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Mulholland Drive Review

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by Casimir Harlow Sep 10, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Mulholland Drive Review
    What do you associate with the name David Lynch? Dwarves; Velvet; modern Film Noir; Kafkaesque storytelling; Non-linear narratives; split-personalities; nightmarish dream imagery; ending... just... makes... no... sense. The masterful Director has become so famous for his distinctive style, that the word ‘Lynchian’ will no doubt soon appear in the Dictionary as a general definition of all things similarly out-of-whack. The man could, on some levels, be regarded as a genius. Of course, others just find that he’s a limited artist who covers up his lack of substance with gaping wide holes that are deemed ‘artistically intentional’ and allow audiences to make up their own interpretative ending. Personally, I think he rides a fine line between the two, but whatever the case may be, the end result – in his productions – is pretty consistently spellbinding: whether it be his offbeat TV show Twin Peaks, or his disturbing murder mystery Blue Velvet (and even his more Hollywood-influenced take on Dune boasted much of his classic style). Many regard his tour de force to be Mulholland Drive, at once a story of love, rejection and jealousy; a reflection on the darker side of Hollywood; and a classic, Lynchian, journey into madness.
    “This is the girl.”
    A budding young blonde actress moves out to L.A. with a view to cracking Hollywood and becoming famous. It is not long before she discovers the dark truth beneath the glitzy exterior, auditioning for what could be her breakthrough role on a movie whose Director is under unwelcome pressure from his Studio’s Mafia-connected financers. Meeting a beautiful and mysterious brunette, the two of them become involved in a twisted plot of betrayal, jealousy, and ultimately murder; involving a hitman, a blue key, and a strange dwarf.
    Wow it was really difficult for me to even attempt to explain what this movie was about. I have to admit to being one of those (I suspect, many) people who has seen Mulholland Drive several times, but never fully understood it – until now. The joy of reviewing is sometimes in the research done (and, in particular, the fact that you investigate all of the – potentially insightful – extras) and what that may reveal. Finally, after the best part of a decade, I actually get David Lynch’s convoluted mystery drama. The fact that this very revelation opens up many more questions is neither here nor there – and, besides, the questions are more about the mind behind the madness, rather than the logic of it all.
    In order to go any further, I’m going to have to issue some spoiler warnings. Mulholland Drive is a beautiful, nightmarish vision, which will suck you in and keep you enthralled, then throw you round in a completely different direction two thirds of the way into the story. Suddenly, everything you have just seen becomes a confusing, jumbled mess and – just like the characters themselves – you have to try and piece things together or (as was the case with me) give up at some point, and accept the fact that this is still a masterful piece of art, even if you don’t have a clue what is going on in the story. But it is amazing, mesmerising, classic Lynch. And well worth checking out. Unfortunately any discussion around its narrative (or even its complicated production history) could potentially reveal too much, so just skip to the end, accept the fact that this deserves to be in your collection, and go and pick it up. That is, if you haven’t seen it. If you have seen it...be prepared to have your eyes opened.
    “Just forget you ever saw it. It's better that way.”
    So David Lynch has not really had the kind of success (at least in terms of TV ratings or Box Office draw) that his fanbase would have expected, or would have felt that he deserved. He’s an indisputably top-tier Director, but his work is so damn strange that it just does not go anywhere near mainstream, and – as a result – his shows get cancelled, his films get butchered or postponed, and his fans have to wait around to pick up the pieces when the dust has settled. Mulholland Drive was initially intended to be a 2-hour pilot episode for the US TV network, ABC. It was pitched as a story about an amnesiac girl who survives a car crash and stumbles into the home of a budding young actress, the two of them then going on to try and piece together the forgotten memories, and figure out why amnesia chick has a purse full of cash and a blue key. And it was intended to run and run, potentially lasting some 3 seasons, with the blonde budding actress as the key character. Then the Studios cancelled it – they thought the draft pilot was too slow, overlong, and simply not substantial enough to justify a full series. Lynch, despondent, left the project alone for the best part of 2 years, before French producers commissioned him to transform the footage he had filmed – using newly shot scenes – into a theatrical film.
    Now the end result may be a piece of art, but it is most definitely of the surreal variety – and not surreal in the classic Terry Gilliam sense of the word, but more abstract in the way that defines the very term Lynchian. Many have stated that it works as a compilation of the planned first and last episodes in the cancelled show, but I don’t believe for an instant that it was ever planned to go in this direction. David Lynch may have been a fan of tricking audiences using imagery and non-linear storytelling, but there’s no way that his ‘big reveal’ – at the end of three seasons of following this amnesiac and her friend wander around enshrouded in mystery – was going to be ‘it was all a dream’. Don’t get me wrong: it’s extremely clever, and it blurs the lines so adeptly that you really can’t tell illusion from reality, leaving you with a picture that is infinitely rewarding, but also endlessly frustrating. However, this is still Lynch’s twisted afterthought, and clearly not what he intended from the outset. Some might find it disappointing to find this out – I find it intriguing. Not only am I impressed that Lynch managed to concoct such an elaborate vision out of nothing more than an aborted TV episode, but I am also very interested in imagining where his original story might have led, had it been allowed to blossom into a full-blown TV series à la Twin Peaks (which, too, suffered from an abrupt conclusion).
