Cleaner), Chad Everett (Woody Klein), Angelo Badalementi (Hedaya’s film brother), James Karen (Wally), Michael Anderson (Studio Head Midget in a Wheelchair); Runtime: 146; Universal Pictures; 2001)

“If you don’t see anything else in this very rich work, at least you must admit that Lynch knows his Hollywood.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A fair question to ask about Mulholland Drive (an infamous street in the Hollywood hills used in many film noir tales in the 1950s) is what does the 55-year-old director, David Lynch (Eraserhead/Blue Velvet/The Straight Story/Dune), have in mind about this very strange film that shuns narrative logic! He mixes a modern film noir story about a troubled amnesia victim with an incomprehensible surrealistic and erotic fantasy about two wannabe actresses mired in the Hollywood milieu.

It seems to me the only way to relate to this moody unconventional film, whose story is without a beginning, a middle, and an end, is to see it as a dream. The film will not make linear sense, and for those viewers who can’t stand such arty films — they should avoid it as if it were anthrax. Its theme of how Hollywood swallows up all innocence in its insatiable appetite, is a belief many all over the world have about Hollywood as a source of corruption.

Lynch’s erotic fantasy paints Hollywood as a turgid landscape of bright neon lights inhabited by spoiled artists, phonies, power hungry moguls, ingénues, violent gangsters, flunkies, and an assortment of degenerates and obnoxious Hollywood personalities. Lynch does this without caring if he caught what is real or unreal. The film’s uniqueness, visual lushness, and the director’s conviction for his self-indulgences and his great filmmaking skills, make this one of the year’s most diverting films.

The film was originally presented in 1999 as a TV pilot for ABC as a possible series like “Twin Peaks,” but it is not hard to see how the TV executives turned it down and how the wily Lynch instead made it into a feature movie with funds from a French company called Canal Plus.

“Mulholland Drive” starts out with a colorful dance contest that is visually pleasing even if it is used only as a red herring. Seamlessly, it goes to the next scene on Mulholland Drive, where a luscious brunette is about to be wasted as she steps outside the car that is just crashed into by some drag racing revelers. This results in the death of her would-be assassin, while she ends up with only a bump on her head and a case of amnesia. Wandering in fright through the dark LA streets, the femme fatale enters the plush open apartment of a well-dressed older lady leaving by taxi with her luggage. The next morning a bubbly innocent blonde who is an aspiring actress from Deep River, Ontario, named Betty (Watts), is let into that apartment by the motor mouth showbiz landlady, Coco (Ann Miller). She is given the apartment temporarily so she can go for an audition as arranged by her Aunt Ruth, who will be out-of-town filming a picture. Inside the apartment the amnesia victim is showering and can’t recall her name, and when she sees a poster of Rita Hayworth in Gilda she thereby takes the name Rita (Harring). Checking her purse, she finds it’s stashed with wads of money and a mysterious blue key. Betty, instead of kicking her out of the apartment, eagerly suggests that they team up to do some gumshoe work to find her identity: “It’ll be just like in the movies!”

The film will interweave a number of stories around this film noir theme.

The scene inside Winkie’s restaurant gives you the idea that this film is going to be like a dream in a Buñuel film, only this film will even out Buñuel in its surrealism. In the fast-food place with waiter service, a Hollywood creative type is having breakfast with someone who could be his therapist (he might just be a business acquaintance) and is telling him about this most fantastic but scary dream he had.

Lynch is at his weirdest in this erotic thriller that offers one surprise after another, as it remains a thriller even after the film ends in silence and had gone past the rational turn in storyline of no return — where there is no other place to go but into the irrational.

