By surrendering any semblance of rationality to create a post-Freudian, pulp-fiction fever dream of a movie, Mr. Lynch ends up shooting the moon with Mulholland Drive. Its frenzied final 45 minutes, in which the story circles back on itself in a succession of kaleidoscopic Chinese boxes, conveys the maniacal thrill of an imagistic brainstorm.
The notion of Hollywood as the world capital of corrupt, twisted fantasy is hardly new, thanks to Nathanael West, Raymond Chandler, Roman Polanski and countless others. But in wrestling with that notion, Mr. Lynch makes an extraordinary leap to embrace the irrational. Its sheer audacity and the size of its target make the director’s earlier eviscerations of idyllic American oases and the rot beneath them seem comparatively petty. In taking on Hollywood, of course, Mr. Lynch is biting a hand that has fed him off and on, even though the Hollywood depicted by the film is a dream world that bears only a passing resemblance to the everyday film business of corporate yuppie sharpshooters.
Mr. Lynch’s distillation of Hollywood vibrates weirdly between the present and the pop cultural climate of 40 years ago. It is a place where a ludicrous monster in a bear costume hides behind a graffiti-spattered Denny’s-like restaurant. In Mr. Lynch’s Hollywood, authoritarian moguls of the Otto Preminger type still assert an imperial will in offices that feel like giant mausoleums.
Mr. Lynch’s women also hark back to the perfectly coiffed blond heroines of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Marnie, while the music of Angelo Badalamenti, his favorite composer, is a Mannerist echo of Hitchcock’s musical main man, Bernard Herrmann. The shiny pink songs that jingle through Mulholland Drive are the glittery baubles of 40 years ago sung by Connie Stevens and Linda Scott. As in Blue Velvet, a Roy Orbison ballad (”Crying,” sung stunningly a cappella and in Spanish by Rebekah Del Rio) supplies an expressionistic flourish.
Mulholland Drive, which the New York Film Festival is showing tonight and tomorrow afternoon at Alice Tully Hall (it opens commercially on Monday), is a fascinating example of how a great film can evolve out of adversity. Begun as a pilot for an open-ended television series much like Twin Peaks, it was reconfigured into a feature film after being rejected for television. That history is embodied in the structure of the movie, which begins as a leisurely contemporary film noir with surreal touches, then suddenly changes its form and blasts off toward outer (or is it inner?) space.
During its first 100 minutes, Mulholland Drive lays out a network of interwoven plots revolving around a car crash, several murders and the problems besetting a young hotshot director. The opening scene finds a slinky brunette (Laura Harring) dressed up for a party in the backseat of a car that pulls to a stop on Mulholland Drive overlooking Los Angeles’ glittering lights. As the sinister driver and his pal turn and instruct the woman to step out of the vehicle, it is slammed from behind by a car packed with drunken revelers and bursts into flame. Emerging from the wreckage before the police arrive, the backseat passenger walks away, the sole survivor. Except for a case of amnesia, she appears miraculously unscathed. Descending into the city, she takes refuge in a plush empty apartment.
Hours later, Betty (Naomi Watts), a blond ingénue, who has just arrived in Los Angeles, appears and finds the amnesiac survivor taking a shower. The apartment belongs to Betty’s aunt, who works in the film business and has lent it to her niece while she’s away on location. Betty, who traveled from Deep River, Ontario, is a likably gushy caricature of a naïve Hollywood hopeful and, as it turns out, a fine actress.
The strange woman, who brought a bag stuffed with money and a strange blue key with her from the car, doesn’t know who she is and takes the name Rita (from Rita Hayworth) off a poster in the apartment advertising Gilda. Betty befriends Rita, and they spend half the film acting like Nancy Drew trying to figure out Rita’s true identity. When they share a bed, their friendship flares into passion. Their tender love scenes lend the film a tint of lush romanticism.
Another strand of the plot involves Adam (Justin Theroux), a young director whose newest project is mysteriously taken over by the studio, which insists he hire an unknown named Camilla Rhodes for the coveted female lead. Adam receives more instructions from a waxen human relic dressed in western gear known only as the Cowboy.
Just when Mulholland Drive has acquired so many layers that its pieces seem impossible to reconcile, it leaves its complicated past behind and plunges into an alternate reality. A corpse that Betty and Rita discovered while sleuthing is magically resurrected by the Cowboy as the elusive Diane Selwyn, whom they were seeking for information.
Betty now all but disappears from the movie, and Ms. Watts portrays Diane, a hardened, strung-out vixen who suggests what Betty might become after living in Hollywood too long. Or might Diane be real and Betty be a fantasy projection of what she might have been? When Ms. Harring appears at the door of Diane’s ratty bungalow, she is now Camilla Rhodes, the indifferent temptress with whom Diane is desperately and miserably in love.
From here on, watching ‘Mulholland Drive is a little like peering into the semidarkness from the front car of a runaway subway train tunneling furiously into the earth as if sucked toward some unknowable hell. Much of the foregoing is recycled in feverish, fleeting images that are often disconnected, and those that aren’t disjointed have a nightmarish relationship. There is the suggestion that all the turmoil stems from one ruthless actress’s murderous obsession to land the lead female role in Adam’s movie, but that’s only hinted at.
For Mulholland Drive finally has little to do with any single character’s love life or professional ambition. The movie is an ever-deepening reflection on the allure of Hollywood and on the multiple role-playing and self-invention that the movie-going experience promises. That same promise of identity loss extends to the star-making process, in which the star can disappear into other lives and become other people’s fantasies. What greater power is there than the power to enter and to program the dream life of the culture. Who needs continuity if you can disappear into a dream?
Since these questions are being pondered by a master surrealist re-examining his own obsessions and personal iconography, Mulholland Drive‘ ranks alongside Fellini’s 8 ½ and other auteurist fantasias as a monumental self-reflection.
Looked at lightly, it is the grandest and silliest cinematic carnival to come along in quite some time: a lurching journey through one filmmaker’s personal fun house. On a more serious level, its investigation into the power of movies pierces a void from which you can hear the screams of a ravenous demon whose appetites can never be slaked.
Review courtesy of The New York Times