Mulholland Drive

“Johnny’s such a hard name to remember, and so easy to forget,” the title-character coquettishly mouths to her ex-lover Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) in Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946). She is the femme fatale whose seductive voice, glamorous hair, and voluptuous body Rita Hayworth lent to the screen in 1946. Her untameable sexuality – which promiscuously takes centre stage in the unforgettable “Put the Blame on Mame” strip-tease – is the object of every man’s desire, a weapon she casts about indiscriminately to taunt Johnny’s proudly concealed infatuation with the lover he has spurned. So Johnny sets out to exact revenge: he agrees to take Gilda’s hand in marriage. But this classic technique for disciplining female sexuality becomes in Johnny’s perverse hands a tool for psychological torment: he marries Gilda only to replace her free-flowing affections with confinement and constant surveillance. Her every move is shadowed by his henchmen, and when she finally escapes to Uruguay to pursue life as a cabaret singer, she is captured and returned to marital confinement in Buenos Aires by one of Johnny’s men. Liberation comes to Gilda only when her sexuality is extinguished and Johnny is able to see the tender heart concealed within her smouldering body – and they live happily ever after.

Camilla Rhodes, the jet-black-haired femme fatale portrayed by Laura Elena Harring in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), stages a marked reversal of this Hollywood tradition. Lynch begins by bowing to convention: for the first half of the movie, Harring’s character is known only as “Rita,” a pseudonym borrowed in an amnesiac haze from an old film poster for Gilda. The film reinforces the quintessential Hollywood sex iconography when the shadowy ensemble of men who seem to control the industry (and here Lynch conjures up the familiar gangster tropes) produce a photograph of Camilla that depicts not the black-haired Harring, but her blonde double. There is, however, an unconventional twist. When the men insistently repeat their entranced mantra, “this is the girl,” to the director who dares resist their casting selection, they reveal that their apparent mastery is in fact mere subservience to the object of the film’s desire. In the traditional Hollywood power structure, the blonde bombshell is a creature deprived of full agency: she wields a fleeting sexual power only as long as the fickle star system deigns to bestow it. But in Lynch’s film, the shadowy patriarchal network is itself subjugated to the irresistible and controlling power of Camilla’s sexuality. This is a film of reversals.

Not the least of which is the reversal of fantasy and reality. Half way through Mulholland Drive, the camera pulls us into a mysterious blue box that Rita has unlocked. From this point forward, the linear quality of the narrative falls apart. The familiar characters from the first half of the film take on new identities – most importantly, Rita becomes Camilla Rhodes, and her lover Betty becomes Diane (Naomi Watts), the same mysterious woman whom Rita and Betty had earlier discovered rotting away in apartment 17. It seems that with our entry into the box we have departed reality for the subterranean dream world of the unconscious. But, in fact, the reverse has occurred.

The apparent narrative of Mulholland Drive begins from a chance encounter between a beautiful but potentially dangerous amnesiac who has narrowly escaped assassination, and a fresh-faced ingenue, newly arrived in Hollywood to pursue her dream of becoming a movie star (or, preferably, a serious actress.) Together they set out to discover the stranger’s lost identity, and Betty’s eagerness to help a distraught and frightened stranger in need, even at her own expense, casts her in the role of loyal, trustworthy friend. Indeed, her loyalty is soon recast as selfless martyrdom. Following a show-stopping performance for a film project unworthy of her talent, Betty is given the chance to audition for the coveted role of “the girl” in Adam Kesher’s (Justin Theroux) new movie, but she passes it up to keep a date with Rita. Pursuing their amateur detective plot, the two women break into the apartment of the one person whose name has returned to Rita: Diane Selwyn. Like comatose accident victims muttering the name of their beloved, Betty and Rita fixate on Diane, and the intensity of their shared discovery of her body transforms their companionate alliance into romantic seduction. The previously unknown character takes a central place in the mystery at this point, tying Betty and Rita’s passion to Diane’s decaying body.

But already in this first half of the film, clues are dropped that all is not as it seems. Betty’s true identity is foreshadowed when she and Rita phone Diane’s number. When Betty whispers that “it’s strange to be calling yourself,” she is ostensibly thinking out loud for Rita. But in fact it is Betty herself who is doing the calling, and when the answering machine responds with “hi, it’s me, leave a message,” Rita’s response unwittingly points in Betty’s direction: “that’s not my voice,” she says, “but I know her.” Indeed, by the film’s second half, when we hear the identical message answering Camilla’s call to Diane, the significance of Betty’s whispered words becomes apparent: she is expressing sympathy not for Rita, but for herself, as her idealised past confronts her degenerate present. Retrospectively, we can comprehend Betty’s seemingly innocent musings as narrative exegesis. When she had exclaimed to Rita, “I’m in this dream place,” Betty was not simply expressing wonderment at the glamour of Hollywood; she was providing a literal characterisation of the fantastical quality of the film’s first half. Mulholland Drive evokes this quality elsewhere more obliquely, by toying with the viewer’s sense of reality: after Coco (Ann Miller), the apartment manager, warns Betty to get rid of the stranger in her aunt’s apartment, we are plunged into a melodramatic scene where an emotional Betty exclaims to Rita, “You’re still here! … Get out of here before I kill you!” The initial shock is suspended only when we are shown that Betty is practising for an audition.