In another unexplainable scene the creative man we saw previously in the fast-food place, is scared to death on the street outside of Winkie’s as he spots someone dressed as a bear. In another non sequitur, a hit man bungles a simple assassination that he wants to make look like a suicide and turns it into a multiple killing involving two others. In another memorable scene, there’s an audition for a part where Betty surprises everyone, including the audience, that she can act and be erotic, as she bounces dramatic lines brilliantly off her male co-star (Chad Everett). One stunningly garish designed song and dance scene down memory lane, begins with a burst of pink and turquoise costumes and a studio rendition of the Connie Stevens oldie “Sixteen Reasons (Why I Love You).”

There’s a bitter scene exploring the misuse of studio power and how Hollywood casts its pics as a pretentious director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), is told by the studio bigwigs that the gangsters fronting the money for his film, the Castigliane brothers (Dan Hedaya & Angelo Badalementi), have ordered him to cast a certain actress to star in the film or else there’s no film. The not-to-be-pitied because of his hubris Kesher, returns to his luxury home to find his wife in bed with a muscleman (Billy Ray Cyrus); Kesher is then located while hiding out in a seedy hotel by the gangsters and ordered to have a meeting in an isolated spot atop the Hollywood hills with someone called the Cowboy (he’s dressed like Gene Autry was in the 1940s), who intimidates him to hire the actress or face him again with dire results.

The most erotic scene comes after Betty spends most of the film playing like Hollywood’s private detective Nancy Drew in order to find out the identity of Rita. She gets it on with Rita in bed, as they have a steamy lesbian fling; that moves the 2 and 1/2 hour film over to a series of stylistic fetishes that fill the last 45 minutes with a sense of what might happen to anyone who stays too long in Tinseltown.

The fright continues in this baffling dream fantasy when Betty and Rita take a taxi from their bedroom fling and attend a 2 a.m. performance art séance and magical ritual show —in a nearly deserted old movie palace called Club Silencio. The sound-image synchronization and the illusion of the performer vanishing throws Betty into an uncontrollable fit. At the show’s final act, Rebekah Del Rio fancifully sings in a cappella a Spanish-language version of “Crying.” She collapses onstage, but the song continues as she’s carried offstage.

If it matters–the film is about Betty’s dream, where characters dissolve and change places with themselves. Settings no longer exist and situations have different meanings from first thought, as the film in its last 45 minutes reverses itself and comes back to its beginning to tell its story a different way. It’s not a movie that wants to make sense, but is more like someone observing one’s desire lived through a dream. So Betty is really not Betty but Diane who dreams that she’s Betty, who sees herself as an innocent Doris Day type actress in her dream but in reality she stayed too long in Hollywood and is now jaded and turned evil with jealousy at her live-in lover Camilla (who was Rita in the dream)– who got the part she wanted and is about to marry the successful Hollywood director Kesher and make a name for herself in Tinseltown while deserting her. Betty’s dream becomes a nightmare, as they have for so many other wannabe actresses who came to Hollywood.

Mulholland Drive is not for the casual filmgoer, as it strikes a sharp knife into the profitable heart of Hollywood that has supported Lynch very well over these years. And he has given them an arty puzzler in return and a gorgeous film of diverse images that will not please all, but one that returns him to the intensity he showed in his earlier films such as Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. But it is only fair to say that the puzzle pieces only fit in the mind of David Lynch, which is the film’s big drawback for those who can’t get over how chaotic and unwieldy the film seems–and how there’s no payoff explanation to the mystery.

The cynical nature of the film is best summed up in one of the opening scenes when Naomi Watts, who is brilliant in her complex role, first arrives by plane in Hollywood and expresses her starry-eyed desire to be an actress as she talks in clichés and receives wishes of good luck from a benign elderly couple who befriended her on the flight but who laugh behind her back in the cab when she leaves. That same type of Hollywood phoniness, where people lie to your face about how good you are and then sneer behind your back, was repeated during Naomi’s audition scene where the director was the recipient of that type of negative Hollywood charm by the casting supervisor. If you don’t see anything else in this very rich work, at least you must admit that Lynch knows his Hollywood.


REVIEWED ON 10/28/2001 GRADE: A –