Mulholland Drive (2001)

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There comes a point in the life of every cinephile where they watch Mulholland Drive for the first time. I remember seeing it quite a few years ago, when I was just a neophyte film lover. I decided to revisit it, and I will be completely honest and claim that there are two facts that remain very true about Mulholland Drive – firstly, it is one of the most puzzling and bizarre films I’ve ever seen, and secondly, it is one of the greatest pieces of cinema ever created.

I am not entirely sure how exactly I am supposed to wrap my head around Mulholland Drive. I don’t know what to make of this film. However, while this kind of film would be considered convoluted and pretentious in the hands of many other filmmakers, Mulholland Drive was made by perhaps the one filmmaker that can get away with something so confusing and oddball – David Lynch. David Lynch is not only perhaps the greatest filmmaker of his generation; he is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. I adore him beyond reasonable admiration, and I have seen him as an iconic figure, both in film and in life, for a long time. Mulholland Drive is his greatest work (maybe just behind Twin Peaks), and I honestly think he managed to do something tremendously amazing with this film.

Mulholland Drive is about Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), a young small-town girl that moves to Los Angeles with the aspirations of becoming an actress. She encounters an amnesiac woman who goes by the name of Rita (Laura Elena Harring), who has completely lost her identity after a car accident that opened the film. Betty alternates between auditioning and trying to become an established actress, and helping the amnesiac Rita find out who she really is. That seems pretty straightforward, but believe me that Mulholland Drive is anything but coherent, because there is a major sub-plot that eventually takes over the entire film, involving Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) an acclaimed but arrogant filmmaker who is not given the chance to cast an actress of his choice in his next film, and rather forced to cast a woman who has the backing of several sinister men who appear to be more than just mere executives. This is obviously a Lynch film, so things get incredibly strange, and to call this film bizarre is a severe understatement.

Mulholland Drive features a performance by an actress who would go on to be one of the best of her generation. Naomi Watts is a wonderful actress, and she consistently gives remarkable performances. Mulholland Drive, while not her debut role, could be considered the film that launched her into a higher level of fame. She does something that many actors attempt, but very few do well – playing dual roles. She plays both Betty, the upbeat and eager young actress, and then in the third act of Mulholland Drive, Diane Selwyn, the washed-up failed actress. Watts is incredible in Mulholland Drive and it was a great showcase for her ability to play two very different kinds of characters. She also inhabits the weird and wonderful world of David Lynch perfectly and brings the film to life in a way many other performers would struggle to do.

Honestly, I do have a major complaint with Mulholland Drive – Watts carried this entire film, and while that wouldn’t be a complaint normally, Mulholland Drive is really structured as a two-hander, and the other lead, Laura Elena Harring, was not very good. Honestly, I found a lot of her acting to be artificial and often very hammy, and she just failed to impress me – but I think that was the entire point. Rita is supposed to be an inoffensive character, but someone still somewhat unlikable. Lynch takes huge risks with his casting, and I can safely assume that I have never seen Harring in anything before or after Mulholland Drive. Honestly, I wasn’t that impressed with her performance, but it did do its job, and I can’t quite criticize the film as a whole, because one weak like like Harring does not mean this incredible film loses any of its brilliance.

Justin Theroux is also excellent as Adam Kesher, the arrogant director who is at the centre of this film. I haven’t really been too impressed by Theroux too often, but I do agree he has shown great potential as an actor. Mulholland Drive, however, showed a completely different side to Theroux, who was so complex in this character, creating nuance where many actors wouldn’t. I was really impressed by him here, and think Lynch really did a wonderful job of creating a character like Adam. Special kudos to Ann Miller, who is an absolute scene-stealer as Coco, the gentle matriarch that presides over this film. I also find it so hilarious that Billy Ray Cyrus of all people is in this film. It is just so undeniably Lynchian to cast Billy Ray Cyrus in this film.

I have to say that beyond the very strange story, Mulholland Drive succeeds in its surrealist intentions by not only depending on the story, but also on the technical aspects of the filmmaking. The cinematography is fascinating, as there are some shots that are so abstract in how they have been framed, they can be analyzed like one who analyze a painting. The editing was also incredible – Lynch and his editor Mary Sweeney did an excellent job in making sure that this film was not conventional, and through the editing, they created something so wonderfully bizarre, it became unforgettable. Mulholland Drive runs the gamut of innovative filmmaking techniques. Added to this is the utterly terrifying but hypnotizing score by Angelo Badalementi that really brings this film together.

