Like the story of the film itself, Mulholland Drive was formed from broken dreams. Starting as a television pilot, it was declined by studio executives and for a short time left David Lynch feeling dejected. This is not even mentioning Naomi Watts, an actress who had struggled in Hollywood for near a decade, who saw her big break being taken away from her as friends like Nicole Kidman sailed to the highest stratums. But with an additional twenty minutes (that change the entire context of the project) and a few tweaked scenes Lynch quickly transformed this into, if not unquestionably Lynch’s best film, then his most quintessential, the one that most typifies his trademarks, ideas and desires more than any other.
With the knowledge of the film’s behind the scenes, you could see scenes of bumbling movie executives and incompetent directors as a biting takedown of Hollywood as a whole. Indeed, many of the most haunting and inexplicable moments come as a representation of LA life, and the overt Sunset Boulevard references snap these criticisms into full focus (and a colour palette much like Vertigo that emphasises character obsession). But although that might be true of the system, but Lynch loves the myth of Hollywood too much for it to be as simple as that. So many scenes set in nightclubs, movie lots and audition room, despite dark set ups, exist mainly to show the power of performance. David Lynch essentially saw the response of the Dean Stockwell scene from Blue Velvet, and made a whole movie based around those moments (musically helped further by a typically amazing and evocative Angelo Badalamenti score).
It certainly helps when you have acting talent as good and as applicable as this. Ann Miller is fabulous in her final acting role, Justin Theroux is as every bit bumbling and charming as he is sleazy and Laura Harring plays the part perfectly of both the object of desire and of many fractured personalities. All of this is anchored around Naomi Watts, giving one of film’s best performances and finest showcases of talents, conveying enough presence and emotion from the first frame to the last that you can believe the entire proceedings of the movies are based around her personality.
Mulholland Drive has near every Lynchian trait: film noir; Americana; fractured narrative; investigations of officers and citizens alike; doubles; blondes and brunettes; coffee; subversion of genre tropes and what constitutes “good acting”; the most pitch black of comedy a mixture of the grotesque and mundane that David Foster Wallace prescribed the term “Lynchian”. But, more than anything, Mulholland Drive is David Lynch’s most Surreal film, in the sense of being exemplary of that word’s pure definition; as the demonstration of dreams as a heightened reality that reveals our id in its deepest and darkest places. The first shot of a camera going to a pillow tells us this is a dream as much as the opening bizarrely framed shots tell us this is a film.
Maybe the film’s biggest party trick, as the great magicians do, is to tell its audience exactly what is going to occur, follows with what it has promised, but changes one element in such a way that means we are entirely taken off guard. Whether it be the overlit setting of the film’s most horrific scene, or performers disappearing as actions occur, our expectations are confounded in such a way that we no longer care about the chain of events, and we are left with only the cacophony of image and sounds and our own emotions seeping to surface.
That is cinema.