“Nah, you’re not thinkin’. You’re too busy being a smart-alec to be thinkin'” – The Cowboy
If you’ve never seen David Lynch’s 2001 Cannes Best Director winner Mulholland Drive, it’s probably worth stopping reading and buying Studio Canal’s new Blu-Ray restoration right now. That’s normally the kind of recommendation critics save for the end, but it is, simply, a necessary experience for cinephiles, enshrined by polls in Sight & Sound and the BBC as one of the few inarguable canonical classics of the 21st century.
If you have seen it, it’s worth watching again, not least because there aren’t many films that thrive on repeated viewings like Mulholland Drive does. Most suspense-based movies deteriorate slightly on a rewatch if only because the viewer knows their surprises, but Mulholland Drive is completely resistant to this. What matters is not so much what happens, but how you interpret it; knowing its incidents only opens up new approaches to take to it. It even flags this up early on with the only jump scare in cinema history that isn’t dependent on a surprise; the scene in Winkie’s Diner begins with the characters explaining exactly what is going to happen, then it happens. And for some reason, this still works as a shock.
Watching this new director-approved 4K restoration took me back to the feeling of watching the film for the first time in cinemas. To be a fan of David Lynch is to be a fan of his collaborators, all of whom are essential to the finished film: Peter Deming’s shadowy, haunting A-list-B-noir cinematography, Jack Fisk’s lavish Old Hollywood sets, the spectral string washes and petrifying bass drones of Angelo Badalamenti’s score. All of these elements are so prominent and cared-for in this restoration that it took me blissfully out of the zone of trying to work out what this film might mean and enjoying it as a trance-like sensual pleasure.
This is, I think, the way to enjoy the film. By now there is a consensus about what Mulholland Drive means, which is part of the reason why I wanted newcomers out of the room before starting this review. The consensus is that the first four-fifths of the movie, starring Naomi Watts as Betty, a naive aspiring actress who stumbles on the aftermath of a failed Mafia hit and finds love with their target, is a dream. The last fifth, starring Naomi Watts as Diane, a failed actress falling into suicidal despair over her affair with a rising star, is reality.
On paper, this is the worst cop-out in all of writing; she woke up and it was all a dream. In Lynch’s hands, it’s not, chiefly because he sees dreams as a way of commenting on reality. On her own, Betty is entertaining and sparky but something less than a complete person; viewed as a projection of Diane’s self-image she’s heartbreaking and scathing. Auditioning for a role, she rehearses it as a giggly, camp melodrama then slips into seductress mode for the real thing. It’s hard to credit that as part of Betty’s repertoire, but it does show that there are limits to Diane’s ability to imagine true innocence. Telling, as well, that she splits her unfaithful lover Camilla Rhodes into two parts. One is an untalented airhead who can only get a part through Mafia connections. The other, the part of Camilla who deserves Betty’s love, is made over with a blonde wig that looks suspiciously similar to Watts’s own hair. In short, Diane’s dream lover is herself.
But this psychological reading cannot account for everything in the film. It has to be noted that the ‘reality’ segment is much less naturalistically shot than the ‘dream’ part, complete with screaming monsters, searing flashing lights and mysterious clouds of smoke. And I don’t think I’ve read anything yet that accounts for a scene towards the end that duplicates, right down to Badalamenti’s musical cue, the beginning of Diane’s dream. How can Diane dream this if she hasn’t lived it yet? Does Diane have some kind of prophetic ability? Or is the relationship between the film’s two worlds more complex than this binary reading will allow?
When we think of “world-building” in modern cinema we think of the fantasy worlds of big-budget superhero and science fiction movies, but even the most imaginative such movies cannot compare to the thoroughness with which Lynch’s films create different worlds. His debut, Eraserhead, opened with a kind of strange god controlling the action; Twin Peaks eventually revealed itself to be a tale of possession and purgatory whose symbols and theology resemble no existing religion. It’s no wonder his work inspires such devotion; he is the only cult film-maker whose films would form a good basis for a literal cult.
Then again, there are a lot of wannabe cult films that mistake geeky detail for imagination and craft. Absolutely no-one would debate the logic of Mulholland Drive’s internal world if the film wasn’t such a technical triumph. Lynch’s sudden, bright spotlights, misty dissolves superimpositions, drifting jib-mounted camera and strange ability to find the claustrophobia in huge sets and wide open spaces represent a unique and seductive cinematic grammar which he is completely in command of here. The funny scenes are hilarious, the scary scenes are petrifying, the love scenes are passionate and Naomi Watts gives one of the definitive star-making performances. The scene where Betty says she wants to be a movie star and a great actress at the same time now reads like a mission statement from Watts.
For all his avant-garde ideas Lynch ultimately wants to entertain you, to take you on a journey, to give you something that you can wrap yourself up in and love. As Diane would sadly tell you, you’d be a fool to reject a love this powerful.