It is impossible to read anything about Mulholland Drive that isn’t some form of interpretation – and for good reason, because honestly, Mulholland Drive does not many any sense. It is an often confusing and very puzzling film that leaves the audience bewildered. I won’t be engaging in discussing what this film could mean by going into the theories because of two things: first of all, everything I want to say has doubtlessly been said before, and also because, in a way, I don’t necessarily want to make sense of this film. There is likely some hidden meaning lurking beneath Mulholland Drive, and while I think many of the theories are very relevant, we can’t ever know for sure – nor can we ever actually know whether or not this film actually has any hidden meaning. Mulholland Drive is a crazily dark film, with a twisted narrative and very little to help the audience understand it – but is it really a film that needs to be understood? Don’t get me wrong, I love the theories, and I have a few of my own – but that’s for another day. For now, I just want to look at Mulholland Drive and where it fits in the world of cinema.

Mulholland Drive is a masterpiece of surrealism. To understand Mulholland Drive and to locate it as a surrealist piece of art, we need to understand the roots of what surrealism actually entails. From what I’ve come to learn over time, surrealism is based around the idea of exploring a dream-like reality, where social conventions are thrown out, and even the most perversely strange qualities that exist in our unconscious states are brought about. Unfortunately, surrealism is clearly far from being just abstract artworks that have the appearance of being strange. As my definition above proves, surrealism is not really something that we can understand, and to just call surreal pieces “weird” is doing a great disservice to the countless artists who take on the concept of surrealism, not as something to be seen, but something to be felt. There is a tendency to view surrealism through the lens of Salvador Dalí’s paintings – and while he was most certainly a surrealist, and a brilliant one at that, he wasn’t the be-all-and-end-all of surrealists, because he operated on a level different to other surrealists. As I mentioned, surrealism is something to be felt.

A surreal piece, in my view, is something that is both shocking and appealing. Something that disgusts and mesmerizes the viewer. Something the viewer does not understand, but doesn’t necessarily want to understand. As consumers of this art, we need to understand that surrealism is created to elicit a response in us, a visceral reaction to what we are seeing. Mulholland Drive does not feature the often beautifully oddball qualities of other surrealist works, but that doesn’t make it any less surreal, because Mulholland Drive succeeds in the criteria of being absolutely confusing but still mesmerizing and causes the audience to have a real response to the film. Personally, I believe the two greatest living surrealist filmmakers are Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky – and when comparing these two men, I come to two major conclusions: firstly, they are both completely different in their style of filmmaking and how they apply surrealism to their films, and secondly, they are absolute equals because they forged the way for surreal filmmaking in such a way that they are distinct, and despite making films that are radically different, they succeed in that all-important technique of just creating something strange and unforgettable.

Mulholland Drive is of particular fascination to me because of its status as the greatest film of the twenty-first century. That is a title that does not come undeserving. It is certainly a towering achievement, and while I personally believe There Will Be Blood to be the greatest film of the current century, there is no way to deny that Mulholland Drive is right up there with the very best. It occupies a difficult place in cinematic canon – it is the perfect amalgamation of visual and narrative, and as a whole, it is a film that leaves you reeling. It is difficult to discern how one goes about selecting the greatest film of the century, but I do think if we are looking as a film as something that results in a visceral response, and creates an unforgettable experience, there are very few films that succeed in this way quite like Mulholland Drive.

Mulholland Drive is a fantastic film. It is iconic and brilliant, and as a whole, it proves that David Lynch is one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live. The film is a perfect representation of free-form artistic expression, and it is emotionally and mentally challenging. I am still not sure how I feel about this film other than the fact that it is a bewildering and slightly terrifying example of modern filmmaking, and that there are a few geniuses in modern art that can just create so much tension and thought through very little. If you aren’t on the David Lynch train by now, I suggest you join us. There are very few filmmakers like David Lynch, just like there are very few films like Mulholland Drive. I can say, with all honesty, that I have never seen a film like Mulholland Drive before, and I doubt I will ever again.

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