Rita Hayworth in Gilda

But by the second half, Betty’s words reclaim their more literal meaning. Not only do we learn that Betty is Diane and Rita is Camilla Rhodes, but also that the sweetly naïve blonde from the first half of the film has become a hardened, embittered rival of Adam, the ineffectual film director who has now claimed Camilla’s affections. Near the film’s end, Lynch delivers his answer to Gilda‘s “Blame on Mame” strip-tease: a pool-party seen through Diane’s eyes, where Camilla is a promiscuous sex-pot performing callously in front of a tearful, brokenhearted ex-lover. Suddenly, the film cuts to a diner scene, where a distraught Diane produces from her purse a hoard of cash and a photo of Camilla. “This is the girl,” she informs the hit-man sitting across from her, a thug who, in the first half of the movie, was seen searching for a missing and bruised brunette on the streets of Los Angeles. This previously unexplained scene is intercut with two shots of Betty and Rita removing a mysterious hoard of cash from the amnesiac’s purse, a strategic linkage suggesting that the hit-man had been searching for the escaped victim of his assassination attempt.

With this revelation, the jarring quality of the camerawork in the scenes leading into Betty and Rita’s first encounter is relinquished of its gratuitous feel. Exploring her aunt’s apartment as if Hollywood fame might be found just around the next corner, Betty had been the picture of exuberant delight. But these shots of her cheerful countenance contrast sharply with the hand-held, point-of-view camerawork, which seems to code her meanderings through each dimly lit room as the menacing paces of a serial killer stalking her next victim. Initially, this heavily conventionalised camera movement seems out of place, a representational trope for a different kind of movie: for how could the innocent blonde possibly embody such a threatening gaze? Our realisation of Diane’s murderous intent retrospectively lends motivation to the point-of-view shot; what we see is the visual perspective of a jaded lover, trying to regain the sight of her beloved for the first time.

We now begin to see that Betty and Diane represent two temporally distant poles of a single identity, and the seemingly chronological narrative of the first half represents not merely a flashback or dream but, rather, a sequentially rearranged interpretation by Diane of her own (willing) corruption at the hands of Camilla. While the search for Rita’s identity initially seemed to place Betty in the dominating role of investigator and protector, we see now that her agency has expired. Any semblance of Betty’s centrality has been displaced by the focus on Camilla Rhodes – she is, after all, “the girl” – but despite her fetishistic centrality to the visual pleasure of the film, it turns out that the narrative is not driven by the mystery of Camilla’s identity after all. Instead, it is Diane’s wishful reconstruction of her own past that explains the mystery of Camilla Rhodes: for it is Diane’s heartbroken vengeance that prompted the attempted murder in the opening scenes of the film.

In the imagined aftermath of the failed murder attempt, Diane fantasises Rita’s dependence on her as an expression of her own yearning for sexual power over Camilla and desire to be the continued source of her pleasure and satisfaction. (It is, after all, Diane’s own name that provides the sole clue to Rita’s identity in this fantastical reconstruction.) But this form of power finds its very embodiment, to Diane’s mind at least, in Camilla. When Camilla withdraws the energy of her affections from the heartbroken Diane, the latter’s mourning gives way to vengeance. Instead of providing solace, however, revenge merely exacerbates her grief. It also spawns the hallucinatory narrative of the film’s first half, in which a false nostalgia for her own sexual power is expressed simultaneously as submission to Camilla and as innocent devotion. This part of the film projects Diane’s guilty attempt at self-absolution for actions committed under the spell of an irresistible femme fatale. From this perspective, Camilla is portrayed as a seductive but exploitative opportunist who encourages physical affections only to further her own ends. Thus Diane’s narration of Betty and Rita’s romance oscillates between the longing memory of an idealised love and a self-righteous justification for punishing abandonment with death, a reversal that leads to the disintegration of the logic of Diane’s recollections: love becomes identical with obsession.

To the obsessed mind, even Camilla’s betrothal to her director becomes suspect. In an imagined flashback to Diane’s first encounter with Adam, the lingering glance between Betty and the director, whose audition she departs to meet Rita, hints at both recognition and attraction. But the suggestion is left unresolved: Betty rushes from the scene just as “the girl” – Camilla Rhodes’s blonde double – is auditioning for the part. This timed coincidence juxtaposes the visual spectacle of Betty’s sacrificial act against the auditory background of the blonde’s lyrics, which portentously sing of Camilla’s sexual callousness: “friends ask me, am I in love? I always answer yes.” The parting glance between Betty and Adam suggests that if she had put her own interests first, Diane could have become “the girl” – she could have become Camilla Rhodes. Betty’s act of selflessness succumbs to manipulation by her self-serving lover, thereby adding the secondary importance of her own career to the list of wrongs that only Camilla’s death can right.