    “I mean I just came here from Deep River, Ontario, and now I'm in this dream place.”
    For all those who critically applaud Lynch’s work, there are no doubt many who dismiss it as art-house twaddle; pretentious ramblings of an unsuccessful auteur who fills the gaps in his flimsy, ill-conceived plots with showy and clichéd gimmicks. I can almost understand where they are coming from, levelling these kind of criticisms at the likes of Mulholland Drive – I mean surely filmmakers had learnt that the ‘it was all a dream’ trick had been used once too often back in the Dallas days of Bobby Ewing waking up in the shower?! But Lynch handles the material so adeptly, so professionally, that the end result soars above the cliché, an intellectual mystery, an elaborate conundrum which – as was in my case – may take quite some time to fully get to grips with.
    And beneath all this smoke and fury: beneath the non-linear staging, and blending of illusions and reality, Lynch’s tale is still rich and multi-layered. His look at the seedy underbelly of Hollywood may smack of personal bitterness (the scene where the producers interfere with – and threaten to shut down – the Director’s work, is clearly a nod to his own experiences, even on this project) but it nevertheless rings true of what many know about the infernal Hollywood machine. He shows what happens to fresh young stars when they are put through the grinder, suffering rejection upon rejection, and mistreatment at the hands of the production crew – only to find that they lose roles to other, lesser individuals, for reasons founded in bias, nepotism and so forth. He shows the fresh turning into the rotten, the dream illusion being shattered when faced with the nightmarish reality. And that's not all, he further tells quite a tragic love story, an insightful look at unrequited love, cold-hearted betrayed and the subsequent consequences of it all.
    “It'll be just like in the movies. Pretending to be somebody else.”
    In this tale the key players are Naomi Watts (The Ring, 21 Grams) and Laura Harring (Love in the Time of Cholera), both relative newcomers a decade ago – themselves probably experiencing the difficulties of succeeding in Hollywood. Both of them truly have their work cut out for them here, playing, essentially, dual characters each: veering from wide-eyed innocent with a promising future to bitter and twisted failure (for Watts) and between beautiful, vulnerable, doll-like companion to cold, heartless star (for Harring). Each of them plays these twisted dimensions perfectly, and you only really see the depth of their talent if you watch right through to the end. I have to say that I was more impressed by Watts, who has to go to more overt extremes to bring her blonde to life, whilst Harring, who remains unquestionably seductive, has much more subtle roles to play. Certainly, there was one point in the movie where Watts's character reads for a part in a film and showcases some truly astounding acting: you will be totally mesmerised by this scene, and it shows you the high calibre of this actress.
    This would not be a Lynch movie if he did not have an eclectic supporting cast as well: Justin Theroux (Inland Empire) as the Director under pressure, Dan Hedaya (Alien 4) as the Mafia man applying said pressure, Michael J Sampson (Lynch's oft-used dwarf), Home and Away's Melissa George as another young actress, and even his long-time film score collaborator Angelo Badalamenti as another Mafia man. Badalamenti also provides a superior score which is so low and penetrating, rumbling throughout even the most seemingly inconsequential scenes with a deep, oppressive bass that builds atmosphere throughout. You know something bad's happening just from listening to the music!
    “Someone is in trouble, something bad is happening.”
    Of course this is all presented in classic Lynchian fashion: blurry imagery, blinding lights, out-of-focus shots, strange blended sequences and overlaps, all designed to add to the off-kilter style behind the substance. And you are certainly not spoon-fed in the way that many have come to expect from their movies. There are no overt signposts here, there's no expositional dialogue to help you figure out what is going on. This is a real mystery where (as with Lynch's Blue Velvet and Lost Highway) the viewer is forced to take on the role of detective too, and piece together what few clues there may be in order to fashion whatever explanation they feel fits. That's probably why the Director was so keen on leaving this one open to interpretation (even if he did, eventually, release a series of equally obscure clues which, whilst not really helpful for comprehending the film, were useful to confirm any theories you might have had).
    I would highly recommend Mulholland Drive. Sure, it may not be everybody's cup of tea: some will always deride it as being just pretentious, art-house nonsense (and who's to say they are not entitled to that opinion), but I personally found it to be a dark and enchanting, quintessentially Lynchian tale, beautifully acted, elaborately constructed and played out to confuse and befuddle audience members, leaving them aware that they have just seen a work of art – a veritable piece of beauty – even if they are not quite able to elaborate on what the hell happened and why they like the movie so much. If fact, for those who have yet to find out what it all means, the enjoyment factor is in the process of that very discovery. Whether it takes you a few viewings, or a few years, the time you spend pondering the wonder that is Mulholland Drive is certainly time well spent. It's all part of Lynch's vision and his master plan, and few Directors achieve this kind of long-lasting pause-for-thought. Highly recommended.
    “It is all an illusion...”