Mulholland Drive ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

“It’ll be just like in the movies. Pretending to be somebody else.”

If you love the movies, you inevitably end up living the movies. A walk up a flight of stairs is one of Hitchcock’s classic POV tracking shots. A person looking up from a slightly downward-tilted head is giving Kubrick’s trademark death glare. You happen upon a symmetrically composed tableau and look over your shoulder for Wes Anderson. You can’t help it; the movies have warped your thinking.

Besides, real life is, in all the worst ways, nothing like the movies. It’s full of randomness and digressions and the uneasy coexistence of pain and pleasure. Poorly framed and choppily edited. It’s kind of like a dream—lots of strange and uninteresting parts, everything jumbled. To make sense of our lives, we impose a narrative on them, but walk down the sidewalk or ride the bus and you can quickly see that the narrative is just a convenient overlay. That’s where movies come in. They straighten out the kinks and make things more appealing. It’s not for nothing that Hollywood is the dream factory: Movies are just dreams put through an assembly line, brought to life with a refreshing dose of order.

But sometimes a misfit escapes the factory. Mulholland Dr. is such a misfit. Cobbled together by David Lynch from the wreckage of a failed television pilot, Mulholland Dr. feels disconcertingly like a dream. A real dream, not a movie-movie “dream sequence.” Everything makes perfect sense—except something’s always off-kilter. We can easily construct a coherent narrative—but there are so many spare parts seemingly belonging to altogether different stories. We try to analyze it, to make sense of it—but even if we do, we’re left not with a moral or a dramatic arc but with a feeling. An unshakable feeling, like a cobweb just walked through.

Few filmmakers are as deft as Lynch at creating that “woke up from the strangest dream” feeling, and never has his technique worked better than in Mulholland Dr. Betty (Naomi Watts, in an astonishing, career-best performance) is too chipper and naïve. Her elderly traveling acquaintances are too supportive. There are anachronistic elements dotting what otherwise appears to be a contemporary landscape. The cops are too hard-boiled, the mobsters are too ominous, Rita (Laura Elena Harring) is too voluptuous. Plotlines appear and then vanish. There’s a spectral cowboy and a terrifying trash monster. It’s all a few degrees from normal, just enough to make us uneasy. We’re grateful to Betty for assisting Rita in figuring out her true identity—throwing us the narrative rope we’d been searching for. And then we visit a club where everything is an illusion, and the rope breaks and everything is reconstructed as something new.

There seems to be a prevailing theory about who Betty “really” is, and how the Betty-Rita story is an exculpatory dream repurposed from the remnants of that person’s failed life. It’s a persuasive theory. But it ultimately seems beside the point. If anything, it’s an indictment of the promises that movies make but cannot keep. A defeated wannabe actress, in a guilt- and drug-fueled haze, attempts to remake her personal ruins as a success story, one part Nancy Drew, one part 42nd Street, one part Emmanuelle. In her warped thinking, she had imagined her life would be like the movies, where she could pretend to be someone else. But that pretty sheen is just a klieg light and some Vaseline on the lens. Real life, in all the worst ways, is nothing like the movies. It’s kind of like a bad dream.

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