Writer: David Lynch
Cast: Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Justin Theroux, Robert Forster, Michael J. Anderson, Angelo Badalamenti
Running time: 146 mins
What’s the story: Aspiring actress Betty arrives in LA hoping for movie stardom. She meets glamourous amnesiac Rita, and the two begin a dangerous journey to uncover Rita’s past.
What’s the verdict: According to David Lynch, the abc studios executive who viewed the Mulholland Drive pilot, did so at 6am in the morning. While working on other things. With the sound turned low so as not to disturb him. Said exec declared Lynch’s effort at a follow-up to the abc bankrolled Twin Peaks, “boring”.
Shot in 1999, the pilot languished for 18 months as an aborted projected. Then French company Studio Canal stumped up $7m to shoot extra scenes and turn Mulholland Drive into Lynch’s 9th feature film.
This was not the first time the director had turned a pilot into a movie. Before Twin Peaks series premiered in Europe, the opening episode had been released in cinemas with a specially shot ending disclosing who killed Laura Palmer (different to the bogeyman revealed in season 2).
While not his masterpiece as some have claimed, Mulholland Drive is the summation of David Lynch’s pre-occupations, themes and motifs. It garnered him Best Director at Cannes 2001 (shared with Joel Coen for The Man Who Wasn’t There). He was also Best Director Oscar nominated, but lost to Ron Howard for A Beautiful Mind (a title that could describe Lynch himself).
Following the linear The Straight Story, Mulholland Drive is a journey into the heart of Hollywood, as dark as the titular road itself, and the demons dwelling in the City of Angels. A noirish world of wide-eyed wannabe stars, gangsters and gangsters’ molls, dopplegangers and contract hitmen. And even more malevolent worlds just around the corner from this sugar-rush “normality”.
At the centre is Betty (Watts in her breakthrough role), an aspiring actress from Deep River, Ontario. Arriving at LAX with a terrifyingly nice elderly couple, Betty is lodging in her aunt’s apartment while said aunt is away shooting a movie.
In the apartment, Betty discovers Rita (Harring), a beautiful amnesiac who has just survived an attempted mob killing and subsequent car crash. Together, Betty and Rita investigate the mystery of Rita’s past.
Running parallel is the woes of Justin Theroux’s movie director Adam, being strong-armed by mobsters into accepting a new actress in his latest movie, while having eyes for the ingenue from Ontario.
Lynch has always been a nocturnal filmmaker, his movies powered by dream logic and night terrors. Mulholland Drive wears its dream credentials on pyjama sleeve. Performances pitch two notches above natural and dialogue is purposely artificial sounding. Scenes unfold in bizarre ways that make internal sense – check out a contract killing that escalates into nightmare comedy.
Characters breath lines such as “Now I’m in this dream place” and “It’ll be okay if I sleep”. No surprises for guessing it won’t be.
Famously baffling upon release, David Lynch published a list of “clues” when the film was released to help viewers make sense of it all. Almost two decades on Mulholland Drive stands as an impressive tale of obsession, lust and fear.
Layers of unreality and pretend, fake moments and masks are at the service of a plot that does resolve its central mystery (even if Lynch allows himself a fistful of loose ends).
Watts and Harring are a charismatic pairing on the perilous journey to the film’s heart of darkness (or blue box of darkness). After this you would have guessed Harring would be on speed dial for every femme fatale gig going, but she didn’t enjoy the career boost Mulholland Drive gave co-star Watts.
Lynch shoots both women as Golden Age movie stars, indulging in exaggerated versions of TV close-ups to capture their expressive performance.
The director also makes use of feature film freedom with moments of violence and horror, plus Sapphic scenes that would never have passed the trembling scissors of an abc censor.
Being stuck midway between TV and cinema allows Mulholland Drive a weirdness all its own, with flatly shot scenes eventually revealing fascinating or unnerving detail. Diminutive Twin Peaks star Michael J. Anderson plays a wheelchair bound mob boss, and it becomes apparent he is wearing a full-sized person suit…
Fans of Lynch’s white and blue “hot” lighting will not be disappointed, and the bizarro final act shift places this in Lost Highway and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me territory. Lynch Mob members will also delight in composer Angelo Badalamenti’s cameo as an espresso loving mafioso.
Mulholland Drive led to the end of Lynch’s feature film road. In 2006 he made kind-of-a-movie Inland Empire, a series of Lynchian vignettes shot on digital video, losing the visual lushness for which his movies are known. Since then it has been shorts and art installations.
As of writing, Twin Peaks: The Return is only hours away. Interesting to see if he has any new sights to share. But, Mulholland Drive remains a place you should definitely visit, even if living there would fry your mind.
DISC AND EXTRAS: The Blu-ray transfer from a 4K master accentuates the deep blacks and harsh lights of nighttime LA, and accentuates the luscious photography of the characters.
Two hours plus of extras are okay to dip into, but do not reveal much you would not glean from repeated viewings of Mulholland Drive itself.
Two French made featurettes, Back to Mulholland Drive and On the Road to Mulholland Drive, examine the film, it’s production and reception at time of release. Reflections on the film from French directors and Donnie Darko creator Richard Kelly, can be found in a third featurette, also French produced, titled Inside the Blue Box.
Interviews with Lynch, Watts, Harring, Badalamenti, and editor/producer Mary Sweeney, provide information on Mulholland Drive’s long journey to the cinema and their experiences of production.
A video essay of the kind found on Criterion Collection or Arrow Video Blu-rays, examining the film’s place in Lynch’s career would have been welcome. Although there is a useful introduction by one-time Cahiers du Cinema editor and sometime director Thierry Jousse.
A single deleted scene features actor Robert Forster as an LA detective, inclusion of which in the movie would have doubled his number of scenes.
And at Lynch’s quirky insistence the Blu-ray has no chapter stops, so navigating means winding forwards and back. Tsk, genius moviemakers…
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