The obsessional quality of Diane’s fantasies becomes apparent when the figure of Camilla displaces Hollywood as the narrative’s and Betty’s – raison d’être; stardom may have been Betty’s original destination, but Camilla/Rita has now become the centre around which this fantastical world revolves. The absorption of Hollywood (and its traditional hierarchies) is total: in the world of Mulholland Drive, no one has agency except the femme fatale. Thus the emcee’s declarations at the Club Silencio – “No hay banda…it’s all recorded; it is all a tape: it is an illusion” – serve not only to indicate that the events before us are unreal, but also that their unfolding is directed by an exterior agent. Whether the trumpeter chooses to play or not is irrelevant: the music has already been determined by the femme fatale’s all-encompassing influence on her surroundings. Diane’s projections of her own powerlessness reach their pinnacle in this scene: even the club itself seems to have materialised out of Rita’s dreams. As the addressee of a “performance” of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” sung in Spanish (the language of her dreams), Rita’s presence in this scene conveys the psychological and somatic effects of her charms: whether moved to song or tears, no one can resist the force of her desire.

Just as the expendable performers at the Club Silencio are completely deprived of agency, so too are the men who populate Diane’s fantasy world. Adam Kesher, for one, is dealt one calamity after another: he is a director who cannot even cast his own film. (“It’s no longer your film,” the Castiglione brothers tell him.) Whose film has it become, then? The fate of the narrative might seem to be driven by the shadowy apparatus of telephoning men who pull strings from behind the scenes. But their sole operating motive is Camilla Rhodes herself, “the girl” whose fate is the singular concern of their chorus of calls. In Diane’s dream world, shadowy gangsters are plucked from Hollywood’s traditional repertoire and transformed into the very embodiment of Camilla’s sexual power – a power before which Betty is helpless.

The invocation of these film noir tropes appears to motivate Betty’s quest to right the wrongs done a beautiful woman, in whose web she becomes predictably ensnared. But this seductress is not merely an object of desire, a sexualised pawn of masculine power. Unlike her namesake, this Rita is a source of both pleasure and power: her sexual power has captivated Betty/Diane, Adam, and the cadre of studio players whose behind-the-scenes casting of the “it” girl might be mistaken for the genuine ability to exercise control. Everyone in this film is obsessed with Camilla Rhodes, and the leading lady knows how to work this obsession.

Mulholland Drive

But even though the figure of Rita/Camilla provides the central narrative drive of the film, ultimately it is not Camilla’s story that has been told. The unearthing of Diane’s subconscious descent from love into obsession is the film’s real story. On one level, Diane’s emotional collapse is expressed through the disintegrative logic of her fantastically reconstructed love story gone awry. In this sense, the incoherent quality of the narrative expresses not an amnesiac disruption of chronology, but rather, an acute experience of psychological torment. But this collapse also enables Diane’s heartbroken bitterness, and the unspeakable crime it drives her to commit, to be mixed and reintegrated with her sweet, innocent, purifying love. Withdrawing her psychological investments from a guilt-ridden present, and instead, channelling them into the construction of an idyllic romantic past, Diane evades culpability for Camilla’s death. By absolving herself of responsibility for the initiation and subsequent demise of their romance, Diane retrospectively secures her own innocence by stripping all agency from her earlier incarnation as “Betty.”

But this lack of agency also dooms her from the start: she is the victim of an externally imposed but originary corruption. The key narrative reversal of pre- and postlapsarian time is signalled by the elderly couple who first deliver Betty into the Angels’ hands and onto the screen – the couple whose wholesome enthusiasm is rapidly contorted into ambiguously sinister laughter. The death-bound couple reappears only to usher in Diane’s terrifying suicide at the film’s end, and with their return, the surreal sincerity of the film’s first half dissolves completely. Instead, we are left with a literalised “return of the repressed.” Just as Diane’s wishful gloss on her tragic romance cannot withstand the corrosive pressure of her heartache, so the disconsolate decay of her post-rejection isolation in apartment 17 cannot keep the yearning for absolution at bay. In the end, the reversal of fantasy and reality propels the narrative mystery of Mulholland Drive, and sustains the central character’s obsessive – but gratifying – worldview. Although ultimately agonising, this constant reversal produces the often pleasurable ruminations enabling Diane to escape her melancholy through the satisfying daydream of the film itself. It is the dissolution of the boundary between fantasy and reality, and Diane’s ultimate failure to separate the two realms that leads finally to her self-destruction. Diane’s submission to the tide of hallucinatory despair freezes the flow of nostalgic reverie, despite the film’s repeated resistance to this fate. Through the constant interjection of fantasy into reality, and reality into fantasy, Mulholland Drive resists fixing an interpretation of what is real and what is not, resists forcing a chronological rendering of time, resists privileging coherence over incoherence. But Diane’s suicide puts a decisive halt to this fluid mobility. Mulholland Drive begins and ends by insisting that the story doesn’t go like this, that “we don’t stop here,” but after all, we do.

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This article was refereed.

About The Author

Kirsten Ostherr is a postdoctoral fellow at Wesleyan University. Her teaching and research focuses on race, sexuality, cinema, and globalization.

Arash Abizadeh teaches political theory at Wesleyan University. He has previously written on nationalism, identity, Rousseau, Fichte, and discourse ethics.